Class size, compensation, school and district policies—there are many factors that impact the professional lives of teachers, yet remain outside of their control. For new teachers, all these elements, on top of the challenges of finding their footing inside the classroom, can prove overwhelming.
Two important areas—classroom climate and student discipline—however, are within teachers’ control, writes middle school teacher Sharon Ratliff in an article for MiddleWeb. Learning how to manage these two critical factors, says the veteran educator and new-teacher mentor, is essential for novice educators immersed in the first few years of teaching.
“Teachers are not sharks; we are not out to trap students,” Ratliff writes. “However, we must be mindful of best practices that assure smooth seas. Classroom climate is an area teachers can control.” Prioritizing and consistently enforcing classroom management, as well as nurturing a sense of classroom community and connection, will allow students to “see that their learning matters,” and ultimately help educators “reap the intangible rewards of teaching,” Ratliff notes.
Here’s a focused set of classroom management strategies to help new teachers build an engaged and respectful classroom.
Set the tone from the outset
The distinction between creating connections with students and crossing the line into over-sharing isn’t always clear to new teachers. Ratliff recalls observing one new teacher immediately establishing rapport with his students—but that closeness affected his ability to manage his classroom. The teacher “thought he was building rapport by being their friend, but in reality, students viewed [him] as a peer and lost respect for him as a teacher,” writes Ratliff. “Teachers are leaders, facilitators, and advocates,” Ratliff emphasizes. “Treating students like peers will backfire.”
Establishing yourself as the authority figure in the classroom—a friendly and caring one, but an authority nonetheless—in the first week of school is critical. “In my two decades plus of teaching middle school students, I have found that setting the tone on the first day of school helps students respect the boundaries of your friendliness,” writes middle school math teacher Crystal Frommert. From the first moments of the school year, Frommert shows students that she cares about them by, for example, greeting them at the door—but holds them accountable to her classroom expectations once class begins: When students veer off track, “my welcoming smile quickly turns into a neutral facial expression, followed by a firm but kind, “‘Please get back to the assigned task.’” As the year progresses, “I begin to let my silliness trickle out,” writes Frommert, but in measured ways that are appropriate for the classroom and her role.
Navigate distraction—most of the time
An occasionally drifting mind is a normal thing and veteran teachers tend to find a middle ground between consistently demanding students’ full attention and affording them an occasional moment to daydream, doodle, or chat with peers. A 2016 study suggests that reprimanding students every time they’re distracted contributes to a “negative reinforcement pattern” that actually “amplifies students’ inappropriate behavior.” While new teachers might feel the need to take a hard-line stance against every disruption, it’s helpful when possible to “switch your focus from recognizing negative behavior to seeking out demonstrations of positive behavior,” writes special education teacher Nina Parrish. “Look for and reward even small steps toward flexibility, compliance, and cooperation” and students are more likely to repeat that behavior.
Meanwhile, when it’s time for focused work, Ratliff uses a series of three quick questions to get her distracted students back on track: “What are you doing?”, “What are you supposed to be doing?”, and “What are you going to do about it?” Some students don’t even realize when they’ve drifted away from what they should be doing, she notes, and these questions can get them back to productive work.
Get to know them
Having students complete surveys at the beginning of the year, and at key junctures like the end of a unit or term, can provide valuable insights into their interests, struggles, and progress.
Take some time to craft survey questions that will elicit meaningful answers. Straightforward questions like “How many siblings do you have?” will get static and unhelpful answers like “Two brothers,” writes educator and author Katie Martin. Instead, consider a more open-ended approach, like asking for the “Top 10 Things I Need to Know About You,” Martin advises. That way, you’re likely to get responses that contextualize your students’ needs—answers like “It takes me an hour and a half to get to school each day” or “It takes me longer to figure things out and so I am quiet but I really do care about school,” Martin writes.
It’s important to convey to students that they should only provide answers they feel comfortable sharing, writes math teacher Emma Chiappetta. Chiapetta recommends asking questions focused on students’ values and priorities—like “What is the first thing you thought about when you woke up this morning?” Also, include questions that help you better understand how your students learn—like “What was the last thing you learned outside of school, and how did you go about learning it?”
