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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

Jennifer Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just completed my first year of teaching and I would say that I was most nervous about being able to manage my classroom. I was able to survive by having a good game plan and sticking close by it. I agree with you when you say that all students are different and what works today may not work tomorrow. In the beginning I had intentions of keeping my young students busy as possible to keep them out of trouble. Later I realized that they were able to handle choices and this improved their behavior because they weren't bored with their assignments. They were also more responsible because they actually chose their assignment. It was enlightening to hear the comparison of barbed wire to classroom management. I am always in search of insightful words towards classroom management. Thanks!

Nicole Greene's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first time blogging and it is such a neat experience for me. Many times as educators we can feel isolated in our classrooms, especially when it comes to dealing with classroom behaviors and management. It is nice to listen to the stories and comments from other teachers, as well as suggestions of what others have done.
An idea that Johnson stated about speaking to students who have gotten in trouble in this article was, "Your actions are punishing you. What are you going to do about it?". This was a powerful idea for me as a newer teacher. Throughout the last couple years I have been teaching I have told students who had gotten in trouble these are the consequences of breaking my rules. I really like the statement Johnson made because it has made me pause and think about how I am speaking to my students. It has made me see that the way I phrase my words needs to emphasize that they own their behaviors and consequences (or rewards), not I. It is not just "my" rules, it is the classroom rules. Maybe having students take ownership in the rules and consequences of these rules will create a few less barbs for me throughout my career as an educator.

Serena Walls's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a wonderful thing...blogs! This is my first year teaching and my first time blogging. I was given a few websites from a course I've been taking and I really enjoy reading and sharing so many ideas with so many different educators!
Ben that was a wonderful analogy. After my first year of teaching I'd really have to agree with the concept of dealing with one tangle at a time. I felt as though I was pretty tough at the beginning of the school year but it was the little things I'd forgotten (walking into line, pushing in one's chair when getting up, raising a hand every time one wishes to speak). I had to back track and deal with each issue individually with my students so we could be on the same page.

Roger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that to be an effective teacher we need to concentrate on focusing our students' energy towards learning. I like the thought of creating a classroom atmosphere that is a positive learning environment vs. a place to simply being told what to do. An adolescent has a natural drive to learn, how we expose that drive to learn is the challenge we are faced with.
My experiences with "barb wire" are similar to those shared within this blog. I've been "tangled" but found a way to sort through the mess to find a solution by building on my own experiences and learning from the experiences shared by other teachers.
This was an excellent analogy, I enjoyed it and again continue to learn from the experiences of others.

Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Leah,
I can completely relate to the experience you had this past school year because my experience was almost identical. I also teach in a middle school and I had a class that was filled with "barbed wires". I taught an inclusion class that was comprised of 18 boys and three girls. WOW! There were a lot of cooling down periods and private conferences to discuss behavior. As you mentioned, in the end, what seemed to work the best was just letting my students know that I cared about them enough to want the best for them.

Patti Saylor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Johnson's analogy of barbed wire is so true. I have found myself tangled up tightly sometimes. I agree that students are much more sophisticated and creative methods are needed when it comes to discipline. I am thankful for cell phones, because as a teacher of kindergarten children it is very helpful to get a parent on the phone the moment they are needed. Children at this age live in the moment and need to be dealt with when the incident happens. I appreciate the whole analogy and after reading it, saw several things I need to work on for better classroom management. Classroom management is an area that teachers can always improve.

Autumn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading the analogy between tricky barbed wire and tricky classroom management. This will be my sixth year teaching and I still learn new tricks to the trade of classroom management. What I find interesting is that when you think you have your classroom managed something changes (usually small) and now every aspect in your management must changes as well. Reading the rest of the comments helped me to see that everyone struggles and it is so true that you need help in order to successfully have good management in your classroom.

Autumn Baltimore

Kristie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Nicole,

I am a newer teacher as well and the quote that you stated in your post was the one that stood out the most for me as well. I think it is so important for our students to own up to their behaviors. I like the fact that posing the question, "What are you going to do about it?" makes them really think about what they did. I also like the fact that the statement, "Your actions are punishing you" doesn't make the student feel like we are disapproving of them as a person, but of their behavior in class. One thing that I started doing last year in class was having misbehaving students fill out a Behavior Log(I teach high school students). This is something similar to what they would have to fill out if they were sent to the office, but I figured, why wait until the behavior gets that bad? If a student misbehaves and doesn't heed my first warning, then I send them out in the hallway and have them complete one of these logs. In the logs, a misbehaving student would answer two questions: 1. Why were you asked to leave my classroom? 2. What can you do in the future to ensure you are not sent out here again? Once they fill it out, they bring it back into me, and depending on what the misbehavior was, I would make them apologize to the class for interrupting. Then normally I would speak with this student after class. So far it has seemed to work. Once one student had to fill it out, others tended to avoid doing anything that would cause them to have to fill one out too. I keep the logs on record so I have evidence of misbehavior as well, plus it's written in the student's handwriting which is very beneficial when it comes to speaking with parents about their child's behavior. Have you tried other strategies that have worked for you? I'd be interested in hearing some of the things you have tried out as well!

Elizabeth, 8th grade math teacher, NY's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appreciate comparing classroom management to barbed wire because it is so true!

I recently completed my second year of teaching, and my goal was to improve my classroom management and communication with families. Several students this year seemed to have difficulty following directions and often exhibited disruptive behaviors during class. One response that proved to be extremely effective was to call the students' parents/guardians immediately during class. If there was an aide in the classroom, the student and I would walk down to the planning center to phone home; I would speak to the parent/guardian first and then the student would speak to them second. If there wasn't an aide in the classroom, I would ask the student to stand in the hallway while I gave instructions to the class to work quietly, which was when I would step into the hallway with my student and call home on my cell phone. This often resolved the matter quickly.

Melba Dodgen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Comparing classroom management to barbed wire makes a good analogy. Classroom management is probably one of the main concerns not only for new teachers, but also veteran teachers. Each year we get a whole new batch of students each with their own individual quirks and behavior. A few years ago I had a very intelligent first grader who could never stay in his seat. Every few minutes he would hop up and move around. Even though he was losing part of his recess every day, he still was not able to stay in his seat. I set up a contract with him so that he would be rewarded for staying in his seat. The contract worked some, but the problem still was not solved. I called for a conference with his Mom and discovered that he had been diagnosed with ADHD when he was in kindergarten, but she had taken him off his medication when he started first grade. She decided that he would go back on his medication. With his medication he could control himself more. I kept the contract so that I could continue to reward good behavior.

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