Power Struggles, Paychecks, and Positivity: My Career as a Classroom Manager

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Carter was having a difficult day. He was calling out and disrupting my math lesson. In accordance with our schoolwide discipline plan, I announced in front of the class that he had earned a consequence and later a demerit when he began to argue with me. When his calling out still did not stop, I announced that he had earned a second demerit and that he would be leaving class. Shortly after, an administrator arrived and removed Carter from the room.

The problem? I now realize that by engaging with Carter, I had turned a simple misbehavior into a public power struggle, which I lost. I had also failed to ask or observe the cause of Carter’s misbehavior. I found out later that he was frustrated that I had not called on him earlier and had decided to share his ideas another way. I did not give Carter the chance to learn from his mistake and fix it. Rather than addressing the cause of the behavior and having Carter take time to refocus, I sent him out of the room and he missed the rest of the lesson.

6th grade math teacher, Andrea Palmer
6th grade math teacher, Andrea Palmer

In my six years as a teacher, I’ve seen and tried the spectrum of classroom-management strategies. I started teaching in a school where teachers designed their own classroom-management plans. During my first year, I struggled to establish strong procedures and routines with my students. I was left to manage my classroom with little support. Overwhelmed and inexperienced, I developed a system that was, for the most part, reactive. Rather than anticipating and planning for student behavior, I spent a lot of time responding to what students were doing. I failed to develop the procedures and community that I wanted, so without a clear picture of what I expected, students misbehaved. My reactions to this misbehavior were linked to my mood, which varied greatly from day to day.

Things got better over the next two years as I established stronger procedures and community processes. I also began relying on an economy system for incentives and consequences. When students followed expectations, they received tickets for the weekly prize raffle. Although my classroom-management skills had improved, the systems I put in place applied only inside the walls of my classroom. Every other teacher in the school had his or her own classroom-management system, which created confusion for students.

A 'One-Size-Fits-All' Plan

The next year I sought a job at a more structured school with a clear, schoolwide approach to discipline. At this school, all teachers followed the same classroom-management plan. Teachers prescribed incentives and consequences consistently, which affected each students’ seven dollars per day “paycheck.” At the end of each month, students used their money to buy prizes and school supplies. Each time a student broke a rule, he or she lost money. For more serious infractions, students lost recess and served a detention in addition to the financial loss. Conversely, for going above and beyond expectations, students could receive bonus dollars.

Staff members at my school valued learning time above all else. Students were not allowed to disrupt the learning of others. While teaching, I announced misbehavior and consequences publicly, as in the case with Carter. “That is a demerit,” I would say. “Stop calling out and raise your hand.” I expected students to quickly fix the problem and move on. I administered the same consequence for the same infraction, no matter the student or situation. It was what some might call a “no excuses” approach, but to me it’s more aptly called a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Emotional Rescue?

I’ve since moved again to a new school that uses Responsive Classroom, a program that prioritizes students’ social-emotional learning. Responsive Classroom encourages teachers to incorporate morning meetings in which students share their feelings, have classes create rules together, impose logical consequences that take into account the exact circumstances of the misbehavior, and use positive language.

With Responsive Classroom, if a student is making fun of a classmate, the teacher first stops the behavior, perhaps by sending the student to a different area to take a break. Later, the teacher speaks with the student about how his or her words affected the other student. To repair the damage, the student may write an apology or meet with the student he or she hurt. This is done privately, so that all students involved feel respected.

While I have yet to take official Responsive Classroom training, I have spent a significant amount of time working with my colleagues to apply this philosophy in our school. Each week, all teachers in the school have an advisory lesson for their homeroom that focuses on character development and community building. All teachers and staff members consistently work together to use the Responsive Classroom approach with students.

The transition from the one-size-fits-all approach to the Responsive Classroom approach has been difficult for me. Rather than apply the same strategy to every student, I’ve had to develop a broad repertoire of strategies for handling misbehavior. In doing so, I’ve had to reflect on my role in student misbehavior. How does my planning and instruction affect student behavior? What is the cause behind the student’s acting out? How can I deal with the cause?

A Growth Mindset

I have come to realize that it’s critical to address the diverse causes of student behavior. With the one-size-fits-all approach, I used consequences to discourage student misconduct without trying to understand why the behavior was happening. Yes, my students spent more time on task. But without a strong focus on character and community-building, they struggled to learn how to make better choices, especially when adults were not present.

I have also realized that making discipline issues public only invites more misbehavior and diminishes a student’s feeling of value. I now stress the importance of having a “growth mindset,” or believing that you can improve your skills through hard work and effort, and I encourage students to embrace mistakes as part of the learning process. If I truly believe this, then my classroom-management approach must also acknowledge that mistakes—even ones related to behavior—happen. It is important that students recognize why the mistake happened, why they need to fix it, and what they can to do prevent this behavior in the future. This takes time and looks different for different students, but it’s worth the effort.

Perhaps above all, as I’ve grown as a teacher, I’ve realized that good classroom management isn’t in a program or a paycheck, it’s in a lesson. While I develop more relevant, engaging, and challenging lessons, I encounter misbehavior much less frequently. Of course this is easier said than done, but the time I have spent crafting interactive lessons and projects that students feel connected to has paid off.

I still have work to do to successfully use all of these components in my classroom. I know that I will continue to learn from students, staff members, and parents if I take the time to observe and listen. I have to push myself to apply the growth mindset to my own professional learning and recognize that I do make mistakes. The important part is that I regularly reflect on my actions and work to continuously improve.

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