Calm in the Storm: On the Art of Classroom Management

Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and for all sorts of reasons. But this fall, thousands of new teachers will begin their careers, having little if any training in one of the most daunting and difficult aspects of teaching: classroom management

This article is for you, my dear colleagues. And in a nod to Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, I shall attempt to keep things utterly practical so as not to waste your time; you already have enough to do before the year begins.

To begin, a few important foundational principles to keep in mind:

  1. Always remember that you are human, and so are your students. We don’t operate like machines: both you and they will have good days and bad. Be honest with your students about this fact. Remind them often that you expect their best, but be understanding when their best on any given day isn’t what you expect.
  2. We may wish it otherwise, but managing the classroom requires experience. You won’t know how to use any of the tools in your toolbox until you start trying them out, seeing what works and what doesn’t. It isn’t all trial and error, but expect a bit of error, anyway. Be patient; experience is a wise teacher who pays well but makes demands.
  3. You’ll be tempted to believe the lie that, “If only your lessons were more engaging, you’d have fewer behavior issues.” Reject this idea out of hand; people who say such things are fools. No matter how engaging the lesson, it will always be the case that some students will be interested and some won’t. Don’t be surprised by this fact, and don’t let it upset or derail you. 
  4. Adding to point #3: SURPRISE!!! you can’t make your students learn anything, because learning is an intellectual activity in which they must choose to participate. (See also point #1).
  5. Adding more to point #3: You almost certainly spent way too much time in your ed. program learning how to write lesson plans. This was unfortunate, because it led you to the false conclusion that lesson plans are the most important thing. They aren’t. Your administrators may require copies of them. Fine. But your plans aren’t for them; they’re for you. Push back against any expectation that requires you spend an inordinate amount of time writing/submitting/defending them. Teaching is both art and science, involving the most unpredictable of all creatures: human beings (see point #1). Planning down to the minute will become a constant source of frustration when:
    (a.) You don’t get through what you’d planned
    (b.) You get through what you planned faster than anticipated
    (c.) The internet goes down
    (d.) A kid pukes in the trash can and/or pulls the fire alarm
  6. One caveat to #5: accountability is essential to your growth and success as a teacher. So:
    (a.) Map out your units broadly (month-long chunks) for the year.
    (b.) Keep (for yourself) a digital weekly lesson outline (these are what I submit when admin. comes asking)
    (c.) Jot down two or three bullet-point objectives for each day on the board to keep you and the students on track.
    (d.) I remember being terrified at the thought of finishing the lesson early. “Oh no! I’m done and there’s still ten minutes left of class! Now what?” Have two or three predictable “fillers” should your lesson end early. They needn’t be elaborate or entertaining. My go-to’s:
    1. Classroom read-alouds
    2. Silent reading
    3. AMAs
    4. Chess, puzzles, card games
    5. Working on homework from another class
    6. and (gasp!): letting the students chat quietly with their neighbors.

Okay, enough of the foundations. Let’s talk practicals. (Don’t forget #1)

  1. Learn your students’ names as quickly as possible: ideally, before the school year begins. How? Get your class lists and the previous year’s yearbook and start connecting names and faces.
  2. Introduce yourself to each student individually on the first day as they enter your classroom. I shake each student’s hand. Yes, it’ll create a gaggle of befuddled students in the hallway, but so what? That direct, immediate, poignant connection with each student carries more weight than you might think.
  3. Make a point in the first two weeks of school to greet each of your students, by name, in some non-classroom setting (hallway, cafeteria, football game, bus line, etc.)
  4. Be clear about your expectations regarding behavior. Keep it simple. My three classroom rules:
    (a.) Come to class on time and prepared.
    (b.) Say the true thing.
    (c.) Honor the person talking.
  5. Establish a set of predictable procedures/protocols rather than creating a lengthy list of classroom rules. It’s easier to direct students toward what they should be doing rather than correcting them for what they should not. 
  6. Use seating charts for the entire year. Of course the students want, and will ask (and ask, and ask) to sit by their friends: too bad. If you decide at some point to let them choose their seats, you can tell them what I tell my students: “You can sit by your friends…until you can’t.” 
  7. When it comes to confronting misbehavior, use this simple method: your corrections should be prompt, private, and proportionate.
    (a.) Prompt: address the issue as quickly as possible after it occurs. The longer you wait, the more your frustration will build and the more likely it will be that the student will forget what happened or the details will be otherwise misconstrued.
    (b.) Private: As much as possible, correct the student privately, rather than in front of his or her peers.
    (c.) Proportionate: be firm and just, but lean toward compassionate. 
  8. For the love of all that is decent and holy: be consistent in the application of disciplinary measures.
  9. For the love of even more that is decent and holy: don’t ever think that “letting it go this time” is the compassionate thing to do. We must desire what is best for our students, even when they don’t desire it for themselves. You may decide to adjust the consequence, but never fail to address the behavior.
  10. You can’t accomplish #’s 8 or #9 without picking your battles.
  11. Use non-verbal sounds to communicate. A few examples:
    (a.) I use a desktop bell to gain the entire classroom’s attention. (I also let the students ring the bell on their birthdays, an action that is preceded by total silence, and immediately followed by rip-roaring applause.)
    (b.) I use a “psst” sound to gain/redirect attention of an individual student who happens to be off task. The misbehaving student always knows he or she is misbehaving, and always looks up. At that point, a simple shake of my head suffices to redirect.
    (c.) When the students and I are all together in a location other than the classroom (cafeteria, gym, etc.) and it’s time to depart, I knock on wood, literally. Two knocks lets them know that it’s time to leave, and the unique sound stands out from the cacophony of teacher and student voices.
    (d.) When a student would like to use the restroom, get a drink, etc., rather than having them raise a hand, which may indicate a question, I ask them to hold their hand up with their fingers crossed. That way, I can simply make eye-contact and nod without having to interrupt/pause the lesson. It’s also, I think, an acknowledgment of trust/mutual respect. I teach middle schoolers, who are old enough not to have to ask, “Can I go to the bathroom?” 
  12. Regarding cell-phones, I follow a simple rule: if your admin. allows the students to have phones in class, quit and find a school where the admin. doesn’t. Phones are poison, and anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is selling something.

Teaching is among the noblest of professions, a tremendous gift and a tremendous responsibility. Pursue it with courage, honesty, and humility.

You got this.

Love our Articles? Spread the word!

newsletter sign-up

Magnus News

Stay up to date on free courses, webinars, podcasts, and more. 
Bonus! Sign up today and get a FREE At-A- Glance Guide to the Liberal Arts, complete with recommended reading, available for a limited time. 

Subscribe Now and receive a free Guide to the Liberal Arts