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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: Manage Classrooms Through ‘Positive Relationships’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 19, 2016 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question is:

What are your suggestions for effective classroom management strategies?

What teacher doesn’t - at one point or another - face a classroom management challenge (or many of them)? How can we respond to those challenges in a positive way that teaches and builds relationships, and that isn’t counter-productive?

This column has addressed this issue pretty regularly over the years, and you can see multiple responses in this collection of previous Classroom Management posts.

I’ve also created a separate resource at The Best Posts On Classroom Management.

I don’t think teachers can ever have too many potential classroom management strategies in their backpocket, though, so today and later this week I’ll be sharing a few more suggestions from educators.

Today, Karen Baptiste, Gianna Cassetta, Harry Wong, Rosemary Wong, and Julia Thompson are guest contributors. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Karen and Gianna on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Karen Baptiste

Karen Baptiste is currently an Associate at the Center for Transformative Teacher Training. She is a life-long educator who started her career in the NYC Department of Education and is known for high-energy professional development at national conferences on brain-based learning and Universal Design for Learning. Karen currently serves on the Legislative Committee for nationwide educational policies and initiatives. She was identified as a worldwide educational Emerging Leader, ASCD, class of 2013:

During my tenure as a special education teacher and district coach in New York City and a supervisor of coaching in Broward County, I witnessed classroom management take many forms. I observed teachers with big, loud personalities using humor and banter to effectively manage their classrooms. Quiet, sometimes serious teachers I worked with were just as effective, even though the tone of the classroom was markedly different.

Despite the wide variety of classroom environments that I’ve worked in, there are some common attributes that effective teachers share when it comes to classroom management. These include:

  • Setting high expectations: Teachers that set high expectations for all students have also signaled a commitment to helping students achieve them. My whole career, including my current position, centers on the needs of traditionally disenfranchised youth. Too often, educators and the adults who care about them rationalize low expectations for students in urban communities. By aiming high and following through with support, students are going to respond accordingly.

  • Giving clear and precise directions: Students respond best when they know exactly what’s expected of them. That means we have to be clear in what we’re asking of students and what the outcomes should be. Reflecting on my own practice, the times that my students struggled the most tended to pair up with the times I struggled to give them clear directions. Acknowledging that I erroneously guided students allowed me to be transparent with my faults and create new learning opportunities for my students that included explicit and precise directions that set them up for success.

  • Strategically utilizing praise: Teachers gain credibility with students when their praise is genuine and relevant. Effective classroom managers respect students enough to avoid overusing praise for actions in the classroom that are simply the minimum requirements for learning. Sitting down when the bell rings, for example, is not necessarily a praise-worthy activity. Instead, teachers can narrate (acknowledge) students who are sitting down when the bell rings. This will show students that the teacher is noticing student behavior and acknowledges when students are following the expectations. That being said, a student demonstrating grit, resilience, perseverance, and sustained work habits are worthy of specific, sincere praise. By strategically using praise we help reinforce expectations and set the tone for what a strong learning environment looks like.

  • Engaging outside instruction: Being a teacher of students who demonstrate special needs, I didn’t always have the time or opportunity I would’ve liked to engage with my kids outside instruction. But as I grew more comfortable over the years, it became increasingly important that I find ways to build relationships and make connections with students during non-instructional time. This allowed students to form a more complete picture of who I am as a person and it gave me the opportunity to identify how I can better relate to my students. The kids I worked with became great educators in their own right, by teaching me how to serve them best.

Effective classroom management finds its roots in the relationships teachers have with their students. In our work at the Center for Transformative Teacher Training (CTTT), we emphasize the goal of helping teachers form life-altering relationships with youth by becoming a No-Nonsense Nurturer. To that end, we use a model that combines elements of nurturing with setting clear expectations for high achievement.

The above strategies are just a few that allow teachers to practice the art of teaching in their own unique ways. I was using many of these same tactics during my time as a teacher (and yes, I was one of the big personalities I referred to earlier). And, I helped develop these same strategies for others while working as a coach, so I know these things work.

But what I also know is that a teacher can’t do it alone. Effective management inside the classroom relies on effective school culture outside the classroom. Schools that use a common language, for instance, to set high expectations for all students are more likely to see their individual classrooms succeed as well.

