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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Start Classroom Management From a Place of Love, Not a Place of Power’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 11, 2019 17 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

We teachers make lots of mistakes, and it’s not unusual for us to make them in the area of classroom management. This three-part series will explore what some of those mistakes might be, and what we can do, instead.

Part One’s guests are 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.

You might also be interested to see previous columns that have appeared here on Classroom Management Advice.

Response From Anne Jenks

Anne Jenks is an educator with 26 years experience in teaching and school administration. She was the 2015 CUE Site Leader of the Year and the 2013 ACSA Region 13 Elementary School Principal of the Year. Currently, she is working as a consultant with an emphasis on ed-tech integration and STEM:

I started my student-teaching in November of 1989. My supervising teacher was amazing. She had been my son’s teacher, and I loved the way she taught and managed her classroom. One of the things that I loved most was that she had the students arranged in “pods” with desks grouped together. This facilitated cooperative learning, where students worked in groups on most assignments. It was a breath of fresh air after my personal experience in school that entailed rows of desks with students working alone in silence, only speaking when the teacher called on them.

When I got my own class, I was determined to follow the lead of my mentor. I was assigned a 6th grade class with about 30 students. I spent the days before school decorating my classroom and arranging the desks in groups. When the students arrived, I told them to choose where they wanted to sit; they were delighted. This was a notoriously challenging class, but, of course, I was unaware being new to the school. Since my student-teaching had started in November, I never got to see the careful planning that preceded forming the groups and innocently thought that the cooperation that I observed was just a result of the floor plan. I also didn’t realize the preparation that went into having students work well cooperatively.

Needless to say, it was a disaster. Many of the students did work cooperatively, but not on assignments. They had their own agenda, and it did not include paying attention to the new teacher who was obviously overwhelmed. I was saved by an aide that came into the classroom to work with a special education student. She took me aside and very kindly told me that although my ideas were very creative, that wasn’t what this particular group needed. She said, “They needed structure.”

I went back to square one and rearranged the classroom. By this time, I knew my students and could make informed decisions about who should be sitting next to whom to insure better behavioral and educational outcomes. I did revert to sitting them in rows, but I had them work in groups (that I created) when they did project-based learning. I also spent time teaching them how to work together cooperatively. In the end, it was a successful year for them and for me.

Experience is the best teacher. I learned so much about classroom management that first year and was able to use what I had learned throughout my career. I found that preparation and structure do not detract from the spontaneity and love of learning that I had observed in my mentor teacher’s classroom; they enhance it.

Response From Peg Grafwallner

Peg Grafwallner, M.Ed., is an Instructional coach/reading specialist at a large urban school in Milwaukee. Currently, Peg models, coaches, and assists teachers in creating comprehensive literacy lessons meant to enhance skill-building; in addition to providing instructional support to teachers districtwide. Peg is a blogger, author, and national presenter with articles appearing in ASCD, Edutopia, Exceptional Parent, Literacy Daily, Literacy and NCTE, WSRA Journal, and the Illinois Reading Journal; she can be reached at peggrafwallner@gmail.com or at https://peggrafwallner.com:

In 1993, I began student-teaching. I was very excited and hardly nervous at all. I was eager to put all of my learning into practice. I met the cooperating teacher and immediately realized that she and I were quite different. She was rigid; extremely professional and focused.

She asked that I observe her for a while and take notes. I observed for nearly five or six weeks until it was my turn. I tried repeating exactly what she said word for word. I tried to follow her plans exactly, but without putting my stamp on them, without “owning” them, I couldn’t teach her lesson plans with integrity or fidelity.

There was no curriculum to follow since the “book” was a series of handouts that she had gathered over time. When I did write my own lesson plans, they didn’t follow her vision for that particular lesson. As a result, I failed miserably.

After every lesson, she and I would reflect on my teaching. She would always begin the conversation by asking me how I felt the lesson went. Every day I grew more and more discouraged. Every day I began to second guess myself. My self-confidence soon began to wane. This wasn’t fun anymore, and I wasn’t excited anymore.

I wanted the students to like me and be my friends. I tried to create a classroom where we were a community, not necessarily realizing that structure needs to be implemented before community.

I tried so hard that one afternoon I knew we had lost any semblance of learning. I was teaching a vocabulary lesson solo; the cooperating teacher was in her office next door grading papers. She must have heard the noise. Several students were eating, a couple of paper airplanes flew over my head, and a few students were wandering around the room.

At that moment, the door opened, and the cooperating teacher walked in. She took one look around the room and in a very controlled tone, said: “Mrs. Grafwallner, I will take over. You can leave.” I sheepishly walked out of the room, wanting to hide in shame and embarrassment.

