The Barbed Wire Model of Classroom Management | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

The Barbed Wire Model of Classroom Management

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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

Wendy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just completed my first year of teaching. Wahoo! Over the years I have heard horror stories of first year teachers. Needless to say, while I was completely my student teaching and even beginning my first year of teaching, I was terrified that I would not have good classroom management. I remember my collaborating teaching telling me that she always starts off the school year running a tight ship. I was completely amazed at how well her classroom ran. Each student knew exactly what and when to do something each day. As I began preparing for the first day of school, I sat down and made myself a plan. Where did I want students to turn in homework? What did I want them to do when they first arrived at school? What were my make up policies going to be? I tried to go through all the scenarios of what would happen on a day to day basis in my classroom and make plans for them before the school year ever began. School started, and right away we began with classroom procedures. We practiced them for weeks and changed and reviewed as necessary. I found myself easing up as the year progressed; however, my students were already set in the routine. My advice to beginning teachers is to have a game plan, however, remember that it is ok to change things if you find out they are not working in your room.

Jessica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So True! This article made me sigh with relief! There is no perfect plan for a classroom. You do have to adjust monthly, daily, by the minute at times. There is not one strategy that works for all kids and all classes like they tell you in college. What an amazing analogy!

ldean's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You are right on! I loved the words you used-patience and reflection. I can just imagine the wonderful environment you have created in your classroom. Letting students know you care is first and foremost. I am an elementary teacher and I try to find out what my students interests are so I can bring it in to as many are areas of their learning as I can. I think all teachers have been "stuck' a few times. I think that is how we grow and get better as educators.

Janis Hunt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Classroom management is always such a challenge. I like the barbed wire analogy. It reminds me that even though we may have control in the classroom it is still barbed wire and difficult to manage at times. I like the idea that they take ownership of their consequences. It takes the burden off of us as teachers. In the beginning classroom management was extremely difficult for me. I am in my 6th year of teaching and I have gained some confidence about classroom management, but it has been and will be a work in progress.

Ellen Hirschy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first blog. For a class that I am taking I am required to go through some blogs, of which I had merely heard of, but didn't really know what they were. How delighted I was to find this blogging is interesting and fun.

I really enjoyed the comparison of classroom management to barbed wire. I always thought of the classroom like a jungle with various animals and life. Some bite, some are cute to look at, and some are natural doers. It's bringing them all together in a unit with a focus on a job to accomplish. It's like organizing barbed wire. Thanks!

ileana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was so impressed with not only the analogy, but also the real information of this blog.

Teachers that have this mental picture of what education was like in their day forget that students today face many different challenges and are often expose to more grown up issues then we were. Teachers can really help themselves by considering their students as barbed wire that can be untangled!

Debbie Leonard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first experience blogging too, for a class. I have found it very informative and interesting as well.
The barbed wire analogy was right on. I agree with the jungle animals too. No matter what, encouraging all in the classroom to work together to meet a common goal is imperative. Thanks for the article and blogs!

Tamala McDermott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is so creative! It is wonderful to relate our subject matters to real world. But, I never thought about classroom management being related to real world. Just like studnets, teachers relate better, quicker when we can tie it back to previous knowledge. I am just glad that I could read your experience and pains you went through with the barbed wire and not have to actually do this myself. Thank you for sharing past experiences so that we can all benefit.

John Eller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I was a Marine my job entailed placing many strands of barbed wire as well as concertina wire which is barbed wire on steroids and I was cut many a times while placeing this great invention. When I took control of my first classroom the pricks and cuts I recieved from all my little 4 and 5 year olds was worse than any entanglement that I ever had to deal with. Of course all it took was a little patience and strategizing and then i learned that I could control a class in a unique way. It just took a little teamwork between me and the students.

I loved Mr. Johnson's analagy and must say I have been in his shoes. Thank You Mr. Johnson for passing on this bit of wisdom to those of us willing to learn from your mistakes.

John Eller
5th grade teacher
Hiram, Georgia

Jacquelyn G.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also like the analogy between classroom management and barbed wire. There are many types and thicknesses of barbed wire. Each year, we as professionals have to have a game plan going into the start of the year, but be ready and flexible to change the initial game plan. A plan that works one year may not work the next. I had a student last year that he was so tangled in his own wire that many adults gave up on him. He was 5 when he entered my room and by spring most adult were rude and disrespectful toward him. He was quirky and lacked manners. My principal and I saw something that most didn't. He liked school. He wanted to be liked and had a contagious smile. We did everything in our power to help this little guy. We desperately did everything to prevent the barbed wire from becoming even more tangled in itself. All I could to was eat, sleep and talk about this special kid. By the end of the year, after a lot of hard work, he made friends, gained social skills and as a result liked school even more. I am not saying we completely untangled him, but he was well on his way!

blog Full-Time Comeback: A Reflection

Last comment 1 week 14 hours ago in Teacher Leadership

blog Why "Content Coverage" is Over: A Manifesto!

Last comment 18 hours 43 min ago in Teacher Leadership

Discussion Grant Wiggins on Edutopia

Last comment 3 min 10 sec ago in Education Trends

blog The Era of the Teacherpreneur

Last comment 4 days 15 hours ago in Technology Integration

Discussion How to Overcome Teacher Reluctance to Take on a Leadership Positions?

Last comment 1 week 2 hours ago in Teacher Leadership

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.