Like I’ve tried to model in this article, it’s important that teachers reflect on their practice. Through individual reflection and also through coaching, great educators are committed to constantly improving their practice. That was the kind of teacher I tried to be. As a coach whose practice revolves around classroom management, those are the kinds of teachers I’m proud to serve.

Response From Gianna Cassetta

Gianna Cassetta is an experienced teacher, school leader and consultant. She is coauthor of Classroom Management Matters: The Social Emotional Learning Approach Children Deserve. Gianna is also coauthor of No More Taking Away Recess and Other Problematic Discipline Practices, part of the Not This, But That series published by Heinemann:

This isn’t new insight, but it’s not emphasized enough. Teachers need to establish positive relationships with students in order to manage classrooms effectively. Through trusting relationships with adults-ones characterized by teachers and children enjoying being together, teachers knowing children well, providing assistance (emotionally and instructionally) when needed, and displaying a warm and responsive demeanor to students-- children learn that others can be responsive to their needs. Trusting relationships allow for achievable and safe learning experiences where children practice communicating, facing challenges, and experiencing and regulating emotions. Positive, supportive relationships with children helps them develop socially and emotionally and you to effectively manage your classroom. Children spend an average of 35 hours a week, 10 months out of the year, with school based adults--so positive relationships with teachers and school staff are critical for healthy development.

The closeness of a relationship is not only defined by what we know about each other, but also by how we respond to one another.

Examine the Teacher-Student Relationship: Evaluate How You Interact

Identify whether each of the following statements accurately describes your interaction with a challenging student:

• When redirected, this student adjusts behavior and moves on.
• I know where I stand with this student-our interactions are generally positive, predictable and consistent.
• The student shares personal updates and feelings with me without much prompting.
• I share laughs with this student.
• This student seeks help from me when necessary.
• I enjoy my interactions with this student.
• I can easily name several positive qualities about this student.

How to Build More Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

If you disagreed with any of these statements while considering a particular student, it might be time to put time into building a more positive relationship.

A positive relationship does not mean an easy one. If you think about any positive long-term relationship you have had -- with a sibling, a teacher, a parent, a friend, a coworker, or a partner - you can identify unavoidable difficulties. What defines the quality of the relationship isn’t just your ability to get along, but your commitment to figuring things out when you don’t. When a student knows that you still see her value even when she doesn’t hand in her research project, that student is more likely to come to you and figure out how she can complete her work even though she is overwhelmed. When a student believes you know he’s more than the bad decision that made him shove another child off the monkey bars, he is more receptive to taking responsibility for his behavior even though he can’t yet imagine how to behave differently. Positive relationships remind us that we don’t have to be perfect-they act as a bridge that helps us over difficulty.

Response From Harry & Rosemary Wong

Harry K. Wong is coauthor with Rosemary T. Wong of The First Days of School and THE Classroom Management Book:

Effective teachers MANAGE their classrooms, whereas ineffective teachers DISCIPLINE their classrooms.

I have a friend who recently divorced. She said, “I knew it would not last” and because she knew it would not last, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is what happens when a person believes something to be true, even if it is not.

Classroom management is the most misused term in education. So many teachers have the mistaken belief that classroom management has to do with discipline, so every day is a self-fulfilling prophecy of going into battle with the students as that is the expectation. This is not necessarily the teacher’s fault because classroom management as discipline is what is taught in many education classes and what is read in the literature.

Classroom management has nothing to do with discipline. It has to do with managing or organizing a classroom so the students will learn and succeed. You manage a store; you do not discipline a store. You manage a team; you do not discipline a team. You manage or organize a store so the customers will buy. You manage a team so the players will win. And you manage a classroom so the students will learn. Classroom management has to do with organizing a classroom for students to learn.

In our book, The First Days of School, we say,” Classroom management refers to all the things a teacher does to organize students, space, time, and materials so learning can take place.” Classroom management is a means of organizing, structuring, and planning events to get things DONE in the classroom that will lead to student learning.

A well-managed classroom has a set of procedures and routines that structure the classroom so that the myriad of activities that take place function smoothly and stress free. Students thrive in organized environments with routines and consistency. Posting the daily agenda allows both the teacher and the students to refer to it throughout the day. This keeps things on task for everyone.