Avoid rule overload
In the first weeks of middle school, overwhelmed kids are rushing between new classrooms, teachers, rules, and expectations. “Imagine flying to five destinations in one day on a different aircraft type with the flight attendant announcing the safety procedures on each flight,” writes Ratliff. “By the third flight, chances are pretty good you’re putting your earbuds in and tuning out the flight attendant reviewing emergency procedures.”
Ease students into your classroom rules and procedures by introducing them gradually across the first few days or weeks, Ratliff suggests. Where you can, consolidate your expectations into as few rules as possible to avoid overloading students. For example, rather than enforcing a dozen different class and homework policies, Ratliff starts by sharing one overarching rule: “Respect yourself and everyone else in this room.”
Connect early and continue to check in
One of the best ways to prevent disruptions before they begin is to forge meaningful connections with students. In a 2019 study, teachers who followed strategies designed to establish, maintain, and restore relationships with students saw a 33 percent boost to engagement and a 75 percent drop in disruptive behavior. “Strong teacher-student relationships have long been considered a foundational aspect of a positive school experience,” says Clayton Cook, professor at the University of Minnesota and the study’s lead author.
Start by greeting students at the door, and then find ways to connect with kids individually. For example, plan brief one-on-one check-ins with students when time allows, writes educational consultant Shane Safir. For disruptive students in particular, these meetings help teachers learn about potential reasons for problematic behavior, Safir writes. To manage the time-consuming task of meeting with each child, identify several students to focus on each day, suggests professor of English education Todd Finley, and then plan to engage with them throughout the day.
Get kids moving
Infusing classrooms with movement isn’t just good for kids’ bodies, it’s also a powerful tool for improving learning and focus and reducing classroom management issues.
To get her ninth-grade students moving, high school English teacher Angelina Murphy uses a “four corners” discussion protocol. First, she creates a set of debatable statements related to the unit she’s teaching—like “Our lives are governed by fate” during a lesson on Romeo and Juliet—then has students walk to a designated corner of the room if they “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” or “strongly disagree.” Next, she calls on students to share their perspectives. Murphy also hangs various documents around the room, then has students do gallery walks where they circulate, observe, and take notes on each document.
For a whole-body movement approach, science teacher and instructional coach JaShan Wilson has her students “act like solids, liquids, or gases” when learning about matter, and make waves with their arms when learning about energy, a fun strategy that boosts engagement and makes the material stick. With younger kids, bending their limbs into specific geometric poses can reinforce math concepts like “isosceles triangle” and “right angle,” writes elementary teacher Elizabeth Peterson.
Give them a break
When Ratliff was coaching one new teacher, everything went well in most of the teacher’s classes—except for a distinct lack of enthusiasm during fifth period. “We are witnessing the afternoon doldrums brought on by some students experiencing the sugar crash of lunch,” Ratliff explained to the novice educator, and it was time for a brain break.
Brain breaks—a few minutes spent doing something other than academic work—help students maintain focus and can boost academic performance. When kids take a brief pause from their work, research shows that their minds are still mulling over what they’ve just learned, solidifying the material in long-term memory. Rather than being a pointless interruption during which no learning is happening, brain breaks are “the period when our brains compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced,” says neuroscientist Leonardo Cohen.
Brain breaks can take on a variety of forms: drawing, playing a game, spending a few minutes outside, or giving students time to chat. Consider what sort of break makes the most sense for your class—just don’t overlook how critical these breaks can be.
Develop a social contract—and revisit it
“Rules that are written before students arrive, in my experience, simply don’t work,” writes secondary English teacher Cait O’Connor. “How can I expect things from people I don’t know?” Instead, O’Connor prefers to have students co-create a classroom contract. She begins by asking students to reflect on their values, eventually subtly steering the conversation towards the word respect. In small groups, they discuss what respect looks like and then generate a list of expectations to hold themselves accountable to.
Meanwhile, at King Middle School in Portland, seventh-grade teacher Bobby Shaddox has students create a list of norms or values they want to develop and follow throughout the year—simple adjectives like “communicative,” “focused,” and “serene.”
Once the contract or norms are drafted, students can sign a printout of the rules and display it in the classroom. To keep themselves accountable, students at John C. Haines Elementary School in Chicago have a hand signal—a thumb stuck out sideways—to remind classmates of the contract. And Shaddox builds in reflection throughout the school year—for example, having students begin a game of capture the flag by thinking through which norms they want to practice during the game. (Serene? Maybe not. But inclusive and zealous? For sure.)