Soon I panicked about becoming a teacher, thinking I had made the biggest mistake of my career. Thankfully, my college supervisor encouraged me to stay in the field. While I don’t remember exactly what she said, she made me realize that this was part of the learning. I was so consumed by wanting to do a good job, the art of teaching, I had forgotten the pedagogy, the science of teaching.

As I look back on that experience nearly 25 years later, I realize what a vital lesson I learned. While I might have considered the cooperating teacher to be “rigid, extremely professional, and focused,” those qualities are necessary when creating a classroom community. She had structures and routines in place that worked for her students and expectations that were transparent and attainable.

However, while the design of the classroom community is paramount to learning, how we craft that “academic family” is up to us. As an instructional coach, I encourage teachers to offer choice within structure; to create opportunities of process, and finally, to give students meaningful ways to demonstrate their learning.

Our students need teacher-leaders, ones who are professional and focused. Be the teacher-leader who creates a structured classroom of choice, opportunity, and meaning. That’s how you become a teacher-friend.

Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher from Wenatchee, Wash., and an ASCD Emerging Leader:

As a new teacher, I made the mistake of looking at students’ weaknesses as something to be “fixed.” You see, I had a perception of the model student and felt it my job to make every child reflect that perception. Unintentionally, it led me to label kids. My beginning years were filled with thoughts beginning with, “He is so” or “She is too.”

Fortunately, I found there was something good in every “weakness” if you find the right perspective. In addition, I discovered that accomodations can be made in the classroom to not only minimize the effects of the weakness on the learning environment but also to also leverage it as a strength.

Here are a few things I once tried to fix and how I now embrace them:

Strong-willed: I used to label strong-willed students as “argumentative,” and although I believe there is no excuse for disrespect toward adults, I found I could teach the difference between arguing and respectfully disagreeing. Before, my goal would be to eliminate all arguing, but then I realized that kids simply need to be taught how to disagree respectfully. You see, while arguing can disrupt a lesson, it is also a critical life skill. The truth is, we need kids who feel deeply about issues and advocate for themselves and others. Instead of “fixing” strong-minded students, I found I could teach them to voice their opinion in a way that would serve them throughout their lives.

Active: For a short time, I thought all kids needed to learn to sit still and listen in order to be successful in life. Feeling ashamed at the time and energy I spent trying to achieve this goal, I, like many other teachers, learned that by changing the environment I could eliminate the perceived weakness. In short, I learned to focus on students’ learning rather than their most comfortable and productive body position. I also learned that active students brought life to the classroom and helped me improve my teaching by encouraging me to talk less and increase student participation, talk, and movement.

Talkative: Students who best express themselves orally can frustrate teachers to no end. While it is our duty to teach these students self-regulation strategies, we can also find ways to use their strengths by including more table talk and classroom discourse. Similarly, while some students shine through written demonstration of their learning, others best show what they know orally. Sometimes, a short conference with a student can reveal more understanding than we could have very imagined.

While it is certainly part of our job as teachers to help kids improve in areas where they are weak, it is also so much more than that. We also need to keep in mind that, especially in their younger years, these children are not who they will always be. They will continue to develop. In the meantime, we are charged with honoring who they are and helping them shine. In the end, I realized that by accommodating students, I not only helped them as individuals, I helped everyone.

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 kindergarten 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:

Jaden wouldn’t sit down. I asked him to “sit in the red square,” and he didn’t. I asked him again, in a firm voice, giving him my toughest teacher look, but he still didn’t sit down. I stood and said, “Jaden, I asked you to sit down,;do that right now, please.” To which Jaden responded, “No!” while jumping up and down. I took a deep breath and said, “Jaden, if you don’t sit down, we won’t be able to have a story. You want to hear a story, don’t you?” Again, Jaden said, “No!” This time a little louder, jumping up and down a little higher and adding a sly giggle.

I am a strong classroom manager, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. Take what happened with Jaden, for example. I wanted him to know that I was the boss and that he had to mind me. Jaden, had other notions of power. So, we went several rounds. When Jaden didn’t fold to my will, I decided that he must! My mistake? I struggled for power, always a losing game. Not my proudest moment. Did I mention that Jaden is 4 years old and that I am 49? I should have known better.

So, as Jaden danced, I fumed. The rest of the 4-year-olds on the rug looked at me big-eyed and round-mouthed wondering what I was going to do. I wondered, too. In fact, I froze for a moment and then, thankfully, my better angels and the balance of my experience kicked in and I changed tactics. I smiled at Jaden, sat down, said hello to the other children, and opened a book and started to read. As soon as I did, Jaden, sat to listen. Power struggle over. We both won.

