Classroom management is often thought of as a one-size-fits-all approach. However, a well-managed classroom should look very different when a teacher is working with 5- and 6-year-olds compared with students who are entering adulthood.
In early elementary, the teacher is laying the foundation for proper behavior in a learning environment by creating rules and boundaries to keep the children anchored and grounded in the classroom. In later elementary and middle school, these boundaries are established, yet the students’ budding maturity will crave some independent choices and new freedoms. In high school, students are at the gate of adulthood, and the same approaches used in elementary and middle school show a lack of respect for their age and maturity.
Throughout students’ educational journey, it is important that teachers recognize these social and developmental cues and pivot their management systems.
Shifting Classroom Management Approaches
In his wonderful parenting book The Soul of Discipline, Kim John Payne uses a Governor, Gardener, Guide metaphor to explain how parents can shift their approach to discipline as their children get older and become more capable of making sound and responsible decisions. Parents move from a governance role that sets and establishes firm boundaries that provide security for early childhood, to a gardener role that observes and nurtures the growth of the child’s independence with appropriate intervention during the tween years, to a guide who recognizes the teenager’s unique path and works with them to discern the best route while supporting them in their struggles along the way.
Payne’s approach to parenting can similarly be applied to classroom management. As students get older, they can take on more responsibility and independence, something that is often overlooked in the secondary classroom. Creating a list of “rules” and consequences in the secondary classroom that mirror the same rules and consequences in the elementary classroom sets the tone for clash and disrespect in the student-teacher relationship. However, by recognizing that most secondary students understand the boundaries of a safe and productive classroom, the teacher can gain students’ respect and build stronger relationships by softening how they correct behavior and recognize exceptions to these boundaries.
Governor, Gardener, or Guide?
To illustrate this, let’s look at a typical secondary school example: proper use of technology in the classroom. Students, and most adults, are quick to discover how easily distracting phones and computers can be from the task at hand. The Governor, Gardener, Guide model illustrates how teachers can maintain a safe and productive classroom while showing respect for the students.
Governor approach: The governor approach draws clear boundaries for students so they recognize the appropriate use of technology. This is generally more aligned to elementary-aged students but is often necessary within a secondary classroom as well.
A directive such as “You will not open any other tabs or play games, or you will lose your privileges” can alienate students. Instead, try creating boundaries with understandable expectations, like “These devices are tools for your education, and while they do have access to the vast distractions of the internet, in this classroom you are expected to remain on task and only use the devices for this assignment.”
Here, the governor anticipates the temptation for distraction and creates a boundary of what is expected in the classroom for learning. With expectations established, the governor can transition into a gardener.
Gardener approach: A teacher who is a good gardener will nourish and care for budding behavior while weeding and trimming the undesired actions and choices. In middle school and high school, the expectation that students should not be toggling between tabs is established. However, a good gardener will anticipate the needs of the student who will be tempted to test the expectations. Rather than chastising, use the opportunity to pivot the responsibility and respect their desire for claiming independent choices.
“I see that you have a lot of tabs open that might be distracting you from the work we are doing in class today. What is your plan to maximize your understanding of today’s concepts and respect the time we are using in class?” The gardener has acknowledged the distraction and discussed the implications of the action being taken but gives the student some independence by asking what their plan is. More often than not, students will get back into work.
Other times, the teacher will need to step back and take the governor approach: “I see that the open tabs are still distracting you. Please close the tabs and sit with your screen facing me so I can help keep you on task.” Likewise, I may give a student who is consistently making more responsible choices freedoms to work with more self-structured time: “As you finish, you may use the computers to complete other assignments or for other academic work.”
Guide approach: The students in grades 11 and 12 whom I work with are approaching adulthood, so they need more guidance rather than gardening or governance. For example, cell phones are an integral part of most people’s lives in this day and age, and for teenagers, they are essential. Instead of a no-phones governing policy, I prefer to guide students through cell phone etiquette. Few jobs and college courses will have students give up their phones, so guiding them through responsible use is helping them develop a critical life skill.
When a student is on their phone in my class, I will approach them and ask something like, “Do you need to be on the phone right now, or can this wait until after class?” This approach allows students to consider what is being asked of them. It may be important and need a timely response, such as if they are covering a shift that afternoon or suddenly being asked to pick up a sibling. If that’s the case, I can be respectful of their needs: “OK, go ahead and get that resolved, or step out of the room to make a call if that would be easier.”
More often than not, I have simply given them a reminder of proper and respectful cell phone use. “It can wait, sorry,” is usually the response I get. However, the temptation of checking social media may be too strong, in which case I may step back into more of a gardener mode and discreetly address the student: “It looks like the phone continues to be a distraction. Place it on my desk until the end of class, when we can discuss proper phone etiquette.”
Whether we need to meet students as a governor, gardener, or guide, the tone of how we approach students respects their developmental stage and in turn creates deeper, more respectful relationships between teachers and students.