Teaching Opinion

Responses: Managing Classrooms by ‘Teaching Students, Not Subjects’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 21, 2015 10 min read
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(This post is Part Two in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

What are your suggestions for effective classroom management strategies?

Part One in this series shared responses from Bryan Harris, Marcia Imbeau, Pernille Ripp, Gianna Cassetta, Brook Sawyer and Julia Thompson. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Bryan and Pernille on my BAM! Radio Show. I also shared related resources at Classroom Management Advice and The Best Posts On Classroom Management.

Today, my guests are Kelly Bergman, Patty O’Grady, ReLeah Lent, Barry Gilmore, and Bethany Bernasconi.

Look for guest responses from Dr. Debbie Silver, Suzie Boss, Richard L. Curwin, Marcia L. Tate, and Dr. Jane Bluestein in the final two posts in this series - not to mention comments from readers!

Response From Kelly Bergman

Kelly Bergman is an expert at classroom organization and management. She helps educators simplify the teaching process in order to meet high accountability standards and still enjoy this incredible profession. Kelly is the author of two Scholastic publications: a book called Quick Tips: Making the First Six Weeks a Success and professional development DVD entitled 4 Keys to Successful Classroom Management:

In my 23 years as a teacher, administrator, and consultant, the question I’ve been asked most often is how I manage student misbehavior. People sometimes get frustrated when I don’t directly answer the question, but instead ask questions about the classroom environment. I believe that 99% of misbehavior can be prevented. Here are a few tips to consider:

Organize your classroom. How do you organize your materials? Can you easily find things you’re looking for? An organized classroom creates a calm environment for students.

Stand at the door and greet students each morning. Having students enter the classroom in a calm manner ensures a peaceful start to the day. Playing classical music adds another calm element during arrival.

Teach your students to transition between subjects. Human brains need ways to transition from one activity to the next. Ideally, these transitions allow movement to keep blood pumping. Remember that you need to teach your students how to transition and practice the activities. Practicing at the beginning of the year will cause the activities to go smoothly for the rest of the year.

Be sure that your instruction engages students. If you tend to do most of the talking in the classroom or primarily use worksheets, seek out colleagues who don’t and observe in their classrooms. How do they engage students in activities and conversations? There are also many resources that discuss active engagement strategies.

Know your students. The more you know about your students, the better you can support them. Once you establish an organized and structured classroom, you have prevented the majority of misbehavior. For the few students who may misbehave, dig deeper to see if you can determine what’s causing the issue and how you can best respond. Justin learned differently than the average student and got easily overwhelmed. When he got overwhelmed, he couldn’t express himself and made poor choices. Justin and I worked together for him to carry a notecard that said, “I need a break”. We practiced the system where he could hand the card to me, walk to the office, cool down, and come back to class. When Justin returned to class, I worked with him to help him with the learning. Everyone involved knew the routine and it worked really well for Justin. Sometimes we have to spend a few extra minutes to support those students who misbehave for reasons we might not understand.

Response From Patty O’Grady

Patty O’Grady’s work in the field of education and psychology spans 30 years and has included classroom teaching in both K-12 general and special education, as well as higher education, where she is currently on the faculty at the University of Tampa. She writes a blog about positive psychology in education for Psychology Today; she is also the author of numerous articles and a popular trainer and presenter. She earned her PhD in education and psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park. She is author of Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom (W. W. Norton; 2013):

To begin, teachers might reframe classroom management strategies as student motivation strategies. This is more than a semantic distinction because using the language student motivation strategies helps teachers focus the conversation on the student.

Teachers can intrinsically motivate learners using neuroscience motivational principles, understanding that cognitive and emotional learning cannot be separated and must be skillfully blended.

Emotional learning identifies and activates the signature strengths and interests needed to create the relationships and find the purpose that predicts accomplishment. When cognitive activity and academic tasks are connected to student emotions, learning flows.

The most important student motivation strategy is to create flow in the classroom. How does the teacher create flow when there are so many constraints in education that hinder the flow of learning? I offer a few suggestions based on the promise of positive psychology, and perhaps you can add some of your favorites, too:

1. Infuse every academic subject and lesson with emotional learning as a priority. Connect every subject to students’ emotional processing and responses. Identify emotional themes in the content or the strengths needed for successful execution of the task. Every lesson plan should include: cognitive, academic, and emotional learning objectives. (Positive Emotional Strength)

2. Use emotionality to leverage momentum, facilitate it, and don’t interrupt it. A student’s absorption in an academic task occurs most often because a positive emotional interest in the task is generated or he is working with others with whom he has a positive emotional connection. Every lesson plan should facilitate relationships and help the student glean the usefulness of the task for himself. (Positive Relationships and Meaning)

3. Provide differentiated choices so the student is able to showcase what is of emotional value to her in the academic task. Differentiated choices ensure that a sense of personal accomplishment is fostered, acknowledged, and validated as a part of the lesson. Students should demonstrate, record, and catalog personal accomplishments. Every lesson plan should include a means of exhibiting or sharing the learning. (Positive Accomplishment)

Students who are in a state of flow are attentive, productive, and engrossed in the task. When a teacher stimulates flow, learning escapes its boundaries and sets the imagination free.

