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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: The Biggest Classroom-Management Mistakes

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 12, 2019 15 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today, Theresa Staley, Judy Reinhartz, Lindsey Palmieri, and Louise Goldberg share their experiences and recommendations.

Response From Theresa Staley

Theresa Staley is a staff developer with Learning Sciences International. Her educational career began in 2001. She has held positions as a classroom teacher in elementary and middle school, as an intervention specialist, and worked at the district level. She is a relentless advocate for literacy and upholds an unyielding dedication to teachers and children. Follow Theresa on Twitter: @EdgyEducation; connect with her on LinkedIn: Theresa Staley:

The biggest classroom-management mistake I ever made was assuming I knew the meaning of culturally responsive teaching and how to execute instructional practices to support the pedagogy. This misconception impacted the climate in my classroom, which in turn, sacrificed my students’ achievement outcomes.

I was a seasoned middle school literacy teacher who didn’t know the first thing about the type of adversities the students in such regions faced, outside of the research I’d read and conversations that followed. I was well-studied, yet unknowing, inexperienced, and lacking a toolkit. I soon realized that I needed to know my students in order to grow my students—and that we learn as much from our students as they learn from us. Perhaps even more.

No handbook or college-preparatory course ever prepared me to effectively teach children from marginalized, impoverished areas more than experience quite like reflection did. When I was faced with the reality of the daily grief and obstacles that many children face, I peeled away the layers of what I thought I knew about poverty and displacement and began to dig more deeply to learn and ponder, taking in as much as I could so I could try to create an environment that allowed them to thrive, grow, embrace the idea of learning, and accept me as their guide. Change had to begin with me. I had to reflect and contemplate my own actions and behaviors to best serve my students and create a classroom where norms mirrored a shared set of values and were meaningful for all of us.

I knew I was a lifeline for my students, and the only caveat was my courage to accept “I didn’t know what I didn’t know” and to be willing to try, again and again, until I made the connections that allowed my students to learn from precisely where they were. Trust and authenticity were going to be the main resources for success, and investing in the traditions of my students and their community, building those grassroots relationships, was the syllabi of my crash course.

This was, undeniably, the most humbling (yet rewarding) mistake in my career.

Response From Judy Reinhartz

Dr. Judy Reinhartz’s career spans over five decades in K-16 education as an elementary and secondary teacher, educator of preservice and inservice K-12 teachers, administrator, director of the Centers for Research and Effective Teaching and Learning, academies, and institutes, and instructional and mentoring coach. She is the recipient of several awards, including the University of Texas at Arlington’s AMOCO Outstanding University Professor and the Crystal Apple, Kyle Killough, Ted Booker Memorial, Texas Society for College Teacher Educators, and the Texas Regional Collaboratives for outstanding contributions to teacher centers, teacher education preparation, and the promotion of excellence in teaching and learning:

To keep students “on task” was the mantra in the 1980s and ‘90s. It meant that they understood the information being presented and could work either independently or in small groups to complete an assignment with minimal confusion and frustration. This phrase has as much relevance today as it did then. Approaching classroom management (CM) from an instructional perspective moves it from trying to modify off-task student behavior to one of engaged teaching-learning.

For me, addressing CM begins with being organized, focused, attentive, and responsive to students and what they are learning and how. If educators do not have a clear daily teaching plan that leads to learning overtime, students give themselves permission to test their teachers and then to tune them out. CM issues can engender a culture of dysfunctionality and ultimately limited resultant student learning. Often, these situations play out in classrooms across districts, and teachers who find themselves in such predicaments continually spiral into emotional distress that may contribute to teacher burnout and ultimately driving them out of the profession. It does not have to be this way.

How do new or experienced teachers avoid CM pitfalls? The answer is not simple, and it takes knowing the warning signs. So, what are some warning signs?

