Friday, August 30, 2013

Classroom Management… or Should it be Mismanagement?

As I was reading our staff handbook the other day the following line jumped out at me:

Start the year with specific written rules and expectations for your class.

It went on to detail that these rules should be posted and gone over so there are no questions from the students regarding what you expect in your classroom.

My thoughts? Crap.

This is an evaluation year for me and I didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings, so I emailed my principal immediately. I explained that there weren’t any rules posted in our classroom because I didn’t have a set of them to put up. I simply do not have classroom rules. Because she rocks, and because she knows me, she reassured me that we were fine.

This is not always the way my classroom has always functioned.

Eighteen years ago I began teaching. I recall being more than a bit concerned that I really had no idea what I was doing. Maybe sensing my unease, my mom - a veteran teacher herself – recommended a book called The First Days of School by Harry Wong. I read it, reread it. I tried to think of every imaginable scenario where I might have an “issue” regarding classroom management. And then, I jumped in.

While Wong’s book is a good book, and I think probably an excellent book for new teachers, there is no way to prepare yourself for every scenario you would face in the classroom. In my first few years of teaching I went crazy trying to find a way to “fix” it all. I would have most of the class “behaving”, but one child was defiant and refused to do anything I’d ask. Or a child who was having major issues would simply shout out horrible things during math class. Or the child struggling at home who slept through classes because it was the only time of peace. The child who was hungry and couldn’t focus. The child who had a family member struggling. The child. The child. The child.

The conclusion I came to was multifaceted. I began by looking for a definition - what the heck is classroom management? What is meant by a class that “behaves?” Does that mean the silent class has a teacher with better management than the chatty class?

With those question swirling already, I tackled the next topic – rules. How do a set of rules cover everything I need to share with my students. Will there be a rule that says, “Please make sure you don’t step on Susie’s shoes as you walk to lunch.” Or, “When we are frustrated, we do not slam our fist on the desk.” Do you get specific? General? For several years my rules became, “Respect yourself, respect others, respect your surroundings.” Then I began to question the need of even putting those up.

Another topic that came up were management systems, and I’ve tried them all. Clips, cards, notes, or even in the era of technology I briefly looked at management systems online. All of them seemed like more work than I really wanted to put into it and again I came back to the purpose. By having a system I felt like I was tell my students, “When, not if, you misbehave -‘x’ will happen.”

So where did I end up? Somewhere hard to describe, but I have a feeling many of us might be here.

On the first day of school a student, at some point, will usually ask about the rules of our classroom. I look around like I’m worried someone is eavesdropping, come in close, and whisper, “There are no rules.”

Usually they laugh, I laugh. And then I tell them that it’s not entirely true. We talk about the grocery store just down the street. I ask if I took the class there right now, could we walk in, grab the grapes, throw them on the floor, and stomp on them? They chuckle and tell me no. My response is always the same – how do they know that? Is there a rule posted?

We go on to discuss expectations. I expect they will make excellent choices this year. I expect that they will be kind. I expect that they will come to class ready to learn. Their big question is always – What happens if someone is mean? If they do something they shouldn’t?

My reply is always the same – if someone behaves in a way that does not fit in the norms of our class, I will talk to them. I will ask them if they are having a bad day. I will check-in to see if something has gone horribly wrong. And we will move on from there.

Here’s the thing. I don’t teach in a fantasy world. I have kids that struggle at times. Heck, I struggle at times. We will have some problems, but – at least for the last few years – they are few and far between. In fact, since I abandoned having “rules”, I have had less behavior problems than ever. I’m often asked, what is the secret? What have I done to these kids? The answer is simple. Nothing.

Or maybe it’s not so simple. I also start on day one telling my students I love them. I believe in them. It’s not baloney, it is 100% true. They know I cry when they make a mistake. They know I cheer when they get on track. They know how much I want them to succeed. They know me well, and I know them.

Thinking of it that way, I guess I do have a rule, that as the teacher, I am required to develop a relationship with each and every student in that classroom. That is a classroom management system I can get behind.

Today I read a blog post that said what I believe in a nutshell –“Not one rule you make this week will cause good behavior in May. But every strong relationship you make will.” Yep, that’s something I could post on our wall.