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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A thin line between soft or being firm in the classroom

A thin line between soft or being firm in the classroom

Related Tags: Classroom Management
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Being a first year teacher, I face a challenge with my classroom management and might be able to get advice on here. I came into my current classroom at the end of September. School started in August, so therefore the student's were use to the other teacher’s rules. My question is when do I draw the line between coming off as too soft or too firm? I am having a hard time balancing the both. If I am too soft than my student's will run all over me. If I am too firm then I am coming across as mean. I am hoping I can find the balance soon as this is a current challenge in my classroom right now. If there are any insights or strategies that I can incorporate, I would greatly appreciate feedback. Thank you for taking the time to read my post.

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Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher
Blogger

My primary disagreement with your position centers around the idea that classroom management is easy and requires nothing more than knowledge of two protocols both based on operant conditioning.

It sounds as if you're convinced and it's working for you. After researching both of these programs I'm not convinced. PBS could be a step in the right direction if it is applied as intended, but it's very different from the approach I am suggesting.

In a PBS model individuals are consulted as part of the process, whereas using a cognitive approach puts the individual in the driver's seat and casts the rest of the team in the role of consultants. A PBS model advocates collaborative team planning; crafting solutions the individual will find acceptable, whereas a cognitive approach involves the individual crafting soultions which the team will accept. I like the focus on prevention and the acknowledgement that systems should be flexible to allow for greater success on the part of users. I like the idea that problem behaviors should generate a teaching response instead of a punitive response.

Mary Kate

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

I posted twice on the topic and shared many other ideas besides PBS and ABA, so essentially, I am being characterized out of context.

MaryBeth Matthews's picture

Rachel,

You asked about my class procedures and rules, and so I am happy to share. (FYI - I teach art and photography to 11th and 12th graders, the classes meet 40 minutes daily for two semesters, and class sizes range from 10 to 36. I refer to my classroom as a 'studio'. It sounds cool, and implies that we will do things differently here)
I have five basic rules:

Report to class on time.
Be prepared to work.
Get permission to touch things that don't belong to you.
Be respectful of each other.
Clean up your work space at the end of class.

I find that rather than just telling the kids what the rules are, it really helps to discuss with them the rationale. We spend a whole class period at the start of the year talking about why we have these rules, and what the consequences would be if we didn't practice them. When we discuss consequences, it is always about the big picture consequence of how certain behaviors make it hard to achieve our goals individually as well as a group. Consequences are never punitive. When individual students have difficulty with any of the rules, I pull them aside and we talk about how we can work together to solve the problem.
One daily procedure I use is requiring students sign in upon entering the class. This helps students to focus on the fact that their attendance is important and they have a responsibility in making sure it is accurately recorded.
Once they have signed in, they either pick up their class folder and complete any unfinished exercises while waiting for the days lesson to start, or retrieve whatever project they have in progress and continue working on it. I keep art supplies for current projects set out for them on a central table.
I also have a rack filled with a variety of "How to Draw" books. Students who finish a project ahead of their classmates can earn extra credit by practicing any one of the lessons and including it in their folder. If there is some other subject or technique they are interested in, they can request an independent project, and I help them plan it and guide them through the process. It is extremely rare that a student in my classroom is not engaged in art production or researching a subject on a computer. I don't adhere to many strict deadlines, I simply require all projects to be turned in for a final grade by the end of the marking period. Critiques are conducted at various stages of project completion. Giving the students a reasonable amount of autonomy, especially at this age, is an essential step in learning to become responsible young adults.
I give students permission to listen to their own music, with headphones, while they are working. It seems to help them focus on their own work instead of being distracted by classmates. Of course, courtesy requires they take headphones off when I am addressing the class.
I am fortunate that I have a huge space to work in, (40' x 80') so I can have a large group of students working at once without being right on top of each other. Unfortunately, because the space allows it, I am occasionally asked to teach two classes at once. There have been years when Art 1 and Art 2 students were scheduled at the same time. It is a little tricky, but because my teaching is project based, I have always been able to pull it off. Now, what is it that Shakespeare said about "no good deed goes unpunished". :-)

Rachel Pickett's picture
Rachel Pickett
10th grade Social Studies

Thank you all for sharing your expectations and experiences, and your interactions with students. There's so many valuable lessons I learn from your experiences. We're virtually collaborating and problem-solving :)

I too experience that student engagement has a strong connection to management.

