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The New Teacher Advisor

And Flexibility

In Setting the Tone, part one of this series on classroom management, I recalled a piece of advice I had received as a new teacher: Dont smile until Christmas."

Another bit of advice you might hear from veteran teachers -- and from your administrator -- is be consistent." For the longest time, I thought consistency meant always doing exactly what my consequences required, no matter what the circumstances might be. In other words, I was consistent, but inflexible. As teachers, however, we need both consistency and flexibility -- and that can seem confusing.

Classroom Management Series

Be sure to see all the articles in Emma McDonald’s classroom management series:

* Laying the Groundwork
* Forming Good Habits
* Setting the Tone
* Freedoms and Responsibilities
* Consistency and Flexibility
* Motivational Tools

To be consistent is to adhere to the same action time and again. But what do you do, for example, when a student doesnt bring materials to class because her older brother hid them or threw them away to torment her? Should she be held to the established consequence, whatever that might be, or should you show a little understanding of her situation? And how do you explain that flexibility to other students who almost certainly will cry out, Thats not fair!"

First of all, fair does not mean the same." Is it fair to punish a student for her brothers bullying behavior? No. Do my students need an explanation for every decision I make? No. I am the leader of the classroom and, although I listen to their input and take their opinions into account, the final decision always rests with me. I often ask my students, What if this happened to you?" I then tell the complainer, I promise that if you ever have extenuating circumstances and need a little flexibility, I will give it to you as well. Now thats being fair."

Whats most important when it comes to consistency isnt consistency of consequences, but consistency of actions, attitudes, and procedures. When you follow the same routines every day; react with patience every day; treat students as fairly as possible every day, you are consistent. Then, students learn what to expect from you.

If your students know that when Suzy comes into the classroom chewing gum, youll point to the trash can; if they see you react the same way with every student who enters your classroom chewing gum, it builds an image in their minds -- an image they can trust. Each student knows that if he or she enters the classroom chewing gum, youll point to the trash can.

But what if, when faced with a gum-chewing student, one day you point to the trash can, and the next day you rant and rave, and the next day you do nothing? Your students have no idea how youll react if they chew gum in class. Will you completely ignore it? Will you lose your temper? Theres no way of knowing when you dont behave consistently.

Are You a New Teacher?

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Faced with uncertainty, some students will begin testing you, purposely chewing gum to see what youll do. Others will chew gum just to see if they can make you angry. The point is, you havent built trust with your students. Without trust, its hard to gain respect; your students are too busy testing you to learn to respect you.

When thinking about consistency, think of it as building habits. When you follow the same procedures every day and require the same of your students, you are building positive habits. Those habits help you stay consistent so students know what to expect from you. After a while, theyll automatically follow the procedures and routines because its habit for them as well.

In time, your students will continue to follow your routines even if youre not in the classroom. That also builds trust -- your trust in your students. The more trust you build up on both sides, the better your relationships will be. Those positive relationships will develop into respect over time. Best of all, youll end up with a classroom of students working to please you rather than to test you.

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