Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘It’s Vital to Focus on Student Engagement’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 22, 2019 19 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your best classroom-management tips?

Show me a teacher who isn’t always on the lookout for good classroom-management ideas, and I’ll show you an educator who is fairly clueless. You should be able to find some useful recommendations in this four-part series.

Today’s suggestions come from Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Rita Platt, Gabriella Corales, Leticia Skae-Jackson, and Madeline Whitaker Good. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rita, Heather, and Gabriella on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in previous posts appearing here offering Classroom-Management Advice.

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and PBL coach. She is the author of Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin/AMLE), which shares the results of a nationwide survey of 6th-12th graders and what engages them as learners. She is also the author of DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge) and DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science (Routledge), She is an 8th grade ELA teacher, a staff blogger for Edutopia, a proud member of the California Writing Project, and a National Faculty member for PBLWorks (formally the Buck Institute for Education). Follow Heather on Twitter:@tweenteacher:

The best advice I can give is enjoy being with kids. Period.

OK, maybe there’s more to it than that, but that really is the bottom line. if you enjoy being with them, they’ll know it and respect it. Having said that, it’s vital to focus on student engagement. It’s as vital as focusing on your content area. When I conducted a nationwide survey of 6th-12th graders and asked them what engaged them the most (as chronicled in my book, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement), their responses became the key to not only student achievement, but classroom management as well. If you like them, they’ll like you. Sometimes you have to look hard to find something to like, but that’s your job. It’s what you signed up for, to find the goodness in all students under your care for the time that they are. And you’ll be rewarded with fewer issues of classroom management.

It might help to get to know the brain research of the grade level you are teaching. For instance, I’m a middle school teacher. As one, I need to know what they are capable of and what they are not. It would be hard to enjoy middle school, for instance, if I was looking for a silent classroom. Their brains aren’t wired for that. They are wired to hoot and howl. They are wired to make mistakes. They are growing at a crazy rate that makes pratfalls a daily occurrence. You can either love that kind of chaos or hate it. Don’t stay where you hate. But if you enjoy it, show them. Show your students that you’re willing to laugh with them. Show them that you are willing to cry with them. Show them that you are willing to take the hard line and rein them in but give them the confidence that you can move on without holding a grudge. Be forgiving. They are all Works in Progress.

Now, that’s not to say your smile will be enough to replace rules and routines, but a teacher who is only Dos and Don’ts won’t have the classroom management of one who supplements their rules with kindness.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

The term “classroom management” can mean many things. But at its heart is the idea that classrooms can and should run smoothly and be low-stress, high-comfort environments for both students and teachers.

Of course, the bottom line is, as is often said, “A good lesson plan is the best classroom management.” Equally important is the frequently noted need for strong relationships as the foundation of effective classrooms. For the purposes of this short response, however, I am going to focus on simple management tips: routines and expectations.


Routines are the procedures and systems in place for accomplishing the day-to-day business of the classroom. Each of the questions below is an example of places where a routine is needed.

  • How should students enter or leave a classroom?
  • What should students do upon arrival?
  • What material do students need?
  • How do students ask for help?
  • What should students do if they were or are going to be absent?
  • What should students do if they need to use the restroom or get a drink of water?
  • How should work be turned in and papers be passed out?
  • How and when should students use electronic devices?

In my experience, the most successful, least stressed, and often happiest teachers have strong systems in place that are explicitly taught, frequently modeled, and reviewed as needed. Similarly, students are likely to work harder and feel more relaxed and happy when they know what is expected of them. There is no point in thinking, “She should know better!” or saying, “I already taught that!” We must model, reteach, and hold students accountable to the routines of the classroom. Angela Watson offers sage advice here.

Starting with Clear Expectations and Consequences for Not Respecting Them

If your expectations or rules aren’t clear and easily followed, your students may have a hard time conforming to them. Try to keep your rules to five or fewer and make sure they are stated positively.

The rules a teacher in my school uses are a good example:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Work hard.
  3. Ask questions.

