Classroom management: Why the start of the year is so important

Classroom management is a big deal. In fact, it’s such a big deal that I think it’s the biggest factor between teachers loving their jobs and hating their jobs. And not to make you nervous or anything, but the start of the year is so so so important in terms of classroom management. It’s like putting in a new sprinkler system…

This past year, we underwent a HUGE landscaping project. The house we bought has a lot of land, a lot dead trees and a lot of dirt. And so every weekend, for the past 2 years, we’ve been slowly chipping away at the mess. Our big project this year was putting in a sprinkler system, and let me tell you, if you’ve never put in a sprinkler system before, first thank Jesus and then trust me: it is a lot of stinking work. A LOT OF STINKING WORK, I tell you! First you make a plan, then you dig the trenches, then you run to Home Depot to buy a boatload of pipes and connector pieces, then you have to dig the trenches out again because the dogs do not respect the trenches,  then you run back to Home Depot, then you start putting it together, then back to Home Depot, then you hook it all up, say your prayers and hope it’s going to work. Then back to Home Depot because it doesn’t work. Then it sort of works, but you’ve got to mess with the sprinkler heads for maximum coverage. And then finally, it works!  Hallelujah! So you fill in the trenches and order sod. The glorious and long awaited day  finally arrives and the sod is ready to be installed. Finally, the finish line is in sight! Your in-laws come to help and tell you that the sprinklers are wrong so you spend another 2 days digging up the stupid sprinklers and moving the stupid sprinkler heads to meet their specifications. Then you cover up the stupid trenches again and then spread the fancy and expensive dirt around and then lay the stupid sod! Hallelujah! But we’re not done yet with the stupid sprinklers, noooo…you spend the next several weeks adjusting the watering time and sprinkler heads to make sure everything is just right… And the whole time…the last 8 months of this stupid  project…every phase,  I wanted to quit! Call it a day and be happy with my dead yard.   But the thought of having a lawn that’s green and lush kept us pressing forward. The work now will pay off later. And you know what, classroom management is exactly like that: the work now will pay off later. But you’ve got to do the work now.

The beginning of the year is so much stinking work, but it’s worth it. You’ll have a green and lush classroom where kiddos acquire language and the teacher is enjoying her day. And just like the stupid sprinklers,  it’s not a one time set out the rules and you’re done sort of thing. You put in the hard work and then you make adjustments and and try again and keep at it until everything has fallen into place.

Here are a few things that I’ve found to help me start off the year on the right foot:

Be proactive:

Reactive teachers are stressed out and bitter. Proactive teachers are much happier because their classrooms run smoothly, so teaching is actually fun!  Figure out who will be your little stinkers early on and win them over by connecting with them, making the calendar talk or class story about them, showing up at their game or high fiving them in the hallway.  It’s hard not to like someone who likes you, so show ’em that you like ’em!

Along time same lines, call home before there’s a problem. Make your first contact with their parents or guardian a positive experience. Hi, I’m AnneMarie Chase, So-and-so’s Spanish teacher. I just wanted to call and introduce myself. I’m really loving having So-and-so in class, he’s got a great sense of humor. Is there anything I can do to help So-and-so have a great year?  Jon Cowart, Master of Classroom Management and author of this new classroom management book,  advocates for connecting with every family at the beginning of the year. I’m not that good (yet!) but you better believe that I’m busy my first few weeks calling the parents of the Little Darlings that have the potential to be difficult, before they become difficult!

Once, I asked a young man to stick around after class so we could chat. The first words out of his mouth, “Why am I in trouble?!” and I told him, with a grin, “You’re not in trouble! I wanted to talk to you before you get into trouble! I want to help you have a great year.” That totally blew his mind and flipped the script. He was used to reactive teachers harping on what he was doing wrong- by being proactive, it totally changed the dynamic, and you guessed it, we ended up having a great year! Proactive wins every time!

