Teaching Opinion

Response: Classroom Management Suggestions -- Part Three

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 13, 2011 7 min read
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(Part Three Of A Four-Part Series)

Brittany Peppers asked:

I am excited to follow this blog and learn many things about it as I graduate from college and begin my teaching career. My question to you is “In your opinion, what is one thing to remember about classroom management if you don’t remember anything else you are taught about it?”

Brittany has asked a great question, and this post was going to be the final installment of a three-part series responding to it. However, I’m now extending it to a fourth installment that will be published next Wednesday:

Part One appeared earlier this week and shared guest responses from several authors of books about classroom management and other education issues.

Part Two was composed of answers from other educators who I know and, in most cases, with whom I have worked.

Today, I’ll be sharing my own advice and thoughts from Katie Hull-Sypnieski, who is the best teacher I’ve ever seen.... By the way, Katie will be co-leading an Education Week Teacher Webinar titled “Making Differentiated Instruction Work for You” on February 1st. If you’re interested in the topic, I’d strongly encourage you to participate. I’m sure the Ed Week Teacher site will have registration details soon.

Next Wednesday, I’ll wrap-up this series with a selection of comments from readers and one or two special guests.

I’m going to “cheat” a bit and share two suggestions instead of the one Brittany requested. The first is to be positive, and the other is “don’t sweat the small stuff” (with a nod to the late Richard Carlson’s book of the same name).

Being Positive

There has been substantial research (reinforced by own personal experience) finding that promoting a positive classroom climate can have a major impact on learning and classroom management. Ways to make this happen include:

Relationships: Keeping Marvin Marshall’s advice in mind:

“Will what I am about to do or say bring me closer to the person with whom I am communicating--or will it push me further away?”

You can learn more about related research and practical suggestions on this topic at The Best Resources On The Importance Of Building Positive Relationships With Students.

Positive-Framing: Research has shown that “loss framed messages” (if you do this, then something bad will happen to you) really don’t have the “persuasive advantage” that they are thought to have. In fact, positive-framed messages (if you do this, all this good stuff will happen to you) are more effective.

I’ve had much better success talking with students about how changing their behavior will help them achieve their goals (passing a class, graduating from high school, going to college, etc.) than with threatening negative consequences (though, admittedly, in a few circumstances, that might work and I’ve used it).

Saying Yes: “Avoidant instruction” is the term used to describe the action of emphasizing what people cannot do -- “Don’t walk on the grass” and “Don’t chew gum.” Some researchers recommend that a more effective way to get the desired behavior is to instead emphasize what you want people to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do.

For example, if a student asks to go the restroom, but the timing is not right for the lesson, I try to respond, “Yes, you can. I just need you to wait a few minutes,” instead of just say, “No.” Or if a student is talking at an inappropriate time, instead of saying, “Be quiet!” I sometimes go over and say to him/her “I see you have a lot of energy today. We’ll be breaking into small groups later and you’ll have plenty of time to talk then. I’d appreciate your listening now.”

Saying “Please” and “Thank You”: Recent studies show that people are more likely to comply with a task (and do so more quickly) if asked to do so instead of being told. Calmly saying “Can you please sit down?” to a student may very well be more effective than “Sit down!”

Saying “Thank you” can provide immediate positive reinforcement to the student. Research shows that people who are thanked by authority figures are more likely to be cooperative, to feel more valued, and to have a greater sense of self-confidence because of that kind of recognition.

Here are even more resources on being positive in class.

“Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff”

The New York Times recently wrote about Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with Utah’s Mormons. He apparently made a deal to leave them alone and they left him alone. This is what he told a Mormon leader:

“When I was a boy on the farm in Illinois there was a great deal of timber on the farm which we had to clear away. Occasionally we would come to a log which had fallen down. It was too hard to split, too wet to burn, and too heavy to move, so we plowed around it.”

In other words, there are some battles not worth fighting.

I also think it’s also a good classroom management guide. We need to “keep our eyes on the prize” and not get sucked into distracting conflicts.

If a student keeps on forgetting to bring a pencil to class, I just give him one from a big box of golf pencils I buy at the beginning of each school year. If they don’t have paper, I have a stack. I’ve got bigger fish to fry, like helping them developing intrinsic motivation to read the first book in their lives and develop an appetite for learning.

Of course, we are only human. We all have bad days -- in fact, I just had one this week -- when we may not be feeling well or are distracted, and not show the kind of patience these suggestions require.

The issue, I think, is not whether we are positive and “don’t sweat the small stuff” all the time.

The question is “How do we operate most of the time?”

A quick and sincere “I’m sorry” can take care of the rest....

In addition to getting a class more focused on learning, I’ve found that I gain two other big benefits by following these suggestions (and the ones that are described by Katie) -- I get more energized by my teaching and I also feel better about myself...

Response From Katie Hull-Sypnieski

As I mentioned earlier, Katie is the best teacher I’ve ever seen. She and I have been classroom “neighbors” and often co-teachers for the past nine years. In addition, she and I are co-authoring The ESL Teacher’s Survival Guide, which will be published this summer. Look for an article in Ed Week Teacher soon on differentiated instruction that we are co-writing, and put her February 1st Webinar about the same topic on your calendar.

Effective classroom management for me starts with relationships. Building relationships with my students and their families lays the groundwork for future interactions to be positive. I rely on this foundation of trust and mutual respect throughout the school year as problems come up. Many times student behavior issues can be resolved simply through one-on-one dialogue. Taking time to quickly “check-in” with students throughout the week helps to build and maintain these kinds of positive teacher-student relationships.

Classroom management also means looking at myself and asking: “Am I modeling the behavior I expect from my students?” The longer I teach the more I realize the truth behind the phrase “the teacher sets the tone.” The look on my face, my body language, and my overall energy all have an effect on the classroom environment and on student behavior. Students can learn more when they feel safe and supported. I try to build this type of environment by creating routines, structures, and being consistent. When students know what to expect as they walk in the door, they can quickly engage in learning. When they know that I will greet them with a smile every morning no matter what and that they don’t need to worry about whether I’m in a bad mood or a good mood, they can focus on their learning and not on me.

Finally, if students are engaged in meaningful and challenging learning activities then many behavior issues can be prevented. Directly showing students how they can apply what they’re learning to their lives can increase motivation and decrease off-task behavior.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Katie for sharing her response!

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.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve -- including my own -- published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” in a week-and-a-half. The final installment of this classroom management series will be posted next Wednesday.

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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.