The term classroom management refers to the methods by which a teacher maintains the learning environment. Classroom management is one of the single most important aspects of effective teaching. In one of the finer classroom management training sessions I have experienced, an activity in which we participated was based on similes. We were to pick four nouns, but the trainer did not tell us what the nouns were for. Then, we were to come up with similes comparing each noun with classroom management. Some were hilarious, but I can’t remember a single one. Why? Because once you find yourself in the middle of 35 hormone-induced teenagers, no clever simile is going to save you. The only thing that is going to save you is your own ability to accept your fate and try to go out with some dignity.
Am I just being cynical? No, not just cynical—I’m also being honest. In my honesty, I will explain the difficulties teachers face in classroom management by relating my personal experiences, starting with my first year of teaching. I can remember my first day of teaching vividly. It was the first day of the second semester. I had just finished student teaching in the fall semester, and although I had told myself that I wouldn’t teach high school in an urban school district, I had heard good things about what the school was doing with freshmen and the Freshman Academy.
The students I would be getting on my rosters had already had two teachers before: a 100-day substitute teacher to cover a maternity leave and their actual teacher who returned from maternity leave only to accept a job in another district five weeks later. I figured some abandonment issues might put the students’ guards up, but I hoped for the best. I had come over to the school before the fall semester had ended to meet the teacher who would be leaving and inherit some materials and information. One thing she said confused me: “I’m sorry about 3rd period; I don’t know what happened.”
Her message had been sort of cryptic, so I put it out of my mind. After all, student teaching in that same district had been difficult, but I had survived. On the first day, however, her message reverberated in my mind. First and second periods were what they called repeater classes. The name was not totally accurate, but it denoted that the students in those English I classes were not first-time freshmen. I must specify “first-time” because many of the students were freshmen—for the second, or even third, time.
The rest of the students in the classes were not students who had failed English I before; they were students who were upper classmen but taking English I for the first time because they didn’t speak English. They are designated as ELL’s or EL’s—English Language Learners or English Learners. They could only enter English I when they reached a certain level of English proficiency (at this school, at least).
I expected any real behavior problems to be in 1st or 2nd period. I was wrong. Because they were the first two periods of the day, these class periods were over before 9:30 in the morning. These students weren’t behavior problems; they were barely awake. I started the day with a descriptive language game in which one person describes a picture I’ve given him or her and the other person tries to draw it based on the description. It was like pulling teeth trying to get volunteers to participate. Thankfully, a few students did volunteer, and we got to start out the semester with smiles and laughter. And then there was third period.
The students didn’t shuffle in forlornly; they burst into the room like stampeding elephants. When the tardy bell rang to start class, the metaphorical elephants were clearly beyond such trivial things as bells. They were yelling across the room to each other sharing winter break stories, sitting on desks, hopping over desks, throwing things, and just generally acting out.
I stood at the podium, dumbfounded. I had just taught two quiet, sweet classes and these kids were destroying my calm. I have no poker face, so I am sure that the students knew they had me right where they wanted me: helpless. After I had stood staring at them for ten minutes, my department head walked in and asked how things were going. I said, “Well, not so great actually.” It didn’t take long for her to see why.
She walked into the room and screamed at the students to be quiet. She then lectured the students about what a bad first impression they were making and how I only wanted to help them out and that they were being impossible and many other things that ruined my credibility and conveyed to those kids that I needed to be bailed out. All of the blood was rushing to my head. When she left the room, students were laughing. At me. At my total absence of control. They allowed me to introduce myself, but there was never a respectful silence. How could there be? There was no respect.
The class wasn’t even that big: 21 students. But out of those 21 students, only two students were ever well-behaved. And out of those two students, only one student was always well-behaved. Nineteen of those students had terrible home lives. Nineteen of those students were below reading level by at least two grades. Nineteen of those students were failing two or more classes. What could I have done?
