Classroom Management

3 Steps to Taking Back an Unruly Classroom

April 10, 2017 Updated April 4, 2017

My first teaching job came in the form of a long-term substitute position in an 8th grade classroom. I knew going into it that it would be difficult. The teacher I was filling in for had been out for two months already, and before the school was able to secure my position, the students endured a different teacher each day. They didn’t have structure or consistency. Most of them felt confused. All of them needed guidance. My work, as they say, was cut out for me. 

On my first day, all of my fears were confirmed. The students were loud. They talked over each other and over me. They played with their phones when they were supposed to be working. They talked back. A few of them seemed to have checked out entirely. I went from feeling challenged to feeling like I was in over my head in a matter of hours, and that led me to contact my mentor. 

Mr Kriegle, a veteran teacher who has written books about classroom management, reminded me that no classroom is beyond saving. He told me that I was experiencing what so many other teachers experience on a regular basis. Then he explained that there are three key things to keep in mind when attempting to regain control in an unruly classroom. 

  1. Make sure your students aren’t lost. When students don’t understand the content of a lesson they not only suffer academically, but they can also decline behaviorally. Some will check out entirely, and some students will act out. On the other hand, students that are being adequately challenged and understand the content tend to be more self motivated and on-task. To make sure they understand, build time into every lesson to formatively assess the class. Whether this is in the form of a quick check, or an exit slip, it is important to do this often. 
  2. Make sure your students feel challenged enough. The other side of the coin adds up to problems as well. If the work is too easy, and the content of your lessons doesn’t challenge your students, they will have the same problems. The idea is to strike a balance, to find each student’s zone of proximal development and teach to that. Just like in the first point, Mr Kriegel noted that formative assessments are helpful, but right answers on an exit slip won’t tell you if your students are at a level higher than what you’re teaching. Rather, this is a problem that is observed. Ask yourself if the students are finishing their work really quickly, or keep an eye on their body language while they’re discussing. Are they alert? Do they seem to struggle a little and then get the solution? If not, you may want to try giving them more challenging work. 
  3. Keep them busy. Once you’ve determined that your students are at the right level, make sure they have enough to do. In a wild classroom, downtime isn’t your friend. Mr. Kriegel’s rule of thumb is that students who are busy don’t have time to get in trouble. He recommends that educators spend less than ten minutes in lecture. The rest of the time is self-directed learning in which the teacher makes a list of things to get done, and the students work at their own pace to complete all the tasks listed. This can be worksheets, silent reading time, projects and more. The key is to have more listed than you think you’ll get done in one day. Anything left on the agenda gets added to the following day, and you repeat the cycle each week.  

After my meeting, I gave his recommendations a try. The first thing I did was have my students read a text and write down all the things they didn’t understand. Nearly all of them were lost. They didn’t comprehend what I’d been asking them to read. I took time to dissect the text with them, to explain the language and the structure, and context, and their behavior improved tremendously. Suddenly they wanted to know more. They wanted to discuss the text instead of the latest gossip. From there I made sure to assess them often, and I gave them more work to do in class. Within a week my students had transformed. They were working hard and actually enjoying it.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Classroom Management
  • 6-8 Middle School

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