Prioritize relationships:

I thought at the beginning of my career that classroom management was all about the right system (More on that below) and being consistent with rules and consequences. I’ve since realized that it’s a whole lot easier, more effective, and more fun to focus on relationships with students… because when you like your students, they like you. And when they like you, they’re cooperative. And when they’re cooperative, things run smoothly. And, unfortunately,  the opposite is also true: if you don’t like your students, they know it and they don’t like you. And when they don’t like you, everything is an uphill battle. And if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter what reward system or rules you’ve got in place: you’ll be in for a rough year.  So start off right from the beginning getting to know your little darlings. Be curious about their lives. Make every moment count. When kids are milling around at the start of class or when you see them in the hallway or at the grocery store, use that time to make connections.

Last year I started Classroom Check Ins on their way into my classroom and it  has been a game changer. I’m excited to continue check-ins this year and there’s something new I’m going to implement this fall, inspired by Faith Laux’s Lunch Time Talk at iFLT this summer. Faith encouraged us to focus on the positive and record them so that we’ve got a reminder of all the good things that are happening in our classrooms. That got me thinking: how can I record the good things and use those to build up my students?! And so Operation Post-It was born. Here’s how I envision it playing out:

  • Immediately after every class, I’ll write 1 or 2 post-it notes to particular students, mentioning positive things I noticed during class. Things like “JoeyYou were really killing it today during storytelling. I loved the hilarious details you suggested!”  or  “Ana, you seemed sad during class…what’s going on? Is there anything I can do to support you?”  or  “Josh, you do an awesome job stopping me when I’m unclear during class. That’s so helpful for me and for your classmates! Thank you!” I’ll leave those on my desk until I see that class again.
  • Then I’ll make a check mark on a master class list, just so I know who I’ve written notes to. (So as the year progresses, I’ll be able to see who hasn’t been noticed that I need to be watching closely during class).
  • The following class, I’ll drop off those notes to those students, while they’re free reading or singing a song or working independently. It won’t be a big production or anything, just a little note to show them that I see them and I’m happy they’re here with me.

Is it a lofty goal? Yes. Will I keep it up all year? I hope so! Because I think it will be worth it, to be intentional about noticing every single student, starting right from the get go! Just like the sprinkler system…it’s a lot of work and a big commitment but I’m pretty sure it will pay off in the long run.

Have a plan, part 1:

How do you want your classroom to run? How do you want kiddos to behave and interact? Chances are, what you’re envisioning and their natural instincts are not aligned. Shocking, I know! You’ve got to teach them what to do and how to do it! Let me tell you about a light bulb moment early in my career:

I sent my little darlings to go get mini whiteboards during the lesson. And so 30 teenagers crowded around the bookshelf, waiting, chit chatting and shoving  each other while retrieving their whiteboards. And  I got real annoyed. Come on, people! You’re not wild animals! Grow up! I’m pretty sure I lost my cool and got mad at them and maybe even yelled at them. Gulp.  But later that evening, after I stopped being angry and starting thinking about solutions, I realized it really wasn’t their  fault. They just did what teenagers do: hang out, mess around and socialize. I told them what to do, which they did, but I wasn’t happy how they did it. And so I started experimenting with being really explicit with my instructions, creating procedures to address the things that drove me crazy, practicing  as a class the behaviors I wanted in my classroom, and reminding them, nearly every day and every activity, what I expected from them. And I learned that Kids need a sense of order, they need to know what’s expected of them and I’m telling you, 99% of kids will meet your expectations, if they understand them. (We’ll get to that 1% later!)

I know, I know, you learned this in Classroom Management 101, Thank you very much, Harry Wong. I hope I’m not offending you by mentioning something you already know. But maybe it’s a good reminder for us all: For the most part, we can change behavior by teaching them what we expect them to do and how we expect them to do it. So think about the things that drive you crazy during class: Burting out? Congregating at the door waiting for class to end? Side conversations during transitions? Kids zoning out? Excessive English?  Once you’ve pinpointed the things that really set you off, figure out what do you want them to do instead. In your perfect happy classroom world, what do the transitions look like? How do kids interact during whole class instruction? What do you want to happen the last few minutes of class? Once you’ve got that worked out,  how will you communicate it to your little darlings?  And just like anything teachers teach in school, your students will probably not nail it on the first try. They’ll need feedback and practice and reteaching, and that’s OK. It’s really a mindset shift for us. It’s no longer a misbehavior followed by consequence situation. When kids aren’t doing what we want them to do, they need to be taught (or reminded) what to do and given another chance to do it correctly. 