Later, at lunchtime in the teacher’s lounge, every teacher knew he or she could solve my problem. “Have you tried…?” where they filled in the blank with some teacher trick to turn student behavior around. One suggestion seemed feasible: calling their parents. I told the class that if they didn’t behave, I was going to call every single one of their parents to let them know how things would be from here on out—and I did. It took me hours.
I even called the parent of the one student who never once did anything out of line, and my message on voicemail (the default mode of communication because parents have learned to recognize it when someone from the school is calling) went like this: “This is Mrs. M, and I would just like to let you know that your daughter, Narin, is absolutely wonderful. She does all of her work with excellence and is respectful in every way.” The rest of the phone calls were quite different: “Hello, this is Mrs. M, and I wanted to let you know that the behavior of … is inappropriate and unacceptable. From this point forward, any misbehavior at all will result in an office referral and removal from the class.”
So, that’s what I did. For any infraction whatsoever, I wrote up an office referral and kicked the student out of the class. After experiencing so many different configurations of students who had been booted from the room, I figured out the perfect combination for a functional classroom. It got to the point where if I kicked out two specific students every day in the first five minutes, I could maximize the remaining time. Those students instigated the issues with all of the other students, and the combination of my act of kicking those students out and the absence of the students was enough to motivate the remaining students to get their acts together. As it turns out, some of those nineteen students had a parent or two who did actually hold some weight. The remaining students knew that if their parents found out they’d been so bad as to be removed from class, they would meet with some trouble at home.
The class was never perfect. The “F word” made frequent appearances, so did threats of violence, talking back, peeling paint off the walls, throwing things (fortunately not at me), and refusal to complete work. I even had a student threaten to urinate on me when I told her she couldn’t leave to use the restroom. But I knew I had to soldier on. I couldn’t give up and give them worksheets and movies, though I know that is what they were desperately working toward. I knew that for the sake of Narin and the one other student who occasionally deigned to complete an assignment, I had to teach them something. I wasn’t going to be the weak link in their Language Arts education.
Fourth period was a tiny class. I thought that a tiny class was going to be great. I thought it would be so manageable and we’d sit in a circle and sing “Kumbaya.” On top of being a small class, almost all of the students were at grade level or above. I thought it would be a piece of cake. And it was. A messy, crumbling piece of cake. Things started out well. They gave me no problems on the first day or for weeks after. We had formed great relationships. They knew I played video games and decided I was cool because of this. But then something tragic happened. A fellow 9th-grader was killed in a car accident riding home from a basketball game. Apparently, the driver had been texting. Also apparent the next day was the fact that several students from my fourth period class were very, VERY close to this student.
His death affected two students in particular in a very negative way. One was a bright girl whose only issue before was that she talked out without raising her hand. She usually had the right answer, and with the small class I would let it slide. But she became despondent. She cried a lot in class. She stopped doing her work.
The other student was this girl’s best friend. She was a leader—but not in a good way. She was the kind of student who sets the tone for the rest of the class. When she behaved, so did everyone else. But this girl started acting out. She started hanging out with the wrong crowd and dating a much older student (a gang member). She made inappropriate comments. Fortunately, we still had a good relationship, so I tried to salvage as much learning as possible.
One day in particular our good relationship failed to stop this student from disrespecting me for the sake of entertainment. I was in the middle of teaching Romeo and Juliet, and she raised her hand. I should have known something was up because this student almost never raised her hand. I called on her, and she asked me, “Have you ever been blown like a curtain?” I blinked a few times dramatically and stood there a little confused. She jumped at the chance afforded her by my silence to repeat the question again and again and again. I finally stuttered a little and said, “That is inappropriate, and I am not going to answer that question. Stop asking me, or I will write you up.” So of course, she said it again. And one of the cardinal rules of classroom management is to never make a threat that you don’t follow through with.
The real fact of the matter was that I had no clue what that statement meant. My earlier silence was when I was trying to figure it out. I had narrowed it down to a reference to either drugs or sex. Neither one of those things would have been appropriate, so I wrote an office referral and sent her out of the room. During lunch time, she came back to me with her pink copy of the referral and told me that she had ISS for the first time ever and that she needed to get her work for tomorrow.