I feel that there's a shift happening about management, in the field of education. For a long time, it seems that we've defined management and authority as authoritarian. So, if students misbehave they need negative consequences so they know who's boss, and what the rules are. Maybe not all teachers followed this model in times past, yet it feels, to my mind, that it's been widely accepted.

And it's this definition of authority and management that feels like it's shifting... for many of us, our definition is moving towards engagement, interesting lessons, opportunities for students to collaborate, building positive relationships, and relevance. I say that because of the answers I read here, for starters!

I've been in the situation MaryBeth is describing... where students made fun of me, etc. I was trying to enforce a more authoritarian type of discipline, when I was confused about what to teach and how to teach... not a successful combination! Plus, that type of discipline is not 'me.'

This year is a turnaround. There's much more respect between me and students.

I often tell them I care about them, and we're on the same team here, and just saying (and meaning it) builds trust and increases cooperation. Also, if there is a problem and I ask them questions and don't react defensively... they experience themselves as people with ideas and important things to say.

Connecting our expectations with students' desire to be thoughtful, mature people is also important. Then our conversations with students become about how the expectation is meant to support them in becoming who they want to be, rather than the conversation being 'you need to follow my expectation.' It's the difference between 'I'm in control of you' and 'we can figure this out together.'

When they are off-task, or roudy, it's usually a reflection of the lesson not being of interest to them, or it means they don't know what to do, or I'm disorganized. Or, they have something going on in their own lives that's bothering them a lot.

So maybe part of our task, here, is sharing what works in our classrooms. What engages kids? What's your experience? For example:

* How do you build in opportunities for students to collaborate?
* How do you find ways to make writing and reading engaging and authentic?
* How do you pace your lessons?
* What expectations and procedures generate engagement and positive relationships?

These are great starting places for us to share ways we construct an engaging classroom.

This can be a vulnerable/uneasy topic too, huh (when things don't seem to be going well)? There can be judgment around management, as a reflection of our capacity as a teacher. Which is why I see freely sharing about what works, and where we may struggle, is so helpful... because we can support/think/implement together. That makes it a bit less personal and increases thoughtful pro-activeness.

MaryBeth -- what are your procedures and class rules?

Lisa's picture

Classroom management is a complex topic with many moving parts. One of those moving parts relates to the notion of respect. Many teachers comment on the general lack of respect that students demonstrate toward teachers, others and themselves. Sometimes the behavior is attributed to things such as a sense of entitlement, inability to focus, increased stress, lack of empathy, community violence and the influence of pop culture. Bottom-line, feeling as though you are not respected can put one in a very negative state of mind rendering most to engage in less effective responses.

Many teachers come to the classroom expecting respect and students arrive wary, looking to test the waters. The response from a teacher to a student poking fun or worse, the reaction from being humiliated by a student, speaks volumes to all students about that nature of the teacher student relationship. It's not easy to withhold a snide remark or return the favor after being made fun of but a practiced and strategic response is both a productive defense and builds a solid offense.

Consider how much greater awareness there is today of the abuses that can and do arise in relationships between adults and children in a variety of different situations. It is no wonder kids come into the classroom intent on identifying the nature of the relationship before committing to the endeavor. When you start out the year discussing as a classroom the learning goals and the strategies for accomplishing those goals, including how the classroom will function, you take a first step toward demonstrating the collaborative effort you are embarking on and the atmosphere of respect you seek to create. Teachers are in a unique position to demonstrate how to establish a respectful, appropriate and caring relationship.

I am not sure if it is our better understanding of the social/emotional context within which students learn best or the response to changing behavior within the classroom that is "shifting" the nature of classroom management but in either case it seems clear that students need to be known, connected to the community and respected for meaningful learning to take place.

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher
Blogger

Mary Beth, I'm not going to ask why you're posting at 5:30 am, but I hope it's a choice and not insomnia! Your class sounds like a wonderful place to be a student, but I'll bet its equally pleasant for you. It's so generous of you to take the time to give an in depth explanation of your practices.