Once you have established clear rules, talk through them with your class and offer examples that help define what each looks like in action. The expectation that students “Be respectful,” for example, should be explained with a list of the behaviors that you and your students see as embodying the rule (being on time, speaking quietly, not interrupting, using kind words, etc.) For a real-life example, 7th grade social studies teacher Stacey Belisle shares her method for collaborating to create and maintain rules and expectations here.

Once expectations are clearly defined, develop and share consequences for when students do not follow them. Below is an example from a classroom at my school.

  1. The teacher will give you a verbal reminder.
  2. You will take a timeout to think about how to follow the rules.
  3. You will write a letter to your parents or guardian telling them about what happened.
  4. I will write a referral for you to see the principal.

Whatever expectations and consequences you decide on, it is important to stay true to them. For the most part, students want to know boundaries.

I have been an educator for 25 years and I have seen again and again the positive effects of clear routines and expectations. Early in my career, I read two great books on classroom management. I still reread them from time to time to brush up on my skills. One is The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong, which is an easy-to-read treasure trove of tips to help teachers of all grades and subjects learn to use procedures and routines to keep the classroom happy and hard working. The other is Cooperative Discipline by Linda Albert, a book that helps teachers learn to proactively nip poor student behavior in the bud, often before it is even noticeable. Read them! I promise, you’ll love them!

Response From Gabriella Corales

Gabriella Corales currently teaches at a Title I middle school; she formerly taught at a charter high school in California and at a rural high school in Florida. She continues to work with first-generation college students, hailing from low-income backgrounds (like herself). She is originally from San Antonio. She obtained her bachelor’s in English and communication studies from Texas State University and her master’s in education from Stanford University and is a recipient of the Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Teaching Fellowship:

Creating a Positive Classroom Environment with Positive Narration and Recognition

Which behaviors are we drawing attention to in our classroom? Sometimes, it can be easy to focus on the negative behaviors we see, and those should certainly be addressed promptly and privately, but what if we could limit these kinds of occurrences?

I’ve found that when I use positive narration and recognition to draw more attention to positive behaviors in my classroom, good things follow. Every day, I recognize students who are doing what I want using positive narration. Positive narration is simply noticing and describing the good behaviors and work habits you see out loud to your class.

Let’s say I’m reviewing a new routine or giving directions to the class. As soon as I say, “Go!” I begin looking to see who’s following directions and meeting my expectations and I say that out loud! This may sound like, “I saw Kiana come in, grab her notebook, and begin her bell ringer! She remembered our new routine for starting class!” Or “Thank you, Chantelle! I saw her immediately turn and talk to her partner.”

This practice is especially useful at the beginning of the year when trying to establish new routines and expectations. You’ll be amazed at how many more students quickly jump on board. Positive narration can also be used to reinforce important work habits needed for success such as, “Go, Tyler! I see him using his notes!” Or “Props to Juan! I hear him asking questions to get unstuck. He’s not giving up!” It can even be used to lessen transition times and create more urgency as in, “I see three groups who have already begun their task!...now four, five groups!”

There are many benefits to using positive narration. It positively reinforces behaviors and attitudes that are needed for student success. It celebrates students who are meeting or exceeding our expectations. It provides another opportunity for students who missed the directions to self-correct. And most importantly, it combats negative behavior by communicating to students that positive behavior is what gets attention—not negative behavior. This doesn’t mean that negative behavior will disappear; however, if we make positive narration a common practice in our classrooms, then students will seek out that kind of positive recognition instead, and thus, a lot of classroom-management issues can be avoided.

In addition to using positive narration daily, I also make positive phone calls home every week, a practice I learned from a beloved mentor. I select one student from each class whose actions stood out that week. Teachers should intentionally choose the behaviors they care most about and want to reinforce in their classrooms. Some of mine include consistently meeting expectations, actively participating, thinking critically, persevering, and my favorite, improving over time.

