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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

Response: Classroom Management - Mistakes and Solutions

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 13, 2019 16 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the biggest classroom-management mistake you ever made, and what did you learn from it?

Part One‘s guests were Anne Jenks, Peg Grafwallner, Kevin Parr, Rita Platt, Sarah Thomas, Thomas Kerman, and Paula Kondratko. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Anne, Peg, and Kevin on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Theresa Staley, Judy Reinhartz, Lindsey Palmieri, and Louise Goldberg shared their experiences and recommendations.

Today, Debbie Silver, Amanda Koonlaba, Katie Biggs, Jennifer Lasater, Tina H. Boogren, and Diane Mora contribute their thoughts. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Debbie Silver

Debbie Silver is a former Louisiana state teacher of the year and an internationally known presenter. She is the author of the best-selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. She co-wrote Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success. She can be reached at www.debbiesilver.com:

I always wanted to be an excellent teacher who demonstrated empathy and caring for my students, but I was often distracted by obligations far removed from the classroom. As I tried to find my way as a classroom manager ,I undertook several transformations from assertive discipline all the way to “free range” supervision. I began each transition with the hope of finding a magic formula for me to be the kind of teacher I wanted to be.

As a wife, young mother, developing teacher, grad student, active staff member, dedicated community participant, etc., I found myself juggling many obligations simultaneously. I tried to layer jobs and tasks throughout my daily routine including during my time in the classroom. I took great pride in getting as much done in as little time a possible. Being “organizationally challenged,” I found it difficult, but I was certain my abundance of energy and drive could compensate for my lack of time. I was wrong.

The biggest classroom-management mistake I ever made was allowing myself to get sidetracked with issues not specifically related to my students. When I walked into class with an agenda beyond the classroom (e.g. “I need to call the auto mechanic.” “I have to read that article for my grad class.” “I want to check on my colleague and see if their team has settled their conflict.” “I’d better check to make sure the new babysitter remembered to let the dog out.”), I allowed my attention to be diluted and diverted.

I finally figured out that whatever one’s classroom-management plan, the single most important factor is for the adults in the room to be fully present and engaged. I often tell new teachers they need to leave whatever drama they brought from home in the parking lot. When they enter the school building, they should forgo the “teacher drama” and immediately start interacting with kids.

I know it’s not easy, but the more we can put our “other lives” on hold and focus on the students in front of us, the less stressed and more effective we are. That means when we’re present with kids, we don’t make personal phone calls, we don’t text, we don’t check social media, we don’t have extraneous sidebar conversations with other adults, and we don’t do paperwork. We walk around the entire class area paying attention to student body language, work in progress, group interactions, and questions from the learners. As much as possible, we give them our undivided, centered awareness.

When we are firmly ensconced in the center of things going on around us, we are better able to make proactive moves to curb small infractions before they become major transgressions. We get a sense of what is working for which students and what is not. We determine if we need to have a private word with someone and if we need to alter the pace of a particular lesson.

Being totally present allows us to enforce class standards assertively and unobtrusively far more effectively than any set of written rules with their accompanying stars, stickers, and consequences. More than anything else, being fully available to our students communicates an interest and a caring that builds trust and a feeling of safety.

What I learned is that my students are best served when I don’t try to do too many things at once. I need to get my planning, grading, and paperwork completed when I’m not with them. My class runs more smoothly when I am not only physically present but also socially, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally connected to them.

Response From Amanda Koonlaba

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed.S., is an educator with 13 years of classroom experience. She blogs at Party in the Art Room and serves as a content specialist with Education Closet. She is a sought-after consultant, speaker, and presenter for arts integration and STEAM. She was the Mississippi elementary art educator of the year in 2016:

The biggest classroom-management mistake I ever made was not sticking to a plan. When I first started teaching, I really didn’t understand the importance of structure in classroom management. I remember that I got the job the very week school started. So, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about how to lay out the classroom and I kept moving the desks and moving the furniture repeatedly for the first couple of months of school. My students never knew where to go when they arrived. They’d have to wander around looking for things, which would lead them to trouble. Poor planning for transitions, like entering the classroom, sets students up for failure where their behavior is concerned. Plus, it is really hard for a student who is learning executive function or who struggles with organization to adjust to repeated changes in the environment where there are expectations for doing things like turning in homework, etc.