I saw this great reminder this morning on Twitter:

Isn’t that what we want, a classroom that is safe and predictable? And it’s not just for our kiddos who come from difficult situations or with special needs, it’s for all of them. And us. We need a safe and predictable classroom too. And it starts with a plan.

Have a plan, part 2:

So, most kids will behave if they know what to do…but what about when they know what to do and don’t want to do it?! I’ve had my share of those kiddos over the years…Like the kid who double flipped me off during class…or the boy who got so frustrated that he jabbed a pencil in his eye…or the little one who would stomp his feet loudly every time I started to speak….or the ones who flat out refuse to participate or… I’ve got stories and I’m sure you do to. What about those kids?

Over the last 14 years, I’ve tried a LOT of Classroom Management systems. I’ve done participation points. I’ve done págames. I’ve given them pesos that they lost for misbehavior. I’ve implemented a lot of complicated systems and I’ve found the simpler the system, the better it works (for me, anyway!). And when reteaching and practicing isn’t working, and I’m getting flustered, it’s nice to have something already in place so I don’t have to come up with something brilliant on the spot!

For the past few years, I’ve been using a Soccer Metaphor for when my little darlings are acting like little trolls.  Here’s an excerpt from my syllabus explaining the Yellow cards/ Red cards:

Yellow card! Red Card! If you do not meet these participation expectations (previously explained), Mrs. Chase will give you “the look”.  It will be a silent reminder to stop what you’re doing and join the party. If “the look” didn’t help you redirect, you’ll get a Tarjeta Amarilla, or a yellow card. This is a warning, and at the end of the class, please return it to Mrs. Chase, and you’ll start again fresh next class. If the Yellow Card wasn’t enough to get you on the right track, you’ll get a Tarjeta Roja, or a Red Card. That means that we need to get together to figure out a game plan, so that class can run smoothly for both of us. If you get a Red Card, you’ll need to stay after the bell rings to discuss.

Here are my Yellow Cards and Red Cards, feel free to make a copy and edit them for your little darlings. The truth is I almost never use them, between strong relationships and an occasional “Look” during class, defiant misbehavior is pretty minimal. But I like knowing that I’ve got cards laminated and ready, just in case I need them.

Don’t let them slack:

You know how we start out the year with high expectations but as the year progresses and we get tired and we let them slip little by little and then by the end of the year the classroom feels like a circus run by wild animals? It’s not just me, right?!  But the thing is, when that happens, it’s like working really hard to dig the sprinkler trenches, run to Home Depot 11 thousand times, put in the sprinkler pipes, then call it good. You never really get the benefit of all procedures and expectations you put into place at the beginning of the year.

So, if you’re into Call and Responses as a way to quiet down your little darlings, they’ve got to respond perfectly every.single.time. And if it’s not perfect, if it’s just alright, or if 4 kiddos opt out, you’ve got to reteach and retry it. If you’re OK with “pretty good“, “pretty good” morphs into “alright” and “alright” becomes “less than stellar” and soon you’ve got a really ineffective system. It’s easy to correct at the beginning and nearly impossible if you let it go too far.  When my little darlings don’t respond just so,   I usually say Let’s try that again! And if the second try is not up to par, I’ll tell ’em: Let’s try that one more time and if it’s not perfect, we’ll practice it again after the bell rings! 

And it’s not just true for Call and Responses. For anything you ask them to do, be it TPR motions or choral responses or silent reading or classroom jobs or passwords at the door or anything else, expect excellence, teach them what you want and practice it until it’s perfect. And then, hold them to it all year long.   It’s easier to let it slide, but that’s like halfway installing the sprinklers and hoping for the best.

Wishing you Happy Back to School and your best year yet!

And when you’re tired and overwhelmed and just want to quit, know that getting the management piece squared away will make everything else easier. Fight the good fight- it will be worth it!

-AnneMarie

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent post!! A big turning point for me was realizing, as you say, that I wasn’t communicating my expectations. Every year I feel like I know what I’m doing but have no idea what I’m doing. 🙂

    Like

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