I begin every Friday by announcing the “Posi call” winner of the week and clearly explain why that student received it so that every student knows which behaviors are celebrated and recognized in my classroom. After applause, I give the student a “Posi call” slip. On the front is the reason(s) why they’re the recipient, and on the back, the student chooses who they want me to call and why and provides the contact information. (You’d be surprised! Sometimes, it’s their big sister who lives in another state because they miss them and want them to know they’re doing well in school). At the end of the day on Friday, I celebrate these students with their families and then post their “Posi call” slip on the “Posi Call Wall of Fame” for all to see. It’s a practice my middle and high school students and families love and one my students look forward to and even hold me accountable to.

Bottom line: If students know that positive behavior gets recognition in your classroom, they will seek that kind of attention. This year, build stronger relationships and culture by letting your students know daily that you see them and recognize their efforts. And make sure to spread that love to every student, especially your most struggling students. Lavish them with positive praise, draw attention to the behaviors and attitudes needed for success, and don’t be surprised at how hard your students work for you in your class this year.

Response From Leticia Skae-Jackson

Leticia Skae-Jackson is in her 14th year in education. She has a master’s in education from Vanderbilt and has expertise in teaching diverse populations. You can find her on Twitter @LSkae where she posts teaching tips and lessons:

Regaining Control in Your Classroom: There Is Hope

Have you ever heard teachers say things like, “Don’t smile until Christmas” or “Don’t show any signs of weakness—ever”?

Though I understand the creation of some of the advice given, I find it very difficult to always follow it.

It is absolutely miserable not smiling for an entire semester of teaching; especially since I truly enjoy my job. I must admit that my first year of teaching was a whirlwind of confusion. I listened to all advice given to me and had no idea why I was implementing the advice or when to realistically implement it. I learned, the hard way, that gaining control of my classroom was much more difficult than following strict advice. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Set the tone immediately- I’m in my 14th

    year of education and I just recently greeted my new set of students for this year. On the first day of class we, went over classroom expectations and rules. I told my students that class time was important to me and that I valued their education so much that I never wasted class time. I then proceeded with our first lesson of the year. I instructed immediately after providing rules and expectations; students worked on the first day of class. This sets a tone. I have very high expectations and I expect all of my students to strive for them.

  2. Build relationships

    - Every class period, I stand by my door and greet my students. I smile at them and greet them while I hand them their assignment. Sometimes my face is the first warm face my students see, and so I make a serious effort to be kind when they enter my classroom. If a student changes their hairstyle or wears new clothes, I make sure to compliment them. This shows them that I take enough time to notice them, and sometimes just letting students know you notice them (outside of classwork) makes them feel appreciated. The no smiling until Christmas rule just doesn’t pertain. Another important part of building a strong relationship is showing a little vulnerability in the right areas. For instance, if I don’t know an answer to a question, I will simply tell students that I am unsure, but if they give me a day to research it, I will find the correct answer. I don’t know everything, and that is OK. Kids need to see that teachers are humans, too.

  3. Stringent structures

    : My first year of teaching middle school, I almost had to quit! I was used to teaching high school where most kids would just come into class and actually sit down. When I realized that a mere two years below high school, students preferred to wander the class, hit one another, and whine and complain, I was in for a miserable year! I had to act quickly. I had never set such stringent structures before because I had never had to, but that year, the classroom was falling apart, and I had to act quickly. So, I began with a brand-new seating chart. Nothing says revamp like a great seating chart. I also greeted my students at the door and refused to let them in until they had grabbed their classroom folder and their assignment. As soon as the bell rang, I closed my door and walked around the class, with a clipboard. I took names of students off task and called home immediately. I created a points system in my class and rewarded students when they behaved appropriately. I also allowed absolutely no downtime, not even a minute. Finally, after one painful week of stringent structures, my students understood that I meant business. The key was to stay consistent, and so I continued this same level of rigidity until the last day of school.