1. Having a False Sense of Security. Going into class and thinking that we can bluff our way through teaching different subjects with diverse learners can yield disaster. Our inner voice makes us think that we are prepared; we have taught this topic before, or perhaps, if we have never taught it, it will all come together magically. Success in projects, jobs, or life rarely comes without a plan. The plan can be as simple as writing a list of topics along with ideas on how to present them. By taking time to consider what to teach, the information is more coherent and grade-level appropriate, sprinkling in high-impact strategies (HITS) such as: (1) setting clear student goals and expectations; (2) scaffolding learning; (3) engaging students with opportunities to play and create their own games, investigate their ideas through questioning, respond to concept cartoons, and build models; (4) implementing explicit teaching, including briefly lecturing to explain content; (5) working through examples; and (5) checking for understanding throughout the lesson using different active formative-assessment (AFA) measures. These strategies can only take place in a safe and responsive classroom environment in which students are encouraged to share ideas and listen to and learn from their peers as well as their teacher.

A sense of security greatly increases when we start with a plan. There will always be unforeseen challenges, but we are better prepared to address them. With a plan, decisionmaking is sharper and better informed as it relates to students, parents, and colleagues. Instructional plans scale back CM challenges. Let’s call it a rehearsal, becoming familiar with the script (content and strategies) before presenting it to others. It is during this rehearsal that we make crucial decisions: Is there too much information or not enough? Is there a level of student involvement for them to explore ideas and communicate them to us and others? Are there at least two different approaches to present the information? How will the students respond—is it too difficult, too easy?

Don’t underestimate the merits of instructional planning. It is the other side of the CM coin and offers a road map for avoiding many of phe pitfalls of disruptive classroom behavior.

2. Routinizing Teaching. Being consistent and developing routines for students often can pave the way for good teaching. But as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life. Changing up the routine during the lesson to engage students by posing a dilemma, viewing a picture or short video, reading a piece of prose or poem, singing a song, completing data tables, playing board and digital games, etc., is a must to keep students’ attention in our world of smartphones, tablets, and computers. By establishing various procedural routines, CM becomes a nonissue because we have the students’ attention and we have tapped into their natural curiosity as they become more involved and interested in what is being taught.

3. Not Checking for Student Understanding. To determine students’ levels of understanding while teaching is a challenge to say the least, but without this information, teaching becomes muddled. It is essential to find ways to assess if students “get” what is being taught. Gaining this information frequently can be obtained by: (1) observing students and taking note of who contributes, how often, what they say, questions they pose, and their use of academic vocabulary; (2) using KLEW or other concept maps and sticky-note exit questions; (3) assigning homework based on task complexity; and (4) reading notebook entries and writing assignments and providing ongoing targeted feedback.

These strategies offer insight into students’ different levels of learning. AFA is an integral part of a responsive classroom, going beyond comments such as, “good work, well done, needs more work,” etc. eviewing student work regularly provides a more complete picture of what students know and what they still need to know individually and collectively to reach and exceed grade-level performance expectations. This information should be known well in advance of weekly, monthly, and end-of-grading-period summative testing. Implementing formative assessments informs future instructional decisions and can lead to fewer CM issues because the focus is on teaching that supports successful student learning!

In classrooms where “good” and “effective” teaching practices occur and less attention is focused on CM, students tend to be more successful and earn higher scores on mandated tests. Good luck in considering the other side of the CM coin.

Response From Lindsey Palmieri

Lindsey Palmieri is a passionate and dedicated educator with more than 15 years of experience. She spent the first eight as a classroom teacher and the remainder as an instructional coach and professional learning specialist. She currently works for Scholastic as the consultant development and certification manager. Lindsey trains teams of literacy specialists who provide balanced literacy professional learning and coaching sessions in school districts all over the country:

Like most of you, I will never forget my first year as a classroom teacher. I had an extremely differentiated 1st grade class. Only about half of my students had attended kindergarten, a handful spoke very little English, a few were retained, and one lone student was reading well above grade level. To meet the needs of all these kiddos, I knew guided reading was my only answer. However, before I could even think about pulling students into small groups, I had to think about what the others would be doing while I met with 4-6 students at a time. Student independence was going to be key!