I said to her, “You know why I had to write you up, right?” She replied in the affirmative, smiling, and said, “I don’t blame you. We’re cool.” Unfortunately, being “cool” with the students who set the tone for class is a necessity when it comes to teaching in urban schools. If we had not been “cool” the day she returned from ISS, she would have made my life a living hell (not that third period wouldn’t have beaten her to it on a daily basis, but it was nice to have a bit of respite).
The other student and her despondency did not work out so well. I could have stood an inappropriate comment if my temporary embarrassment was the only price to pay for her getting something out of her system. But no, she started missing more and more school, sleeping in class when she did actually show up, and coming to school slovenly dressed where she had been a beauty queen. There was no way I’d mention beauty queens of any sort to her when she had actually been on the homecoming court, and the dead boy had been her attendant. Eventually, she went to a special after-school program, and we felt her absence strongly.
Before my first day was over, I knew I would love my fifth and final period. The class was full of personality. I had several football-players-to-be who found out I liked to play Halo on Xbox and instantly took to me. I had a tortured-soul, dressed-in-all-black girl in a head covering whom I dubbed “Angry Kurdish Girl” on the basis of her fiery temper and quickness to drop “F bombs.” She took to the name and started writing “A.K.G.” on everything.
Another sweet kid—a Mexican boy—belly-danced and planned Quinceañeras in his spare time. He claimed to have synesthesia and see numbers as colors and would later—in his junior year—come out of the closet. One chubby Laotian student was a master at Halo and very smart but missed a lot of school. Overall, the class was great. When I taught lessons, the students were engaged. We laughed and had fun. The class worked well with the exception of one student. He was a demon student. This student was loathed by every single one of his teachers because his wealthy background gave him a sense of entitlement. Also, his guardian would advocate for his innocence no matter what the problem was.
One day, he was misbehaving while we were trying to read Romeo and Juliet. I tried using one of the other important classroom management tools I’d been taught: proximity. This means that the closer you are to students, the better they behave—in theory. So, I picked up my fifteen-pound literature book and lugged it around with me to walk up and down the aisles as we read, stopping by him. However, it didn’t matter whether or not I was sitting in his lap; no level of proximity was going to get this kid to shut his mouth.
So, I used the next tool in the classroom management toolkit: moving the student away from the source of his distraction. I moved him to the very front of the room, right up against the dry-erase board. His back was to the class, so he couldn’t see anyone. The idea was that he wouldn’t be a distraction because he couldn’t see the reactions of the people he was trying to amuse. But he outsmarted me.
As I was walking up and down the aisles reading, one of the aforementioned football-players-to-be got out of his desk and approached me with a frightened look on his face. “Mrs. M, Mrs. M, I just received a text message from an unknown number saying my dad has been shot. I have to go into the hallway and call.” I stuttered some incomplete questions, “Who? What? Where?” and he said, “Please! It’s an emergency!”
At that point demon student stood up from his place up front and with a sly grin said, “Aww, no man, that was me. I was just messing around.” Now I was the frightened one. The hulking football-player-to-be had murder in his eyes. He yelled violently and kicked his desk over with a loud crash. He walked up to the other student as if he were going to punch him, pursed his lip angrily, and then turned around. He stormed to the back of the room and started staring fixedly out the window. My heart was pounding in my chest, but I finally remembered that I was supposed to be in charge. I yelled at the demon student, “Get out in the hall! NOW!”
As soon as we were in the hallway, he stated repeatedly, “Please don’t write me up. Please don’t write me up. I will not do anything ever again. I’m sorry.” He explained to me that he and the other student had experienced issues with one another in the fall semester in which they had a falling out and fights and that they were never supposed to have problems ever again. He knew that if he received a referral with the other student’s name on it that he would be in some big trouble. I laid into him about how he had better be in trouble and how he had better be thankful that the other boy happened to find some self-control or he’d have been pummeled. I wrote him up. He ended up getting one day of out-of-school suspension, or OSS for short. One day. That day I learned something about classroom management: No matter how well you think you’re taking care of things, mayhem always finds its way in.