So, I learned to be consistent with my classroom management, including not moving the furniture around very often. This lesson has served me well for the duration of my teaching career. It is OK to make changes for the better in routines and in classroom management. However, these should be minimal. Plus, if changes must be made, it is best to teach the students to respond to the changes. I wish I’d known this from the start and I wish I’d made a point to figure out my classroom-management plan even though I only got the job a couple of days before the first day of school. Classroom-management planning is that important. This lesson is one I’ll never forget. It is sage advice for new teachers and returning teachers alike. Classroom management has become an educational passion of mine because I think it can make or break the joy of teaching and learning. In fact, I actually developed an online course for Education Closet called Managing the Arts Integrated Classroom and have written numerous articles on classroom management. I’d love to have you follow along!

Response From Katie Biggs

Katie Biggs is an award-winning teacher who has taught for over 10 years in elementary schools servicing dependents of military and civilian Department of Defense service members. She is a passionate educator who thrives on continuing to learn and perfecting her craft and inspires others to join her in this journey. Katie holds a master’s degree in early-childhood education and a master’s degree in teacher leadership:

The biggest mistake I made in classroom management is one seen all too often in classrooms across the world. This mistake is so hidden from our radar, silently lurking around from year to year, bringing unneeded stress and strain until one day our oversight becomes an overwhelming lesson to be learned. Plain and simply put, we mustn’t treat our students all the same, and if we want them to be productive and contributing citizens, we must look at our students as individuals with individual behavioral needs and then work within these parameters to facilitate citizenship. For years, I did not do this. For years, I wondered why the students in my classroom would not conform to the behavior plan I had set before them and why challenging behaviors stayed stagnant with little to no improvement.

Differentiating for our students in the core curricular areas is second nature to educators. We teach small groups, 1:1 lessons, and we build learning paths to meet all levels of learning so why does this not come as naturally when it comes to behavior management? For myself, it took many years for the idea of designing specific behavior plans to occur to me. Until this point, I used a method where the children clipped their names from green to yellow to orange or red but also gave opportunities for the children to move right back up, past green to pink, blue, and the coveted purple. At the time, I felt good giving my students opportunities to clip up and down and not be doomed in moving their clip down because we learn from our mistakes, right? Well, little did I know I was missing a significant piece to my behavior-management puzzle—I was still asking the children to conform to a behavior plan that did not fit their unique needs. I was not looking at their individual needs and taking the time to build a system that provided an equal opportunity for all to feel the success of becoming respectful and respected citizens. I was telling students to do this and do that, but I was failing at teaching them how and why they should behave in such ways. I was certainly not looking at the vast personalities and individual dispositions that were present in my classroom and needed my careful and thoughtful attention.

I will never forget the day my mistake became evident. I sat back in my chair, gazed up at the ceiling, and wondered what I had been doing for so many years. For a quick moment, I felt guilt and disappointment in myself until I realized the incredible opportunity to share my lesson learned transparently. The lesson: Educators must look at each student as an individual, with distinct behavioral needs, defining them as not only a person but as a productive citizen, and then educators must help cultivate behaviors to support this development. The lesson is simple, but the commitment to a classroom-management plan that is accessible and achievable to all is not only critical to our student’s successes inside of the classroom but also in life.

Response From Jennifer Lasater

Jennifer Lasater is an American who has been teaching internationally for 15 years. She has taught at the early-childhood level for the past 20 years with experience in early-childhood special education, IB Primary Years Programme (PYP), common core, International Primary Curriculums (IPC), and international curriculums:

One of the biggest mistakes I have made in my classroom has been not setting clear expectations from the beginning. My first several years of teaching I would not teach the students my expectations. I would say line up and they would, but then there was talking and pushing and running to be in line. I would ask a question, and they would all blurt out the answer. When passing out/in papers, they would be all around me grabbing or pushing their papers in my face. I have since learned that if you expect them to perform in a certain way, you need to teach them and have them practice that expectation. Now I start the first few weeks of school just practicing routine expectations and classroom procedures.

I start the school year with very explicit teaching of my expectations, step by step, of how to complete classroom procedures. It may take a long time to get to our specialist subjects, because we will stop and remember the expectations along the way. If students are good with the expectations, we will move on to the next one. My students can walk independently in a line or wait quietly in a line while I am conferring with another teacher.

