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New Teacher Series Part 2: Classroom Management Tips & Tricks

screaming student

Almost anyone can imagine the terrifying scene: thirty or so kids screaming at top volume, standing on desks and throwing things at one another as a frantic teacher makes futile attempts to bring everything back into order. Nearly every brand-new teacher has a degree of fear about losing control over the classroom, but with some proactivity and preparation, instruction usually proceeds as planned without incident. How is it possible to anticipate problems before they arise? With the following tips, students are far more likely to be not just cooperative, but also collaborative in the learning goals teachers set forth. 

  1. Avoid power struggles. In my second or third year of teaching, a student whose reputation preceded her entered my class. Teachers everywhere expressed their sympathies, and I was nervous. One day, we were doing an activity and she just sat there, glaring at me. When I walked over to her, she said, “I’m not doing this.” I remember feeling angry, but then I realized my own personal feelings would be unproductive. Keeping my voice gentle and my facial expression bland, I told her that she had a choice: she could sit there and do nothing, or she could give the work a try. “Personally,” I said, “I would give it a shot. It can’t hurt, and I would love to help you be successful. But it’s up to you.” When I gave this student nothing to push back against and responded to her defiance in a way that allowed her to make what she knew was the best decision, she came around and started doing the work almost as soon as I walked away. What I learned from this experience is that fighting back or setting up ultimatums with students does not work. Instead, helping them see the benefit of the work is much more productive. 

  2. Set up the instructional plan for success. When we create a clear frame for daily learning and students know what is expected of them, the simple act of being well organized can minimize disruption. Think of the difference between a teacher who spends the first several minutes of class getting things together or reviewing operational details as opposed to one who frames the learning target clearly at the outset and explains the purpose of everyone’s presence in the room that day, and perhaps leads into instruction with an appealing activator. When students see that teachers know what is happening, they are more likely not just to appreciate the transparency of what is shared, but are also likely to engage in the work more swiftly and meaningfully.

  3. Think ahead. While many of the conflicts we encounter are unpredictable, just as much can be anticipated and prevented. Suppose a teacher has an afternoon class that is always a little too keyed up. After noticing that tendency, it makes no sense to continue being upset about the timing of the class without doing anything about it. Instead, it might help to plan for the potential chaos by being strategic with where certain instruction is placed. If the class was originally going to start with a Kahoot (which excites even the calmest students), place that later in the period when everyone is more settled. Along the same lines, having a more reflective way (or even doing some mindful breathing) to begin the class might be another intentional move that gets everyone into a more focused mental space.

  4. Consider the physical space – and then reconsider it. Sometimes, the way our classrooms are put together can send non-verbal messages about how to interact with others. For example, many teachers are tempted to place student desks in traditional rows to discourage stray conversations or distractions. However, the unintended consequence of that kind of configuration is that it limits productive interaction as well. Before setting up a classroom space, walk through the building and look at what other teachers are doing, and consult ideas online as well. In addition, consider that depending on what is happening that day with instruction, the configuration of the classroom may change. It is entirely doable to teach kids to move desks quickly and efficiently into various setups if we take about 10 minutes early in the year to do some practice runs.

  5. Quiet is not ideal. In television or movies, a well-managed classroom is a quiet one, but that perception does not hold true in reality. When students sit without speaking to one another, is the lack of language production indicative of strong attention to the task at hand, or are they unengaged with the learning? More often than not, students who do not talk much in class are often not as involved in what is happening around them. The idea is not to limit conversation, but to keep it as focused as possible. Consider working in the four domains of language – speaking, writing, reading and listening – a little bit each day. If we use these four domains as guideposts for how students approach learning, they will be engaged in producing more ideas in a variety of ways. 

  6. Build strong and profound connections with students. At the end of the day, the way we create genuine relationships with our students makes all the difference between a classroom that is well-managed vs. one that goes off the rails. In addition to getting to know who our students are as people, we also need to build their sense of academic identity. If a child raises a hand to share a response to a question, be sure to validate what they contribute, right or wrong, so that nobody disputes their value as a member of the learning community. When it’s tempting to let more vocal or assertive students make contributions, engage in more equitable calling practices to welcome all voices. Otherwise, the implied message will be that only the ideas of some students are welcome in our classroom.

The journey to building a classroom space that embraces productive learning is complex, and new teachers should not expect to achieve ideal results overnight. It takes months, if not years, to find that sweet spot between that is neither overly permissive or authoritarian. However, with constant trial and error as well as persistence, we can all get to that more ideal learning space. Next week, Part 3 of the New Teacher Series will address so many of the tiny details that both brand-new and more experienced teachers might forget to take care of before the year starts. Keep reading to be as prepared as possible for what lies ahead!

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at www.miriamplotinsky.com or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS