Before I share my thoughts, I must make a disclaimer. If you’re looking for a magic solution to classroom challenges, the following will be helpful, but don’t expect major changes overnight. And please remember that a strong instructional philosophy (i.e., how one believes students best learn) and a well-thought-out lesson plan form the foundation for effective student learning. With all that said, the following are four must-haves for a successful classroom.
1. Build a Sense of Urgency
“We are going to have a test on this” is not something that usually inspires a great deal of urgency in most students. Urgency is created and maintained by the teacher—being urgent or engaged in what is happening in the class. Believe me, students know when we’re not enthused about what we’re doing. This shows in our facial expressions, our demeanor, our tone and posture, and even how we move about the classroom. Record a lesson and watch yourself. Are you energetic? After watching yourself, do you feel a sense of urgency? If the content and or skills you’re teaching are challenging to your enthusiasm, the proverbial “fake it till you make it” may have to come into play here.
Nothing provides urgency for a student better than having to show others what they know. No athlete wants to go on the field and drop the ball in front of all their fans. If you want to have your students learn times tables, for example, create a multiclass competition and invite another class, administrators, or family members of the students. Now there is some urgency. For young writers who are crafting personal narratives or short articles about their community, you can arrange opportunities for them to submit and possibly get published in the school newspaper or website or enter their work into a literary competition for their age.
Finally, give frequent checks for understanding. Frequent formative assessments give teachers vital information for planning and also keep kids on alert and on their toes. If our students know that they do not need to know the information until the big test in three weeks, they’ll only begin to feel urgency as that test gets closer. A weekly quiz, for example, does wonders to keep learning fresh.
2. Stack the Deck for Positive Encouragement
One of the challenges of working with young people is that they often want everything immediately. For our students who struggle with going beyond instant gratification, creating milestones so that the class can see their progress works wonders. For example, a student may not be able to see progress on the final project, but when I grade a portion of the project and give specific suggestions for improvement, students can measure their progress and the big project no longer seems so daunting or so far away. Ask questions like “How is your goal to learn fractions to share with your classmates coming along?," "What can I do to help you be successful with the shading on your portrait for the art competition?," or "What have you decided are the best ways to present the books you’ve read to your family members?” These questions promote incremental improvement, while assuming the best about your students and their effort and progress.
It’s also key that students realize the wonderful growth they have had by giving them opportunities to reflect. My students, for example, created a passport for a simulated trip abroad and used the pages to record what they’d learned—one bite at a time.
3. Create a High-Performance, Low-Maintenance Learning Team
It makes a difference when I put the objective goal for each day’s learning on the board and then deliberately refer to it as I begin the lesson. It is doubly effective when I point out to the students that they have accomplished the goal at the end of the lesson. Here is something else you can consider. As the teacher, I realize that I cannot do everything. I pick students to aid me in completing some of the simpler, more routine tasks so I can concentrate on the more important ones.
Regardless of age, I’ve found that students love to hand out the papers, or make their way around the room rubber-stamping their peers’ completed work. I sometimes use these chores as rewards for good behavior. Other times I use them to keep a student out of trouble. Every team needs a leader or team captain. Selecting a student with confidence enough to stand up for themselves, and then allowing the students to select a second in command, works by giving the students some ownership on how their classroom operates. The student you select is critical as they will have to work with all of the students in the classroom. I call them the general manager of the class.
Next, I provide classroom leaders the tasks of handling all voting on other leaders and decisions for the class. They also help with my preparation of learning materials. Your classroom managers are helpful when you have multiple projects going on at the same time. You’ll be surprised at how seriously they take their duties.
4. Keep Student Behavior Within Appropriate Bounds
I want students to feel comfortable in my classroom, but not so comfortable that they lose a sense of urgency or lose focus on the learning for the day. My classroom management plan has four elements I’d like to share:
Have clear expectations for behavior, with clear consequences. This does not mean I simply write a student up when I feel they misbehave. I obtain the best results when my students know that after a warning, I will call home first before the administrator gets involved. I also ask students to write a letter of apology to the class or to me. If I need to take the next step, I include a copy of the letter with the discipline referral. The administrators appreciate this because they can share it with parents or guardians of the child and also identify any patterns of misbehavior and then move forward in helping the student improve.
Set expectations for acceptable behaviors in each activity. I am very specific with the class at the start of a lesson and share examples of the following: ability to move about, work with neighbors, voice levels (“inside voices,” for example), and production expectations (how much should be done in what time period). Usually all it takes is a gentle reminder to a student: “Diane, what voice level should you be using? Raul, please look at the board and tell me if it’s the right time for you to be out of your seat.”
Actively monitor student progress and behavior. As much as I would like to sit down and do some grading, or prepare other work while my students are supposed to be engaged doing productive individual practice, if I want my students to take the individual practice seriously, I have to move around the classroom like a bee going from flower to flower, not staying too long in one spot. I look at their work and make comments to help them along, saving my paperwork and other planning tasks for lunch time or after school.
Utilize and maintain routines in the classroom. This ensures that you don’t have to explain what the students need to do every day. They shake my hand, answer my question, and then enter the classroom to do the warm-up exercise. We do this every day. I always ask for volunteers in the same way, and I ask for the students’ attention in the same way. I give quizzes and check notebooks on Fridays. There are procedures for using the restroom in the same way, every day. When some students are not on task, I find ones who are and place a small sticky note with a stamped image squarely on their paper. As I do so, I loudly say, “Bravo!” or “Well done!” I often don’t have to say a word as other students see this and want affirmation as well, so more often than not, they begin to work.
For 180 or so days each year, students come to our classrooms to be inspired to learn. That means that for 180 days we have the tremendous opportunity to create a learning environment so appealing that the students will have a hard time not enjoying their learning experiences.
When we commit to designing and developing an urgent, encouraging, self-motivating, and disciplined environment in our classrooms, we provide students (and ourselves) with learning experiences that are satisfying and lasting.