So I started creating literacy centers and stocking them full with activities so no student could say, “I’m bored.” I copied handouts, made each student a “center” folder, organized manipulatives, and printed out directions. To say I felt prepared was an understatement; I felt proud and confident. I went in early one Monday morning and set up each center. When it was time for guided reading, I walked around the room and explained each center to my students. I read the directions that I had so beautifully printed out and showed them where they could find each item they would need. When I finished, I assigned each student a center and called my small group of students to the kidney table. That’s when the chaos hit! No one had any idea what to do, and I wasn’t getting anything accomplished in my guided-reading group due to all the interruptions. I was so prepared—what went wrong?

As I grew frustrated with my students and reminded them to read the directions at each center, one student said, “But we don’t know how to read.”

I remember standing there feeling like a complete failure. How did I not remember that?! These kids are relying on me to teach them to read and, until I could do that, I had to figure out a better way to manage this class and set clear expectations. As nice as my typed directions looked, they simply were not going to do the trick.

I had to come up with another solution. Since I was a rookie teacher, I relied on advice from my colleagues. What I learned was that students need routine and explicit instruction. Instead of typing out directions and quickly explaining my expectations, I decided to model the desired behavior and allow my students to practice. I took a step back and made the decision to move gradually toward student independence. Introducing one center at a time gave me the opportunity to thoroughly describe each, model expectations through mini-lessons, and monitor student practice. Week after week, I would add a center until eventually all six were incorporated. I didn’t pull any small groups until that last week, which gave me the chance to provide immediate feedback and observe student behavior. As a class, we would discuss my observations and collaborate on a solution when needed. Eventually, it all fell into place, and things started running like a well-oiled machine.

Experts like Jan Richardson recommend the first six weeks be used to “gradually release the responsibility from the teacher to the students and to teach classroom routines and procedures.” (The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading, 2016) It’s definitely a lot of heavy lifting in those first crucial weeks of school but so worth it in the long run.

Response From Louise Goldberg

Louise Goldberg is the author of Classroom Yoga Breaks (2017) and Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs (2013). She has taught English at the middle school, high school, and college levels. She leads trainings internationally on yoga education. Find her at https://www.louisegoldberg.com:

I started my career teaching high school English, which I loved. I treated my students respectfully, and most responded in kind. We engaged in logical problem solving for class management. My enthusiasm for literature won most of my students’ attention.

Because of budget cuts, I was unexpectedly transferred from high school to middle. I was overwhelmed. None of the behavior management tools that I had previously relied upon worked with middle schoolers. They giggled when I suggested discussing behavior problems. They ignored me when I spoke to them courteously. They lost interest within seconds of the logical explanations that I had crafted with such care. They carved rude words about me into their desks and whispered loud insults behind my back. When I attempted to confront them, they ducked their heads and pretended they couldn’t see me. The volume of noise in my room grew and grew until even I could no longer hear my own voice.

In desperation, I began trying to outshout my students. I yelled and screamed at them not to yell and scream. As my volume escalated, so did theirs. And I was no match for their capacity for noise.

I couldn’t sleep or eat. I awoke every morning feeling sick and wondered how I would get through the day. I thought a lot about quitting.

With little to lose, I remembered an unlikely strategy employed by my favorite high school English teacher: When the students get loud, you get soft. The noisier they became, the more quietly I spoke. I refused to engage in their taunting and acknowledged only those students who raised their hands and spoke with civility. The others became invisible to me. I had a few students who seemed interested in learning and I catered to them, leaning in so that only those who really listened could hear. I stopped feeling angry and scared. For as long as I was there, I might make a difference in one or two students’ lives. That was enough for me.

As you might expect, once I stopped reacting to their behavior, there was far less incentive for them to provoke me. Instead, they saw a calm and steady presence who was offering something that might be useful. Some started to listen. And I made certain that what I shared was interesting and relevant. If they missed something important because they were talking or goofing around, that was on them.

As I gave them more responsibility for their educational experience, the students made better choices. They opened their minds. Although they were trapped in these awkward bodies, I had discovered kids who needed a model, not a reflection. And so I stayed.

Thanks to Theresa, Judy, Lindsey, and Louise 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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Look for Part Three in a few days.

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