Response From ReLeah Lent and Barry Gilmore

ReLeah Lent was a secondary teacher before becoming a founding member of a statewide literacy project at the University of Central Florida. Barry Gilmore is the Middle School Head at Hutchison School in Memphis, Tennessee. They are the authors of Common Core CPR (Corwin, 2013):

Classroom management hinges on three important aspects: teacher-student relationships, student engagement, and teacher awareness of high-need students. Notice that we avoid the word discipline. That’s because, in the long run, a classroom characterized only by strictness and punishment may be orderly, but won’t induce deeper learning. A classroom managed positively, on the other hand, is one that includes clear and appropriate expectations, consequences, and reactions to success and in which students feel their teacher cares about them (not necessarily that he or she is their friend, but that he or she cares).

First and foremost, therefore, we recommend taking a personal interest in students. Use their names, ask about their interests, greet them as they come in the door, and engage them in dialogue. Second, make the classroom a shared community. Giving autonomy to students does not equate to giving up control, and every teacher should express appropriate authority. But students who have some say in what goes on a bulletin board, who feel they are listened to when they present ideas, or who feel that discussions are equitable and meaningful are more likely to stay engaged and care about their own learning.

Of course, students do misbehave and make poor decisions. When this happens, responses should be appropriate and consistent. There is no magic pill for keeping students from acting out--and when acting out turns to aggression or what seems to be unmanageable behavior, supportive administrators become invaluable. However, even the most severe consequences can be communicated with a message of support. Not all students--or parents--will hear this message easily, but it matters that we deliver it. If we have worked to make the classroom an engaging and equitable environment, our messages of support are more likely to have an effect.

As for specific strategies, try these. Be specific with praise, avoiding phrases like “good job” in favor of specific acknowledgements of how work was done. Keep track, at least mentally, of students who participate or garner praise and be equitable with your goodwill. Stress your classroom values, using specific words such as community, kind, and learning. Set limits, explain consequences, and keep your cool. Follow routines. Avoid classroom rules you’re not willing to enforce. And, above all, show students you care about their learning and help them want to learn.

Response From Bethany Bernasconi

Bethany Bernasconi is Dean of Science and Engineering at Windham High School in New Hampshire.She is a class of 2013 ASCD Emerging Leader:

When I was studying to become a teacher, one of my professors gave me a piece of advice that I’ve carried with me each day since. He told me that unless I understood the hopes and dreams of each of my students, then I would have failed them. What I didn’t fully understand then, was that this professor was telling me the value of the whole child. That my job as an educator isn’t simply to fill their minds with knowledge, but to understand that the student in front of me is a unique individual and that I need to make learning personal to them.

What does this have to do with classroom management? The answer is everything. When students are safe, supported, and challenged, when they are engaged in learning and feel valued in their community of learners, classroom management issues become a thing of the past. This community doesn’t develop on its own. It requires guidance and nurturing from the teacher. It requires understanding that what a teacher is, is so much more than an information provider. It requires taking the time to listen to students and build a relationship of mutual trust and respect. It requires us to always remember that we teach students, not subjects.

A community of learners is invested in themselves and each other. When given the opportunity to have choice and voice in the classroom, students become the drivers of personalized learning. Personalized learning is engaged learning and an engaged student manages themselves and their peers. The students establish the classroom norms and expectations. Teacher as facilitator, as trail guide, weaves these together to support and build a classroom where the students take ownership. In such an environment, possibility permeates learning and remarkable moments occur regularly.

Thanks to Patty, Kelly, ReLeah, Barry, and Bethany for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, readers’ responses will be included in Part Four.

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.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first three years of blog, you can see a categorized list below. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking on the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar:

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

Teaching Reading and Writing

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching English Language Learners

Using Tech In The Classroom

Education Policy Issues

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Instructional Strategies


Teaching Math & Science

Brain-Based Learning

School Relationships

Author Interviews

Professional Development

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for the Part Three in a few days....

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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.