Another mistake I have made is to raise my voice. When excited students get loud, the whole classroom gets loud. If you try to be louder, you will not achieve your goal of quieting down the classroom. I used to try and talk over the class; generally, it resulted in the class being louder and not hearing me. Now I will either sit quietly and watch them, praising those twho are quieter and focused on me. I will whisper to tell them directions; those who hear me get praised (quietly), and soon the others catch on and calm down as well. Since making this realization and sharing with co-workers ,they have noticed what a difference it makes in their classes, too.

Response From Tina H. Boogren

Tina H. Boogren, PhD, is an author and associate with Marzano Research and Solution Tree. She is the author of In the First Few Years: Reflections of a Beginning Teacher, Supporting Beginning Teachers, The Beginning Teacher’s Field Guide: Embarking on Your First Years, and Take Time for You: Self-Care Action Plans for Educators. To learn more about Tina’s work, visit www.facebook.com/selfcareforeducators or follow @THBoogren on Twitter and Instagram. To book Tina H. Boogren for professional development, contact pd@SolutionTree.com:

Believe it or not, the biggest classroom-management mistake I made was neglecting to take care of myself. I was so completely overwhelmed and overstressed during my first few years in the classroom that I let my self-care routines and priorities completely go by the wayside. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I wasn’t getting to the gym as often as I wanted to, I was isolating myself from my friends, and my confidence was shaky at best. As a result, I was not my very best self, and this absolutely manifested itself in my classroom.

Because I was struggling, my students ended up struggling as well. I was short-tempered and quick to jump to negative conclusions around student behaviors and choices. Pure exhaustion was probably my biggest mistake, because when I’m tired, I make decidedly different decisions from when I’m well-rested. Because I wasn’t taking good care of myself, I wasn’t able to take the best care of my students, and thus, a classroom-management concern was born. Besides ensuring that we have crystal-clear rules and procedures in place that our students fully understand and support, it is essential that we take care of ourselves.

If we consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the importance of stabilizing the first four levels (physiological needs, safety needs, belonging needs, and esteem needs), we can present our very best selves to our students, thus allowing us to reap the benefits of levels five and six of the hierarchy (self-actualization and a connection to something greater than ourselves). And if you’re reaping the benefits of these top two levels, you can be certain that your students are, too. Students who feel self-actualized and inspired are students who create classrooms where management isn’t a concern and instead, engagement is the norm. When we are able to truly thrive through our own self-care, rather than merely survive, as teachers and human beings, we provide the gift of inspiration and motivation for our students.

Response From Diane Mora

Diane Mora, M.A. Ed., has been teaching writing in ESL programs internationally and in the United States for 12 years. Currently, she is passionate about teaching writing and literacy skills to SLIFE students who are also ELs at East High School in Kansas City, Mo.:

Being impatient. By nature, I don’t think of myself as a patient person. I have high expectations of my students and of myself as their teacher, and it’s very easy for that to manifest as impatience with them and myself.

At the end of my first year of teaching high school, one of my students left me a handwritten note that I’m not proud of receiving but that I have saved and now reread several times throughout the years as a reminder of the mistake I’d like to never make again but which I know is still an area of growth for me. In her letter to me, she wrote that I was one of her favorite teachers, which made it doubly hurtful that I had once been very abrupt with her while she was asking for help. She was very specific in her recounting of the event and how she had even shed a few tears afterward. The letter was clearly more respectful than I had been to her.

The self-reflection her letter encouraged me to do was what seriously sparked my pursuit of finding or developing a style of classroom management that didn’t focus on student behavior as the problem. It put me on a path of searching for and developing a practice of classroom management that made room for me to be mindful of my role in student behavior while also learning and teaching mindful self-observation skills to them.

It’s my personal experience that rules and behavior-management systems begin with the premise that we should expect bad or problem behavior from students. Mindfulness in the classroom simply begins from the premise that students and teachers can learn and support each other in learning to self-regulate behaviors that contribute to positive, egalitarian, and safe learning environments.

Responses From Readers

Melanie Link Taylor:

Not calling parents right away

Bill Burd:

Not being more aggressive with relationship building.

Thanks to Debbie, Amanda, Katie, Jennifer, Tina, and Diane, and to readers, 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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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.