Teaching Secrets: Take Charge of Your Classroom

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“If he were my teacher, I’d make him cry,” remarked a sophomore at my high school after a teacher we’d just hired did a “shadow day.” Although I didn’t share that specific comment, I did reiterate to our new colleague that classroom management would be his biggest challenge. And so it was.

As mentoring coordinator at our large suburban high school, I’m in charge of inducting about 25 teachers a year. The teachers of most concern, of course, are the ones I affectionately dub the “baby teachers” (though not to their faces). Usually, these novice educators are very young—most have just graduated from college—and they are still feeling their way in life, much less in the classroom. Suddenly they may find themselves standing in front of a room filled with 35 seniors, some of whom are only three years younger than they are. In many cases, the disaster is coming on fast.

The first day of teaching school is something that must be experienced to be believed. Novice teachers think they are ready, but they are not. Based on years of working with these wonderful young people, I present the following advice.

What happens on the first day will happen on the last day. This means you must decide in advance what you want your classroom atmosphere to be. What will a typical day look like in your room? In order to make your vision happen, you must have a concrete, simple plan. Harry Wong’s excellent book, The First Days of School, is an invaluable resource for setting up routines that will allow your daily learning activities to function efficiently.

You are the king or queen of your room. Students this age will act as if they want to be in charge. They don’t. They are looking to you to set the atmosphere and the agenda. Be their leader instead of letting them run the show. This means setting boundaries, making consequences clear, and following through if necessary. Your students do not need a new friend. They need a teacher—and a leader. It’s your responsibility to take the point position and lead them where they need to go.

Dress the part; act the part; speak the part. Particularly when you are young, you must set yourself apart from your students. I have actually advised young female teachers to buy some suits and cut their hair. And yes, for males, ties are a must. Professional clothing not only makes you look more mature and in charge; it makes you feel that way. Don’t even think of flip-flops. Ever. And never use the word “like” except as a verb. Even then, question its use!

Act the part, Part II: Take down your Facebook and your MySpace pages. Period. They will find it. Do not discuss your private life with your students—especially if you choose to drink. While they cognitively understand that it’s legal for you, they’re not experienced enough to filter it. Thus, they will say: “But Ms. Smith drinks, so it must be cool.”

Realize that you are a public figure. Understand that, while in my generation, your name was discussed at the ball field, this generation of students (and parents!) will be discussing you online and via text. As your first-period students leave the classroom on the first day of school, they will text on their way to second period about you. You’re a new teacher, which makes you interesting to them. What do you want them to be saying about you, in 140 text characters or less?

Let go of your need to be liked. Novice high school teachers want so badly to be popular with their students that they lose sight of the truth that teaching is not a popularity contest. My favorite TV show ever is M*A*S*H, and one of my favorite scenes involves Major Margaret Houlihan and a young, wounded G.I. He’s in pain, afraid, confused, and very far from home. As she gives him a sponge bath, he says furiously, “I hate your guts!” To which she very calmly replies, “My guts are not here for you to love.” Adopt this sentence as your motto, and believe it in your heart. Understand that you must earn your students’ respect; 99 percent of the time, their love will follow.

After 24 years of teaching, the best compliment I ever received continues to be this: “She’s tough, but she’s fair.” Show me a teacher who has a sense of her own power in the classroom, and I’ll show you students who feel safe and comfortable and who are learning to their utmost because there’s no drama and chaos in the room. Understanding that you are the leader will make your experience, and your students’ experience, a pleasant and rewarding one. And you won’t be suicidal at Thanksgiving.

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