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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Barbed Wire Model of Classroom Management

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I had an epic battle with a tangle of barbed wire a while ago. I'm glad to report that my cuts and scratches are healing nicely, and I'd like to share with you about how this battle revealed to me a number of brilliant truths about classroom management.

I had decided I had to do something about the tangle of barbed wire hidden in the grass on our property, so I began to untangle it. Very quickly, I learned Barbed Wire Fact Number One: Even when barbed wire is not tangled, it is tangled. There are so many barbs that they catch on one another and the strands between.

Soon, I noticed a pain in my left arm. To my dismay, I saw that I was tangled in the wire. Barbed Wire Fact Number Two: It has a life of its own. No sooner would I untangle a few feet of wire than the wire would attempt to bounce back and try to tangle itself again. Applying this new knowledge, I hooked the free end of the wire to a fence post and resumed the untangling process.

Now I had another problem. Barbed Wire Fact Number Three: Barbed wire doesn't thread. It gets caught on the other wires as soon as you try. So, I ingeniously rolled the end of the wire into a loop and passed the whole loop through the tangles. Controlling an ornery loop of barbed wire was dangerous enough, but trying to put it through other tangled loops was just asking for trouble. It worked OK for the first few loops, but quickly the wire decided it did not want to be cooperative.

I didn't have enough hands to keep it all in place, but then I put my foot on the wire and used a bit of baling wire to tie it back and make it stay in a loop. That is how I learned Barbed Wire Fact Number Four: You cannot control barbed wire without help.

Finally, I began to make decent headway with the tangle. But, sadly, I noticed that as I added loops to my threading loop, it was starting to threaten my arm. I thought about getting some more baling wire, but then I stumbled across Barbed Wire Fact Number Five: If you roll the wire upon itself, instead of just looping it side by side, the barbs work in your favor and keep the rebellious loops under control all by themselves.

Now I was in charge, and I made the barbed wire work for me, which made untangling the rest of it a cinch.

Coiling the Classroom

As unpleasant, frustrating, and painful as untangling that barbed wire was, sometimes I find that managing classrooms can be even worse. But one can apply the brilliant truths I learned about barbed wire to a classroom to get it under control, too. Simply recognizing (and respecting) the nature of education will help us deal with all of its prickly tangles, but I have also added a few ideas that might be of use to you in creating your own neatly wound classroom-management coils:

Even When Barbed Wire Is Not Tangled, It Is Tangled
Even in the most organized classroom, anytime you get students together, there will be friction. Their emotional barbs get caught on one another, and it is the teacher's job to untangle the mess. Add to that the multitudes of state standards, and it's no wonder that lesson plans sometimes get jumbled. The true task, then, is to focus on one tangle at a time. Find where the barbs are getting caught and target that particular standard or behavior until students have mastered or solved it. Then go on to the next tangle.

Barbed Wire Has a Life and Mind of Its Own
Classrooms are ever changing and evolving. What worked very well one day may not work the next. And there's often another tangle that appears, especially with older students. They prefer the comfort of being told what to do and not having to think for themselves. They know it is a lot easier to do worksheets than to actually write, create, or produce a viable product.

We constantly have to struggle with overcoming mediocrity (laziness) and getting our students to think and behave in creative ways. Our job is to stay at least one step ahead of the students and to differentiate the curriculum to match their current needs (not wants), because they might change at a moment's notice. Variety is the key.

Barbed Wire Doesn't Thread or Cooperate
Today's students are more sophisticated than kids of years past, and the threat of discipline is less capable of motivating them to modify their behavior. Thus, we need to employ other creative methods that fit the students we have now. Closer contact with the students' parents will help untangle some knots. Cell phones are a huge benefit. Parents carry them all the time, so you can get in touch with them all the time.

Another strategy is to avoid the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Put that on the shoulders of the student, where it belongs. Students understand consequences, and if an infraction occurs, they need to take responsibility. It is a question of changing "I am going to punish you" to "Your actions are punishing you. What are you going to do about it?" The difference between these statements is that with the second one, when you are not there, your students will still monitor themselves.

You Can't Control Barbed Wire Without Help
I see teachers struggling to "control" their students by keeping them busy. The students wait around to be told what to do, or they get fidgety and start mischief. However, when students help create a binding, high-performance contract with their teacher that has consequences, the teacher can leave the control method behind and move into the channel method, described below.

You Can Make the Barbs Work in Your Favor
Lockstep instruction, with no student choice or input, is a barbed tangle waiting to happen. The students are the learners, so channel their energies into productive paths. It just takes some encouragement, suggestions, and individual concern. The very tangle of chaos and confusion that we tried to control -- and that was causing us grief and pain -- now becomes our helper.

Focusing Student Energy

When correctly channeled, the frenetic energy most students display becomes enthusiasm and zeal for learning rather than reasons for disciplinary action. When students get done quickly with their assignments, do we give them busywork or allow them to play, or do we encourage them to choose a project that will feed their interests and truly engage them in individual study? (This is differentiation, extension, and enhancement.) A student of any age can write a book, create a movie, choreograph a dance, create a song, design a house, build a skyscraper, solve a problem, paint a masterpiece, or discover and share something new. Project learning and inquiry learning fit the bill nicely.

