How Veteran Teachers Make Large Classrooms Feel More Manageable
Big classes pose special management challenges, but finding scalable tactics and establishing consistent rules make all the difference.
Teachers rarely get a say in the size of their classes. Smaller classes are ideal—they reduce take-home work, make differentiation simpler, and allow teachers to allocate more time to individual students. But for reasons outside of teachers’ control they’re also increasingly rare. Small classrooms are also more expensive, and in many states, student rosters can quickly balloon to 30 or more pupils per class, posing a special challenge.
Namely, if the reality is 25 or 30 students at a time, how do you manage them effectively?
One solution, according to veteran teachers, is to identify classroom management strategies that scale, recognizing that certain things like building strong one-on-one relationships and providing feedback will be a challenge and might require tactical adjustments. The key is to enforce a consistent set of rules and expectations so students quickly learn classroom norms and learn how to navigate them successfully.
1. An Ounce of Prevention
With large classrooms, prevention is the best medicine: Expectations are more frequently met when they’re set early in the school year and time is allotted to go over them together. In addition to knowing what the rules of the classroom are at the outset, students should also understand the consequences of breaking them.
“The idea is to set up a classroom management plan ahead of time,” explains Michael Linsin, a longtime teacher, author, and founder of Smart Classroom Management, which promotes a “warm demander” approach: pairing a teacher’s caring, inviting demeanor with a readily-accessible, firmly-applied list of classroom rules and consequences for misbehavior, such as warnings, time outs, and letters home.
“The whole purpose is to protect learning, and part of that is also protecting students from being bullied, bothered, or interrupted,” says Linsin, who suggests teachers devise these rules ahead of time. “That leads to the best way to build community.”
Don Doehla, a retired French teacher in Northern California who now trains teachers as co-director of the Berkeley World Language Project, has found success with another approach: Co-creating classroom agreements with students as a way to promote buy-in. Inevitably, he says, students would suggest the same sort of expectations year after year: be on time, respect one another, bring everything you need for class. Afterward, they would talk about consequences.
“I would always ask, ‘Can you live with these? Are they fair?’” he says. “And pretty often they ask, ‘Well, what about you? Do you have to keep the agreements too?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I really think that matters because I’m a human being just like them. We can all make mistakes.”
This process helped in that his students invariably began to watch over their own behavior, and hold each other accountable—an invaluable asset in large classes that often reached the contract maximum of 36 students.
Such a model, which requires students to engage in critical thinking on the broad underlying principles around classroom norms, encourages “a kind of running metacognitive discussion that is always evaluating behavior,” writes English and Philosophy teacher David Tow. It can also lead to worthwhile conversations that unpack specific instances of behavior, such as what it looks like when a principle is violated, which Tow adds is a “very sophisticated conversation for a high school student to have.”
2. Use Tech to Scale Community
While building personal relationships in large classrooms is certainly a challenge, online survey tools like Google Forms can scale quickly, allowing teachers to take quick temperature checks or ask in-depth questions. In an effort to learn more about her students’ lives and identities, educator Tara Olagaray created a 15-minute confidential cultural response survey asking about students’ home life, hobbies, and attitudes toward school.
Beyond learning more about her students as individuals, Olagaray began weaving their interests into lessons as a way to create a more cohesive classroom community. A few tips: Write open-ended questions—such as “What are the top five things I need to know about you?”—that give students space to express themselves fully. Assure students their answers are always confidential. And finally, consider modeling what a good survey response looks like by answering the questions yourself, suggests math teacher Emma Chiappetta (who has compiled a full list of dos and don’ts for getting-to-know-you surveys).
Other teachers center their online surveys around student social-emotional wellbeing, daily reflections, and even the seating chart. After years of designing seating charts that separated friends to reduce distraction, longtime middle school teacher (and current instructional coach) Laura Bradley did an about-face and started asking students via a Google form questionnaire about who they wanted to sit close to, and who they probably shouldn’t. “They are so much happier and so much more likely to turn and look at me than if they’re trying to get someone’s attention across the room,” she says. “It changes the culture of the classroom.”
3. The Power of Good Openers
There’s no one right way to begin a class period—but it helps to be consistent. Students are often calmer when they know exactly what is required of them when there is a consistent opening routine or immediate expectation, explains educator Rebecca Alber.
In large classes prone to restlessness, some teachers give students a chance to talk or blow off steam before transitioning into well-structured opening activities. Doehla made a deal with his students, who often wanted to race each other around the room using the wheels on their chairs. They could race each other as much as they liked, he recalls, as long as they transitioned to academic time smoothly and were ready to learn.
Similarly, middle school math teacher Jay Wamsted introduces a fun conversation starter he calls a cold open, typically an unrelated poll or meme to get students talking, followed by an attendance question that lets them share something with the class about themselves or give an opinion. Taken together, they help spark curiosity, give kids a chance to settle in, and prime students for the day’s lesson.
Former high school teacher Ronen Habib took a more direct approach, opening his lessons with activities focused on social-emotional learning, well-being, or mindfulness. He favored gratitude circles, lighthearted and interactive warm-up games, or quiet mindfulness breaks.
Finally, over the course of her 30 year career, Bradley estimates that she must have tried “a million different ways” to start class. Eventually, she settled on silent reading time followed by a whole-class read aloud and the direct instruction for the day. “It became really valuable to start class with some quiet and having them doing what I would want them to do in the real world as an English teacher, which is to read such a good book that you get lost in it.”
4. Meaningful Greetings
Research shows that greeting students individually at the beginning of class can increase engagement and improve behavior by establishing “a positive classroom climate in which students feel a sense of connection and belonging,” according to the authors of a 2018 study.
At the start of every class period, David Tow shook each student’s hand and asked them how they were doing. Even when their answers were generic, their tone and body language often gave him insights into their mindset. Additionally, it reinforces that “an adult in their life cares about their well-being,” Tow writes, “and the research strongly supports that position.”
5. Explicit Directions Yield Greater Focus
When students don’t know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, they’ll often use it as an excuse to not do much of anything. Clear and precise instructions, however, get students on task a lot faster. “They need to have super clear directions,” Bradley says. And by clear, she means step-by-step instructions.
That might mean scaffolding exactly what’s expected of them in an essay, or if there’s a tech component taking screenshots of each screen students see and highlighting the buttons they need to click.
“Make it as clear as possible so that you can confidently say, ‘Can you go back and look at the directions? And then I’ll come back and check in with you,” Bradley says. In larger classes it’s inevitable that “kids have got to work independently, and so you have to figure out a way to support them to work independently.”
6. Take Appointments
In-depth discussions about student behavior should be done privately to avoid setting up a power struggle or humiliating a student in class. Instead, Bradley made appointments with students during lunch to speak with them privately. “The peer issue is huge, especially if there's 30 or 32 students,” she says “Even if you take them outside, that’s always viewed as a punishment. You just want to get them away from the audience.”
Appointments can also come in handy during class time as a way of letting students know when you’ll have time to meet with them or their groups. During group work, Doehla likened himself to a shark, always on the move. But setting appointments lets students know they have more than a fleeting interaction to look forward to, without committing to meeting every student.
Setting appointments after class can help too, given that students may feel lost or anonymous in a large class. Forging individual connections is important, though it takes a bit of extra effort. Tow prioritizes at least one check-in with each student per month, even if they appear to be doing well. As an extra reminder, he keeps notes about each student in his roster, particularly about their moods, issues they’re having, or inconsistencies.
“It’s easy and cheap in terms of time invested,” he says about regular check-ins, “but can yield important insights.”