Years ago, I read a book that was seminal to my development as a teacher.,Cooperative Discipline by Linda Albert. In it, Albert calls on teachers to build strong classroom communities characterized by shared trust, accountability, and meaningful differentiated-academic goals and work. She also defines four common “goals of behavior” or reasons that students misbehave, how to spot them, and what to do in response. The idea being that once a teacher identifies the goal of the behavior, s/he can give the student what s/he needs before the student resorts to misbehavior. In other words, proactive classroom management is always better than reactive discipline. Use the chart below and the interactive PBIS World website to help you be proactive.

So, what did I learn from my experience with Jaden? That power struggles are not helpful. That I need to stay calm, remember my training, and look for the function of the behavior. Then, to start any classroom management and student discipline from a place of love, not a place of power.

Response From Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas, Ph.D., is a regional technology coordinator in Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland. She is also a Google Certified Innovator, Google Education Trainer, and the founder of the EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest. She is also a national adviser for the Future Ready Instructional Coaches Strand and an affiliate professor at Loyola University in Baltimore:

I have made quite a few classroom-management mistakes in my day, but perhaps one of the biggest was a doozy. I’ve always been big on student voice, from the beginning (which I still stand by). However, one day, I asked students for feedback in a whole-group setting, and it did not go as I expected. It started out well enough, but turned into a gripe session. I was not ready for this outcome, and after a while, my neutral exterior cracked, and I became extremely upset.

From that experience, I learned several things. First, don’t ask the question if you’re not ready for the answer. econd, energy attracts energy, for better, or for worse. Therefore, I decided to ask for feedback on a Google Form. These forms were not anonymous, but my students and I had built a culture of trust where they knew they could come to me with any suggestions or concerns. After they filled out the form, I was able to follow up with individual students if I needed more information.

Response From Thomas Kerman & Paula Kondratko

Thomas Kerman and Paula Kondratko are teachers on special assignment in the Hesperia Unified school district in Hesperia, Calif. They are members of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

Regardless of grade level, a common mistake most of us has made is making assumptions about students and then behaving or reacting as though those assumptions were true. You may view a student’s apparent lack of effort as “unmotivated” or an attitude of uncaring, but often there are things in play about which you are completely unaware. Our background ranges from kindergarten to middle school, and the mistake is the same. Often we assume things about our students only to find out later that, had we known more, we would have handled a situation differently.

Tom - My experience comes from when I began teaching middle school in Southern California. I had previously taught elementary school in Detroit for six years. I was not familiar with my new students or their cultures. I was attempting to communicate with Spanish-only speaking parents. I turned to a Latina student and asked for her help. She replied, “I don’t speak Spanish.” At that point, I realized my own unconscious bias had affected my judgment and interactions with my students. It may seem like a minor assumption, but it relates to all interactions with our students.

Paula- As a reading-intervention teacher, I sent home daily homework to support what we had worked on that day. One child returned his folder unopened every day and seemed tired during our lessons. At first, I would admonish him for not completing his homework. I assumed that he was choosing not to complete the work. Eventually, I tried a different approach. In our conversation, I learned that he wanted to complete the work, and his outside-of-school circumstances affected his opportunities to do so. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his mother and older brothers. All the boys slept in the living room ,and he slept on the floor. The older boys watched TV late into the evening, and he was neither able to do his homework nor sleep. At that point ,I realized that my assumptions were wrong. Admonishing this student for not completing homework was counterproductive.

A failure to seek to understand and build a relationship creates an adversarial relationship instead of a collaborative relationship. It is important to seek understanding of students by learning about their family histories, home life, and other interests. Based on the information you gather about them, you can make a more personal connection and raise the level of mutual trust. This in turn significantly reduces management issues and enhances student learning. It takes time to gather this information. It must be done subtly and be genuine. It takes time to develop techniques and strategies for listening to understand your students.

Informal conversations on the playground or during other opportune times are moments where we can ask students about their lives outside the classroom. By seeking to understand our students better, we can come to know and appreciate the sources of strength, funds of knowledge, and character that they bring with them to the classroom and upon which we can better support their growth and development. Building positive relationships with our students is the first step to understanding challenges they may be facing. It is also important to recognize that our students may not share their circumstances for a variety of reasons no matter how hard we work on developing a trusting relationship with them. Rather than holding students accountable for things that may be out of their control, we need to focus on creating learning environments within the classroom where we provide students with the tools and opportunities to be successful.

A successful classroom-management system is reasonable and takes into account that our students are diverse, and we may not know all the factors that affect their behavior.

Thanks to Anne, Peg, Kevin, Rita, Sarah, Thomas, and Paula 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 contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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.