Nothing will send kids into orbit faster than letting them suspect that their teacher is disorganized. The most important thing a teacher can provide in the classroom is CONSISTENCY. The basis of classroom management lies in the procedures that form a management plan to consistently produce the successful achievement of learning goals. Watch the students in a well-managed classroom. They are responsible because they know the procedures and routines that structure the class and keep it organized. They are working; they are producing; they are learning and achieving in a consistent classroom. As a student said, “I like coming to this school because everyone knows what to do. As a result, no one is yelling and screaming at us, and we can get on with learning.”

A well-managed classroom is perhaps even more important to students than to teachers because it gives them a sense of security. In a consistent classroom, students know from day to day how the classroom is structured and organized. If they break a pencil point, they know what to do. They know how to enter a classroom and begin to work immediately, how to take lecture notes, read a text book, do homework, work in a group, and all the myriad of things that take place in a classroom. If the teacher is absent, they can tell the substitute teacher what are the classroom procedures.

Chelonnda Seroyer, a high school English teacher in Atlanta, says, “My students enjoy having a predictable classroom. They feel safe because they know what to expect each day. They like consistency in a world that can be very inconsistent.”

Amanda Brooks, a teacher in Dyersburg, Tennessee said after her first year of teaching, “I simply taught and enjoyed my students.” She succeeded because she learned how to organize and manage her classroom.

The authority on classroom management is Carolyn Evertson of Vanderbilt University. She has written two books on classroom management, “Classroom Management for Elementary Teachers” (9th ed.) and “Classroom Management for Middle and High School Teachers” (9th ed.), and has authored more than 100 book chapters, journal articles, monographs, and reports. There are more than 1,200 citations to her work. She says, “The foundation of good classroom management is the development of an orderly and productive classroom environment.” The key word is productive. Classrooms are organized to produce learning, not to discipline.

Effective teachers have a classroom management plan in a binder or folder and the plan builds and builds each year as the teacher becomes more and more effective. In our book, THE Classroom Management Book, we teach teachers how to create a classroom management plan, starting before the first day of school to the last day of school.

We teach teachers how to be proactive and not reactive. The reactive teachers have no plan and when a problem occurs, they react from one problem to another. The proactive teacher has a classroom management plan and it is this plan that organizes the classroom for learning and success.

Students want a plan too. It is extremely important to realize that many students come from disorganized, unstructured home environments, where chaos abounds. Neglected children crave structure and guidance. Give them a well-managed, organized classroom with clear daily practices and procedures, and they will respond positively.

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is a teacher, consultant, and best-selling author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide. Thompson maintains a Web site for educators and a blog, and can found on Twitter at @TeacherAdvice:

At the start of every school year, one of the most important rituals that I have is to print out a list of strategies that will help me manage my classroom effectively. I keep this list handy--under my desk blotter and in my teacher binder--so that I can refer to it daily to remind me of what I need to do to make sure that my students and I can work together well all year.

In the early days of my career, the list was longer than it is now and much too specific. As I gained experience and confidence as a teacher, I have been able to keep this list to a minimum of just a few key principles that I use to guide my interactions with students. Here is the list I am using this year to remind myself of the type of classroom experience I want my students to have.

  • Create a true and meaningful relationship with every student and make sure it stays viable all year long. It’s up to me to create that bond.

  • Be as fair as possible to as many students as possible as often as possible.

  • Establish firm and fair boundaries and then take the time to teach them to students. When students have a framework for positive behavior, then they can proceed with confidence because they know what’s expected of them.

  • Strive to be consistent. This will prevent confusion and power struggles.

  • Create a positive self-fulfilling prophecy for my classes. Honor all students with high expectations. Make it a priority to help everyone rise to meet those expectations.

  • Protect my students’ dignity. Prevent as much misbehavior as I can so that our interactions can remain positive. Think about the long-term effects of my words and actions when redirecting students.

  • Always look beyond the behavior to understand the student. Misbehavior rarely happens suddenly and never without a cause. Focus on the student and not just on the misbehavior.

  • An engaging lesson plan is the best discipline plan.

  • Be deliberate in the choices that I make. Think before I act. Don’t just react to problem. Resolve it.

  • Positive beats negative all day long. Take time to acknowledge successes and celebrate with students.

Thanks to Karen, Gianna, Harry, Rosemary and Julia 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.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook 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.