It’s All About Relationships
I survived that semester. I’d like to say that I learned a lot of lessons and had it all figured out the next year, but that’s not entirely true. It never got any easier. But what I did find out the next year was exactly how much I’d meant to those students. Their abandonment issues had made them a little untrusting, but once they found out that I was sticking around, they really latched on tight. Except, of course, for third period.
In my repeater classes, my I-hate-school-and-everything-else-in-this-world students were working for me. They were laughing with me. They didn’t skip my classes. They didn’t cuss at me when I asked them to do work. I never would have thought misbehavior possible of most of them if I hadn’t been told stories about them in the teacher’s lounge. They believed that I cared about them and were willing to work for me because of that. My number one classroom management tool ended up being my attitude. I conveyed to my students that they could never burn me so badly that I wouldn’t respect them when they turned things around. They could spit in my face one day (hopefully metaphorically), and as long as they came in ready to behave the next day I would treat them as if nothing had happened. I didn’t carry grudges. I had short-term memory. I learned that if you don’t give them another chance, they have absolutely no motivation to change.
Not all of my students were success stories—even in the long run. One or two eventually dropped out of school. One had a baby; another had two babies. That was a fun conversion. “Mrs. M, you’re going to be sooo disappointed in me. I did it again.” But many of them stuck it out and graduated. And when they did, I attended their graduation even though I no longer taught at that school. And they hugged me and cried.
Of the two students from 3rd period whom I had to kick out of class every day, one moved away, and the other was in my repeater class the next year. He didn’t work a whole lot better than he had the year before, but he had certainly mellowed. Pretty early into the school year he was pulled out for some alternative schooling situation at his mother’s request, so I don’t know if he would have been a behavior problem. What I do know is that when he returned the following year, I seemed to be his favorite person on Earth. He would ask to use the restroom and use his hall pass to walk into my room and sit down with a huge smile on his face. He would take whatever assignment we were working on and start right on it. I would have to tell him to go back to his class, but it felt good. He knew I never gave up on him.
He wasn’t the only one.
One of the other students from third period came back the very first day of his sophomore year and apologized and told me I was his favorite teacher. As only my second year teaching, it was the first time I’d ever had former students. I didn’t know this would happen. I didn’t know that magically these students would mature over the summer break and come back with a whole new perspective.
Another of the students from third period who was a borderline behavior problem, along with a few favorites from my fourth and fifth periods, ended up having me again when I was assigned to teach a junior-level class the following year. They came to my defense if a student was giving me trouble. They came to visit me every day during their lunch breaks. It meant I never got any work done (I had a lunch period planning period), but I was able to give those students an adult who cared about their futures.
They would run in bursting with excitement and ask me to pull up the online grade book and see how they were doing in their classes. They would ask me about girls and decisions about what classes to take. And then one day I realized that all the hell I’d been put through was worth it. The student was visiting me at lunch and showing me his grades, and he got all serious all of a sudden and said, “You know, it’s because of you and Mrs. B that I never joined a gang.”
The key to managing the urban classroom successfully is relationships. Relationships will make or break your ability to teach. I have always prided myself on my ability to form relationships. In forming a relationship, teachers have to be careful. If you jump the gun and assume you can make playful comments when, in fact, the relationship is not yet at that point, you can ruin everything. I made just such a mistake once, and I will never forget it.
It was my fourth year of teaching, and I had just started at a new school in the same district. About three weeks into the year, I experienced a glorious day on which the troublemaker in my worst class was absent. The next time the class met, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my teaching career in the context of damaging relationships. I thought that he and I had a sort of understanding. I thought we had progressed in our relationship enough that I could say it and change his behavior in a positive way. So, I said it: “Class was really great the other day when you weren’t there.” I said it lightly, and he had been smiling before I said it. His facial expression when he reacted said it all. He said, “Fine. I’ll leave,” turned back around, and ran down the hall. As it turns out, we’d had just enough of a relationship for my words to hurt him but not enough for my words to be forgiven.