I agree that the first few steps each class takes as a group need to be carefully planned and executed so that everyone has a clear understanding of the rights and responsibilities of every class member. Because my students are younger, and we spend our whole work day together (and because the school culture is willing to support it), we take more time with set-up. The first six weeks of school are set aside for establishing routines which will carry us through the year. One of the reasons it takes a long time is that students formulate the expectations, jobs and procedures each year. Even though I have only about a 30-50% turn over rate, every class is a unique group with unique concerns. Because I have such a high rate of return, much of the foundation is already laid for our class culture, so we can focus on bonding, getting to re-know each other after summer break, welcoming the new friends, and creating the unique set of class rules and expectations which fit that particular group. All I ask is that their work fall under our three school rules (take care if the people, take care of the environment, make it work).

Having extension activities is another tool we continue to develop. My students sign contracts for their independently chosen classroom activities. We also have free choice activities which are available during certain times of day and don't require paperwork (since they don't inviolve accountability). These two types of activities encompass art projects (origami, weaving, sewing, collage, watercolor, etc.), deductive reasoning games (competitive and individual), logical thinking puzzle packs (mazes, charting games, sudoku, paper/pencil strategy games, word puzzles, etc.), book reporting, story-writing, cartooning, and many other options (some of which haven't been invented yet).

Both of these approaches show respect for the student's process by honoring his judgement and supporting his ability to make choices about how his learning time will be spent. Having a workshop approach to the classroom, wherein each student is responsible for his own participation, takes for granted that students want to find engaging activities and will enjoy completing them. Making a transition to respectful engagement with students allows us to stand beside them and help them acheive instead of leading them to a preselected destination.

If we knew what their destination will be, it might be a different story. Since most of the jobs they'll do in life probably haven't been invented yet, it makes sense to help them develop a flexible skill set based on their own unique gifts and interests. We won't be able to do that unless the respect flows freely in both directions. Thank you, Mary Beth and Lisa for your thoughtful comments.

Mary Kate

peppyteacher's picture

I have really enjoyed all of your comments so far. Classroom management is learned by trail and error and from getting advice from great educators like all of you. I have been in the classroom for 4 years. My first year was with first grade. For the past 3 years I been with Kindergarten. The younger students are more playful and their attention span is very short. However, if your lesson plans are fun and engaging and the students have clear instructions as to what is expected of them, they will usually behave. You have to have some activities ready to go for the students that finish work early. Of course I always have a few students that I may need to be more firm with sometime. I believe you can be firm and not come across as being mean. It is always good to have open communication with parents when possible about what is happening at school. There are some students that have more difficulty adjusting socially than others. I let students know that I love and respect them and they show me how much they love and respect me in return. We have set routines in place and for the most part the students follow them. When they forget I remind them and they usually respond well. The little ones are like sponges. They are eager to learn. They model whatever they see. Watching students learn and grow in the classroom is challenging and rewarding! We need all of our teachers! Enjoy your summer break.

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
Blogger

Hi Sangeeta,

Can I relate! My first year teaching, I inherited a group of students who had experienced sub after sub and no permanent teacher.

#1- Here's the advice I was given by a very wise literacy coach: It's better to be staunchly strict and then soften up as you go. If you do it the other way around, there is no way to go back to being strict. They won't buy it. Now, after several years of mentoring and coaching new teachers, I see exactly what she meant. And she was right.

#2- Being firm means being clear and consistent (not unkind or mean, as some may perceive it). Ultimately, though students will never admit it, they appreciate the structure and it helps create a safe learning environment.

Good luck!

Judy Burnett's picture
Judy Burnett
English teacher and instructional facilitator at Mena High School

There is no book, no strategy, or no advice that answers your question. The answer lies within yourself. Be honest. Be real. Why did you become a teacher? Revisit your reasons or our calling. Plan lessons that are relevant, upbeat, and engaging. Let the learning happen. Love your students. Do what is best for them, and things will fall into place. Will you still have problems? Will some students still be disruptive? Of course! Always! Every day will bring new classroom management challenges. Here is your hope: Every single teacher every single day is working on his or her classroom management. If we are going to respond to students' needs, we have to be flexible. What worked today may not work tomorrow. Hang in there! You will make it!!

MShelow's picture
MShelow
1st grade teacher Queens NY

To Sarah: " My principal is serious that she wants to see me give him this 5:1 ratio of positive to negative ratios so that he doesn't feel like he's always doing something wrong. I'm curious to see what suggestions you receive from other teachers, and perhaps I can incorporate them into my classroom too!"

Ask your principal to come into the room and demonstrate giving the 5:1 with this particular child.

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