I survived my tangle with barbed wire, and after intense effort and experimentation, I was able to master it and finally get it all coiled neatly -- well, as neatly as one can coil barbed wire. I felt a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, the way I felt as a teacher when my carefully planned and choreographed unit was effective, even with all of the on-the-fly adjustments. Maybe that is why there are so many people, but so few teachers. We are willing to tackle that barbed wire, knowing that we probably won't come out unscathed. But we are willing to take the risk if it will help our students. So, wear your scars with pride.

Please share some of your nasty tangles and how you were able to tame them.

Comments (98)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Shelly Wilson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben, this is a great analogy! I think everyone can relate to how hard it is to untangle barbed wire, even if they actually have never touched it. Classroom management can be difficult if the teacher does not take control as soon as a problem occurs. Students are striving to test teachers, especially new teachers. I found this article very interesting and it hit home for me. I am going on my fourth year of teaching and classroom management is defiantly something you must "get under control". My first year teaching was a struggle with this issue. I now have tried different methods with a few years of experience and I have seemed to find what works for me. Once in awhile a tangle will happen but I think this is common in any classroom. Thanks for the wonderful article Ben!

Shelly Wilson
9th grade Physical Science
Lapeer West High School, Lapeer MI

Amanda Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved the analogy between classroom management and barbed wire. I remember as a child trying to help my dad use barbed wire and how frustrating it was when it did not do what we wanted it to do. I have know felt that frustration within the classroom when things do not run as smoothly as I expect or want them to.
I throughly enjoyed the quote, "Even when barbed wire is not tangled, it is tangled." I feel that classroom management is one of my strengths, and I have high expectations of my student's when it comes to their behavior. They may all understand the expectations of them, but the moment you mix them up, that all goes out the window. Last year, I had a student who had unpredictable behavior. One day he was focused, on task and a joy to have in class. The next 3 days, he could not sit down, would fall asleep in class and would talk and talk. Throwing him into the mix on his 'bad day' made everyone off their game. It was frustrating because I did not know which version of him would come to school. It was a daily adjustment so that the classroom could run smoothly, and he could still be part of the class as well. In the end, despite the frustration that he brought to myself and others, he was worth every 'scar' that he left us, and this is what keeps me in the teaching profession.

Tabitha Brodnax's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The barbed wire analogy is amazing! I am a first year teacher and blogger and I learn so much from other people's experiences. I really like your choice of wording, "Your actions are punishing you. What are you going to do about it?" I actually found myself telling my kids, "I'm sorry you made that decision" or "You choose your own path, can you live with your choice?" I find that putting the responsibility on them really makes them want to do better and they actually correct themselves more than I correct them.

Thank you for your insight and for sharing your experiences! I will continue to learn and grow for the better of my students!

Karla Tabor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too am participating in my first blog as part of an assignment for a graduate class. I have enjoyed sharing the insights each of you have as teachers. I am a reading coach in a rural elementary school in West Virginia. I work with kindergarten through third grade teachers. As I go into their classrooms to observe and offer feedback I find that most of the time there is not a problem with the reading curriculum but with classroom management. The newer inexperienced teachers have not yet developed this skill. I will definitely share the analogy of the barbed wire with them. There are some great lessons in this analogy. If anyone has good ideas to share with these teachers, please share. Thanks.

Jennifer Collins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first experience blogging. I had heard of blogs, but had never seen one. This is a great way of keeping up with issues across the country. I love the analogy Ben came up with. I really like the idea of making the students accountable for their actions. Going into my second year of teaching, I plan to keep this in mind. I think the biggest thing that helped me in my first year of teaching (last year) was that I quickly realized that every student was unique. I took students that were reported to be "bad" students, got to know them, and then treated them with the respect they deserved. I find it strange that I did not have a problem with these kids. Did I handle things properly or was I just lucky?

Debgeri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I had an experience that was quite similar to yours about three years ago. My little boy was a kind - hearted, rambunctious six year old who had an inherent ability to play the Djembe drum.This skill became my base for uncoiling him. There were many a days when my barbed wire scars were even visible to parents, but I treated everyday as a new beginning.It took us,(me, the principal,and his mother) two years to untangle him enough to get him to the second grade. I am certain he still has more coiled wire to be untangled,and I hope that there is a teacher who is helping him to unravel his coil;I no longer teach in this school.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a new teacher, I really liked Ben's suggestion of working with one tangle at a time. If you focus on all of the classroom management problems all at once, it can seem overwhelming. I also feel a sense of fulfillment when I am able to get through the daily struggles.

Catherine Woodland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the analogy of barbed wire and classroom management. The unpredictability is what keeps me on my toes. There are days, hours, minutes, moments etc. that you say to yourself, "Wow that was really productive and meaningful!", then there are the times the barbed wire learns your tricks and gets more entangled. Teaching kindergarten I once compared it to the Bop a Mole game. You take care of one mole as it jumps out of its hole only to have two more stick its head out and jump right back in before you were even ready for it. Then the game speeds up and several moles jump out in all directions!

Norma Leguillon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree there is no perfect plan, no matter what your classroom management is there is always a student who will throw a wrench in your rules and procedures. They are individuals and unpredictable. There is no one size fits all. If it were so, it would be easier.

Tatyana Ormanzhi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your posting. The bob wire example gave a really great picture of what classroom management is. It is difficult at times, but so important to tackle it and make the best of it. It helps the teacher in the long run and makes the classroom such a better place to be in.
Tatyana Ormanzhi
Salem, Oregon

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