I called after him to come back. I yelled apologies down the hallway, but he kept going. I expected him to walk in, flashing his wry smile, but he didn’t come back. He didn’t come to class for the next class period. I put a search out for him with campus security, but they could not locate him. He skipped my class for three weeks. He finally came back to class, grudgingly, when he had to answer the office referral I had turned in for his skipping.
By the time he returned to class, he was very far behind. He stopped doing any work. He refused to even open his binder. I tried to salvage the relationship. I let him know that I was concerned. I tried to make bargains with him to get even a little bit of work out of him. I failed again and again, but again and again I tried.
He started falling behind in other classes as well. I kept telling him how smart he was (and I meant it). I kept telling him that no matter what, if he turned it around, I would make things work out. Eventually, he ended up in the after-school program. He got enough referrals that he could no longer stay in the general population. I have never been as upset with myself as a teacher as I was for sabotaging that relationship.
My persistence did eventually pay off—but it took an entire school year. A few weeks into the following school year, he started coming around my door to say hello during class changes. I made sure to show an interest in how he was doing. He’d tell me he was doing all right, or if he would sheepishly tell me he wasn’t doing so well in something, I’d yell, “Come on, I know you can do better than that!” Every student needs to feel valued. I had devalued him, and it took me a full calendar year to repair the damage. I can’t say it enough: relationships are essential.
Authority in the Classroom
They don’t tell you this when they teach you classroom management tools in college. In college, they teach you to use those tools I mentioned earlier such as proximity, seating arrangements, and never making empty threats. But what they don’t tell you is that those tools and others work only when you have authority. Ultimately, the authority is not given to you by your job title; authority is given to you by the students.
It is a disturbing thought; the very second that the number of students who don’t give a flip becomes larger than the ones who do, you have lost your authority in the classroom. Consequently, teachers must be hyper aware of this delicate balance in every choice they make. There are ways to exacerbate difficult situations. If you screw up very publicly with even one student, you can lose the whole class. One of the worst, most-damaging situations a teacher can find herself in is the power struggle.
The power struggle doesn’t just happen; it grows. A simple situation becomes a catastrophic event within about three moves. Imagine a teacher is in front of the class lecturing using a slide presentation and taking example notes on the board. A student in the back is talking to his neighbor. The teacher asks him to please be quiet. A minute later, he is doing it again. The teacher has to stop her lesson yet again and ask him to stop.
The teacher resumes talking—and so does the student. The teacher is starting to get very frustrated. The rest of the class looks extremely annoyed except for the few buddies of the excessive talker. They look quite pleased. The teacher takes a few deep breaths and calmly asks the boy to move to another desk away from his friends.
The student decides he will comply with the teacher’s request but on his own terms. He gets up and moves to a desk near the one she specified—but not the one she specified. At this point, the teacher is now in a minor power struggle. The student has publicly, but subtly, defied her. She must make a choice. On the one hand, if she allows the student to stay in the seat he chose, she can avoid the chance of a major power struggle. However, by so doing she conveys to the rest of the class that her directives don’t need to be followed, and she loses credibility and authority in the classroom.
On the other hand, if she asks the student to move to the actual seat she specified, the student could refuse, putting herself and the student into that major power struggle. At that point, the student could comply, or he could become violently angry; both are quite plausible.
Since the teacher does not want to set the precedent that it is all right to disobey her directives, she politely asks the student to move to the desk she had specified. The student refuses. So, major power struggle it is. Again the teacher finds herself in another choose-your-own-adventure book. Once you are in a power struggle, you can choose to lose or you can choose to dig deeper or (my personal favorite) you can choose to disengage. Losing involves giving in, sometimes coupled with an attempt to save face such as, “Fine, that seat is good enough anyway.” Digging deeper involves giving the student more directives which he will refuse to obey. Disengaging means trying to give the student an opportunity to save face while still complying with your directive.