  4. Engage students: I’m an ELA teacher, and most students come to my classroom telling me they hate reading, they hate writing, etc. So, my goal is to not only teach them to improve their comprehension skills, but somewhere along the way, I am hoping they will hate reading and writing a little less. They might even enjoy a novel or two. I realized that bringing in engaging texts or using engaging techniques with students helped with classroom management. Most of the time students just wanted to do the work, which kept off-task behaviors to a minimum. For instance, last year, I had planned to read two chapters of our novel and give students an opportunity to write and discuss their understandings of the text. However, after reading those two chapters, the book left the audience on a cliffhanger, and the kids couldn’t handle the anticipation; they begged to read the third chapter. I immediately changed my classroom-lesson plan to accommodate their love for the book. How often to kids beg to read more? I had to oblige.

Though there are many rules to follow for classroom management and many lines of advice that have been passed down from year to year, I have found that many of the techniques that have worked for me fall into the four categories above. These concepts have saved me many times, and I still use them today.

Response From Madeline Whitaker Good

Madeline Whitaker Good is a Ph.D. student studying at the University of Missouri in the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis Department. She is a former classroom teacher, having taught at both the elementary and secondary levels:

Tip #1: Make your lessons as engaging as possible. In general, the more students are participating and interested in your lesson, the less behavior issues will occur, so making your lessons engaging is a huge portion of preventing misbehavior. There are two big caveats to this, however. First, engaging does not have to mean every single lesson has to be the best lesson you ever created in your life. At the most basic level, it simply means that every student has something accessible to work on at every point of the lesson, whether it’s note taking, group work, independent work, or something else. Second, this will not prevent every behavior issue. I have heard some people use this as a weapon against teachers, arguing that if their lesson had just been that much better, it would have entirely prevented the issues. Sometimes this is the case but sometimes it simply is not.

Tip #2: Make your lessons as organized as possible. Behavior issues can also occur simply because students do not understand what they are supposed to be doing or there is too much “down time” during transitions. As much as you can, make a moment-by-moment game plan for what is going to occur. For some classes, you may not need this because they can handle looser structures and still get work done, but for others, having a clear plan in your mind from the moment the lesson starts to the moment it ends will be the best course of action to take. To do this, think through what your class would be like for a student. When they walk in, what should they do? What materials do they need? What will they be doing during the “learning” portion of the lesson? What will they do to practice/apply what they learned? What will they do if they get done early? How will you monitor their learning to prevent off-task behavior caused by confusion around the topic? Is there any type of assessment they need to complete? Having this clearly laid out for you and then clearly communicated with students verbally and visually will again help prevent many behavior issues from occurring throughout the lesson.

Tip #3: React by not reacting. For many behaviors, you do not need to and should not react. They will go away on their own. So my first “go-to” in these situations is to respond in a way that does not actually react to the behavior, whether you ignore the student, engage the student in the lesson, or simply use proximity by casually moving near the student without verbally or nonverbally acknowledging what is occurring.

Tip #4: Keep your cool. Once you have avoided reacting but the behavior is continuing, you then need to do something and intervene. There is no one-size-fits-all response for student misbehavior, but there is a one-size-fits-all way you respond: respectfully. Students deserve to be in a classroom where they are always treated with respect on their best and worst days. Being respectful doesn’t mean letting your class run wild and not having consequences. It means that even when you have to intervene, you still see that student as a whole person and treat them as such by not yelling, not using mean sarcasm, and not belittling the student.

Tip #5: Is everything OK? Many times, when a behavior is first occurring, I find myself ready to redirect the student quickly because I want to keep my lesson on track. Sometimes, however, a student’s misbehavior is more than just boredom or purposefully trying to derail a lesson. Instead of always trying to stop the misbehavior, I take a moment and try to understand why it may be happening in the first place by asking, “Hey, I notice you seem off today. Is everything OK?” Just like everything else I have touched upon, this is not going to work 100 percent of the time. But it gives students the benefit of the doubt before we jump to conclusions.

Tip #6: We all make mistakes. When you lose your cool, give an unfair consequence, or react before thinking, apologize. It’s as simple as that!

Thanks to Rita, Heather, Gabriella, Leticia, and Madeline for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

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Best Ways to Begin The School Year

Best Ways to End The School Year

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.