First-Year Teaching For Dummies
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Without a doubt, brand new teachers worry more about classroom discipline and management skills than they worry about anything else. Deep down, you know that if you can’t maintain discipline, you have little hope of getting rehired and eventually receiving tenure.

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At its very heart, effective classroom discipline boils down to three basic skills: motivating your students, confronting inappropriate behavior, and maintaining class discipline after you’ve established it. In this article, we give you some practical advice for each of these skills to help shape you into a successful classroom manager.

What the front office expects from you

Administrators value good classroom-management skills above everything else when evaluating teachers. They know that before any learning can take place, you must have an orderly environment. No amount of group learning, discovery-based lessons, or (insert current education buzzword here) can cure the ailments of an undisciplined classroom.

In most administrators’ minds, if you can keep your kids under control, they can help you with anything else. If you have a solid classroom management plan, all other small dents in the armor of your teacher preparation can be hammered out. And that includes some early and clumsy lesson plans that, perhaps, don’t quite work.

Effective class discipline is usually different in practice than most first-year teachers expect. In our new teacher dreams, we were facilitators of small utopian societies, where all students respected one another and accepted our leadership. Would it surprise you to learn that’s not the way things worked out?

Students may crave order subconsciously, but they don’t enjoy order being imposed on them. Truth be told, none of us love being told what to do, how to do it, where to go, and how to get there. In business terms we call this micromanagement, and it rarely inspires loyalty and joy in an employee.

However, children aren’t adults. They need guidance and can’t be expected, automatically, to know how to comport themselves and fit into the classroom environment you’re building. Therein lies the conundrum. How can you lead a classroom effectively without becoming a dictator? Dictators are always looking over their shoulders, living in fear, trying to squash uprisings, and that’s not what you envisioned for yourself when you decided to become a teacher.

Motivating students

You can run a classroom a thousand different ways, but all classrooms that run smoothly have one characteristic in common: The students are motivated. The way that you interact with students on a daily basis provides the foundation for this motivation.

How can you motivate a student? It’s an age-old dilemma, and the question has no simple answer. However, we’ve found the following three universal truths:

  • Motivated students know that their teacher cares about them individually. Hopefully, you’ve already made it a point to learn the names of your kids in the first week of classes. Now, find out more about them on a personal basis. As you roam about the room to check homework or pass back assignments, engage in small talk. Although some will be shy at first, others will be itching to talk to you and get to know you better. The other, more reticent, students will watch these initial interactions and decide, in time, to trust you enough to share their thoughts and lives as well.
  • Motivated students want to know how they can succeed in your class. Describing your rules was just the beginning. You also need to explain exactly what you expect in every homework assignment and quiz or test question. If students are constantly thinking, “I have no idea what the heck they’re asking!” or “What can I possibly do to succeed in this class?” your expectations are either too vague or too inconsistent day to day.
  • Motivated students respect their teachers as consummate professionals. Your kids know if you’re slacking in your teaching responsibilities. They can tell how well you plan for classes based on how comfortable you are with the material, and they want to know just how dedicated you are to doing your job well. If they sense that your lesson plans are thorough, that you’re well prepared, and that you’re working hard for them, they’ll be more willing to work hard for you.
After you’ve established these three foundational truths in your class, you can do all kinds of more tangible things to motivate your kids. You can go out of your way to make learning fun and add little things to the everyday drudgery of class to spice things up.

For more about getting to know your students during the first week of school, and for more on all you need to know as a first-year teacher, check out our book First-Year Teaching For Dummies.

Facing bad behavior head on

Eventually, it has to happen. One of your kids is going to break a rule, and you’ll have no doubt in your mind that it was both intentional and a direct challenge to your authority. No matter how fantastic your rules and how motivated most of your students are, one of them is going to push back to see how you react to it.

After you deal with this probing, testing tendency of your students, you’ll be well on your way to earning a reputation. If you deal quickly and thoroughly with your first offenders, you’ll spend less time disciplining kids for the rest of the year — they’ll already know exactly where your boundaries lie.

Winning the discipline war

Most new teachers wish that they didn’t have to deal with discipline and (if they had a choice) would ignore inappropriate behavior. Confrontation causes tension, and you’re trying to establish a supportive classroom atmosphere, so disciplining a student almost seems contrary to the goal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although discipline is certainly tough and by no means fun, it’s an essential component of classroom management.

Confrontation is actually healthy in any relationship, if handled correctly. Conflict arises when two groups do not see eye to eye, and until you confront that conflict, neither party can move forward. When a problem arises in your class, when the gauntlet is thrown, pick it up and put it on.

It is your responsibility to establish and protect the learning environment. Kids in your room need to know that if they are disrespectful or break a rule, the consequences are going to be unpleasant. Therefore, you have to know how to confront students effectively when they step out of line. In short, you need to step up to face down the challenge.

Where teacher education fails

Why is classroom management such a sticking point for first-year teachers, and why does it cause such anxiety? The answer is simple: Most (if not all) teacher-education programs fail to provide you with the training and the skills you need to be the leader in your classroom. Most don't provide you with strategies for positive discipline in the classroom or teach you how to develop a classroom discipline plan.

Teacher education programs teach you philosophy. They teach you how to create a behavioral objective. And then, they teach you how to do that over and over. (We’ll never understand why they obsess about objectives so much — it’s like they’d rather talk about teaching than actually teach.) They teach you the order in which to list multiple-choice questions when you write a test. But they don’t tell you what to do if a student refuses to follow your directions.

