You worked long and hard to earn your teaching credentials, and this year you have your own classroom for the first time.
With that classroom come new responsibilities: learn the curriculum, create instructional units, obtain materials, learn policies and procedures, set goals, and establish classroom rules. The decisions you make this year can have consequences for your professional career and for the lives of your students.
One of the most important decisions you'll make centers on how you manage your classroom—what kind of learning atmosphere you will create and maintain.
By keeping just five key principles in mind, you can create a successful classroom management system that will work at all grade levels and with all teaching styles.
1. Consider Your Teaching Style and Preferences
It is easy to fall back on the management styles with which you are most familiar, even if they don't really fit your teaching style or tolerances regarding behavior. Examine your expectations for student behavior during class and envision how you want the school day to run, from the moment students arrive at the classroom door to the moment the buses depart in the afternoon.
For example, do you like a flurry of activity or do you prefer students stay in their seats and work quietly? Should students be able to get up to sharpen their pencils whenever necessary or only at specified times? Should students come to your desk when they have a question or would you rather they raise their hands and wait for you to find them? Do you want students to turn in their work as they walk in or would you rather collect it during class?
Answers to these types of questions can help you determine what kinds of classroom rules are best suited for your personal tolerances and style of teaching.
2. Keep It Simple
After you have identified your preferences for classroom order, it is time to develop a classroom management system that describes your expectations to students. Classroom rules are the basis for this management system. Establishing just four or five rules makes it easier for you to enforce them and for the students to remember them.
Consider creating classroom rules that do no focus on one specific activity in one specific part of the instructional day. For example, "Raise your hand when you want to speak" may be a fine rule when students are working independently in their seats or when you are teaching, but consider expressing it this way instead: "Respect your neighbors." This may be a simpler, more effective way of stating that students should not interrupt you or their classmates at any time. You may be able to kill two birds—or two behaviors—with one stone if you consider how you phrase the rule.
3. Incorporate Positive Reinforcement
As you refine your classroom management system, think about the reason schools have rules: to teach acceptable behavior. If you consider that construct as you create your rules, you may find it more powerful to phrase your classroom rules as a series of positive behaviors than as a series of negative ones. For example, the rule "Don't speak while others are speaking" might be better phrased as "Raise your hand and wait until called on."
Developing, teaching, practicing, modeling, and reinforcing rules that are positively phrased allow you to teach and reinforce appropriate behavior while also maintaining classroom order. Don't make your management system all about catching students being bad. Instead, find ways to reward students for engaging in appropriate behaviors.
4. Make Simple Changes First
Sometimes we envision our classroom management system as a seamless flow, with students effortlessly following the rules. That is often not the case.
With a closer look, you may find that you are disciplining the same students over and over. You may realize that you have gone a week without ever talking to Susie, who comes to class every day with her homework done and never gives you a lick of trouble. If that is the case, then perhaps you should be doing some fine-tuning of your classroom management system.
Consider making small changes for big effect instead of making large sweeping changes that will only stress you and confuse your students. Sometimes it's helpful to have someone observe your classroom management skills and provide feedback. This feedback can give you essential information regarding the changes you need to make.
If it intimidates you to ask someone to observe your teaching, try to gather your own data. If you don't think you have talked directly to Susie in several days, track how often you talk to her in a week. If Joe always seems to be calling out instead of raising his hand, count how often it occurs.
Go even further and consider whether you are inadvertently reinforcing Joe's inappropriate calling-out behavior by allowing him to answer without raising his hand. If so, you might solve the problem by consistently enforcing the classroom rule about raising hands rather than blaming the overall system or the student.
5. Start Now
Sometimes teachers give their students a "training period" during which they don't hold them accountable for the classroom rules because the students are learning them. This is a mistake. The students will learn your expectations for their behavior by being held accountable for them from Day One. If you do not enforce your rules from the first moment they walk in the door, you are sending the message that your rules aren't important enough to be enforced.
That is not to say that the beginning of the school year is not a teaching opportunity—it clearly is. Rules should be taught, modeled, practiced, and reviewed often at the beginning of the school year and periodically over the next several months.
Keep these five rules in mind as you develop your classroom management system. A little forethought can prevent small problems from turning into large ones later.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, August 2010
Kimberly Kode, a former middle school teacher, is an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and a member of AMLE. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org