In order to disengage, the teacher must give the student the illusion that he has a choice. Some disengagement attempts are better than others. One of the best is just to remove the student from the public classroom to the private hallway with a “Can we talk outside for a moment?” If this doesn’t work, however, the teacher has to get a little more passive-aggressive. This is when she sighs and nonchalantly says, “Either you can move yourself, or I can call campus security and have them move you.”
Usually the student decides that being forcibly removed from the classroom by campus security would be more embarrassing than losing a power struggle. If he doesn’t, however, an office referral is another way for the student to gladly accept his punishment, feeling like he won. The teacher doesn’t get him into the seat she specified, but at the very least the problem goes away.
Fights are another daily reality in an urban school that are completely foreign to suburban schools. In my entire four years as a student in a suburban high school, only one fight occurred. By the time I’d been teaching for four years, I had witnessed ten and personally broken up four.
One of the fights I had to break up happened in my own classroom. It was in my demon class of that year (there’s always at least one) at the end of the day and occurred between two students who were on-again-off-again friends. One was clearly the self-assured dominant kid; the other a groupie follower who considered himself lucky if someone paid any attention to him whatsoever. The groupie kid had annoyed the dominant kid, and the dominant kid made an insulting crack about the annoying kid.
The annoying kid had to save face, so he ran up and hit the dominant kid in the back. The dominant kid turned around and grabbed him and they were pushing and shoving right in the middle of my classroom. I ran up to them, got in between them, and pulled the dominant student away across the classroom.
While I was talking to him and calming him down, the annoying kid grabbed a really heavy literature book and came up behind me with the book held over his head, reached over my head, and attempted to throw the book at the student with whom I was speaking. The book dropped straight down in front of me, narrowly missing my nose.
I pulled the dominant kid into the hallway and called to the security officer who happened to be down the hall. He came running, along with a colleague of ours who had been on his planning period. They stood there waiting for me to fill out office referrals and then took both students away. Each student received one day of ISS.
In another fight I had to break up, I was in the middle of teaching a class in my demon class when I heard frantic calls for help coming from the teacher-next-door’s demon class. I knew she had a substitute that day, so I started to run out immediately. Every single student in my class simultaneously got out of their seats, so I had to turn around and yell, “Don’t even dare take one step out of this classroom,” and then slammed the door behind me.
When I got next door, two students were engaging in violent punching. I didn’t even know how to break it up without receiving injuries of my own. Just then the math teacher from the classroom on the other side of me came barreling in. He wasn’t a very big guy, but he was a reservist recently back from Afghanistan. He jumped in, grabbed one student, and started to take that student into the hallway.
The remaining student saw this as an opportunity to get in a few more licks. He ran after the teacher and attempted to hit the other student from over the teacher’s head. Instead, he hit the teacher in the back of the head with a downward swinging motion not once, not twice, but three times. He would have kept swinging if I hadn’t finally processed what was happening and grabbed the kid by the arm.
He instantly started repeating, “I didn’t mean to hit the teacher,” as I pulled him away from his previous target. The gracious teacher had not turned around and punched him, but later he did say that he was one hit away from doing so. The substitute teacher, with the-deer-in-the-headlights look on his face, continued with his own refrain of, “Now everybody just calm down.” Everybody was anything but calm.
Breaking up a fight is always a big gamble. As a teacher, you have to hold out hope that the students will stop swinging at the risk of hitting a teacher. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Just last year a teacher ended up in a headlock as a thank you for breaking up a huge fight occurring during a class change. Heavy consequences were handed out, but these students are impulsive—they don’t think about consequences; they think about the here and now and their strongest desires at the moment.
Teachers who don’t want to end up in headlocks or at the receiving end of a handgun need to try to strengthen within the students the desire to learn, succeed, and cultivate relationships. Of course, for students to care about maintaining a relationship there must first be a relationship worth maintaining. In a nutshell, classroom management in a suburban setting is about using consequences to discourage students from misbehaving. In urban settings, classroom management is about using relationships to make students want to behave.