If you shy away from confrontation, you are welcoming inconsistent chaos. Every day is going to be chaotic but in a new and unpredictable way, and that sounds like a lousy way to spend a school year.

Instead of viewing confrontation as something to dread, look at it as an opportunity. Keep in mind, though, that it’s an opportunity you need to use wisely. Many variables can play out in an infinite number of ways, so you want to be sure to approach the situation with a plan.

The three A’s of confrontation

Coming up with classroom discipline strategies and a practical approach to student confrontation takes time. You don’t want to be a monster who is always on edge, waiting for a student to do something wrong so that you can correct them, and you don’t want students who were disciplined in class to feel that you hold a grudge after everything is said and done. Your goal is to be someone who will maintain classroom order when push comes to shove.

Three key practices will help you confront students when the need arises. We call these the three A’s of confrontation — anticipate, assert, and align:

Anticipate behavioral problems

Always keep one ear to the ground to listen for oncoming trains. Behavioral problems rarely spring up unexpectedly and are usually the result of days or weeks of pent-up aggravation. Listen to student conversations before and after class, whenever you can eavesdrop from your desk. Students can be passive-aggressive if they don’t like you, and they’ll discuss their displeasure with a classmate when they know you can hear them.

For example, if you overhear a student say, “This assignment is really unfair,” or “I don’t care what she says, I’m going to the bathroom when class starts,” that should raise red flags in your mind that confrontation is imminent. If you’re careful about watching for the warning signs, you’re less likely to be caught unprepared.

If you suspect something, you need to speak with that student individually, away from the rest of the class, before things escalate. If that’s not possible, position yourself near that student’s desk often during the lesson so that you can keep an eye on them. Most of the time, if that student sees that you’re suspicious, that’s enough to stifle an in-class argument, allowing you to see that kid after class. Find out what the problem is and talk to the student honestly and openly.

For example, you might say: “I heard what you said before class started. I appreciate that you didn’t escalate things during class time, and I’d like to talk about it now, unless you’d like some time to cool off.”

There is no judgment here and you have not ceded your authority, so it’s a win-win. You are indicating that you understand confrontation is coming, you are keeping it from impacting the class as a whole, and you are opening the lines of communication. Sometimes, a simple gesture like this, which shows that you are willing to treat your student as a human being with valid thoughts and emotions, works wonders.

Assert authority appropriately

When an important rule is broken, consequences must follow. However, the punishment must fit the crime. Remember that if you start out by shouting at the smallest infractions, you have nowhere to go — you can’t up the ante.

When you’re in front of a class, let the students know exactly how you feel, and make them respond to you as a person rather than telling them specifically what to do. For example, rather than simply barking, “Be quiet!” while a big angry vein pulsates in your forehead, try, “Folks, the room needs to quiet down right now because I’m short on patience today.”

Look at the big differences in those two approaches. The latter gives a valid warning before real confrontation occurs. It gives the students a chance to fix their own behavior before you fix it for them. Also, by explaining how you feel, you open yourself up as a person and not simply a mindless authority figure.

Furthermore, this second approach shows them some respect, because you’re not automatically initiating confrontation. With this cue, you’re firing a metaphorical warning shot across their bow.

Align students as allies after the line has been crossed

Eventually, you’re going to have your fill of nonsense, and your temper will flare. When this happens, don’t be apologetic, and don’t act as though you regret the temper flare. An angry teacher should make the classroom atmosphere darken as though clouds have moved in and blotted out the sun.

However, after you’ve gotten the point across, back away from additional confrontation and return to business as normal. After they’ve witnessed the consequences of unacceptable behavior, they must be given the opportunity to behave correctly. Take a deep breath. Take fifty deep breaths, whatever it takes to get back to center.

Don’t hold a grudge against students, because if you do, there’s no motivation for them to change their behavior. Most kids would rather not be on your bad side, especially when they see how bad that bad side can be, so you must give them the opportunity to cross into the other camp and become your ally. You’ll discover that (oddly) some of the kids you’ll discipline repeatedly will form the closest relationships with you later.

Finally, keep in mind that the goal of confronting bad behavior isn’t just to inflict consequences. Old school discipline works like this: You screwed up and now you have to pay the price. Think about your own life. Would you like consequences every single time you did anything wrong? Of course not. You’d hope that an authority figure would give you a break if you’re doing your best and your error was not the end of the world.

Be merciful to your students as you would want others to be merciful to you. Again, that doesn’t mean ignore; it just means that you don’t always have to punish. The goal is to fix problems and move on, not to inflict misery on children. It’s hard for students to build a relationship with a scorpion, always worried when it will strike and whether they’ll survive the encounter.

If you’ve done a good job confronting unacceptable behavior, things won’t feel good right away. If the students respect you, they’ll probably feel a little guilty, and the room will be quieter than usual. You may even feel bad if you were a little rough.

Too often, new teachers try to compensate for confrontation by joking around or acting apologetic immediately afterwards. Don’t make this mistake! If you were mad, you were mad. If you were sorely disappointed, the students should feel a little guilty! Let the rest of the class go by quietly, and don’t speak any more on the issue.

These are real emotions, because you’re a real person! You’re demonstrating healthy conflict, which doesn’t resolve itself immediately. By the next day, class will be closer to normal — but with one exception: The students have learned a valuable lesson about who’s in charge and what you expect of them.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

W. Michael Kelley started as a high school math teacher and has spent 30 years teaching and training people of all ages. Carol Flaherty is a 25-year veteran elementary school teacher who spent most of her years teaching first and fourth grades. Flirtisha Harris has been teaching secondary school for more than 20 years in Texas and southern Maryland.

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