The First Law of Classroom Management

What are the most frequently mentioned reasons why teachers quit teaching? Some exit excuses include low pay, lack of administrative support, not enough time to prepare, and extra duties. These discouragements occur among both Christian and public school teachers, but Christian teachers have additional reasons they cite for leaving teaching, such as too many different preparations each day and teaching assignments in an area outside their field of preparation. However frequently these reasons are cited by teachers, they still are not the primary reason why teachers leave teaching.

Even Christian teachers, who enter the profession with a missionary zeal and view their profession as a calling from God, still fall prey to the number one all-time, unnerving, finger-drumming , foot-patting, eye-glazing, hair-thinning, reason for closing the classroom door and leaving, never to return: the inability to control students behavior. Classroom management, teachers claim, seems to get more difficult every year. You've heard the litany: students are getting worse; we can't do much when we have them so little time; the society is out of control, so we can't expect much from students;, government leaders don't discipline themselves, so why should students behave. Christian teachers add, "The parents drop their students off at the door for us to teach them, but they don't support our Christianity in their homes."

Teachers who cite these reasons for leaving teaching dwell only on past failures rather than looking forward to solutions. The Bible encourages us "to forget those things which are behind, and reach forth unto those things which are before" (Phil. 3:13). This article is written to lessen the hand-wringing of past failures and to suggest time-tested procedures that will bring about classroom order and enable teachers and administrators to breathe more easily.

Harry and Rosemary Wong in The First Days of School warn that the beginning teacher "will be expected to perform [a] full complement of duties while learning them at the same time." (p.16). Being thrown into the breach awakens the new teacher to a few things that were left out of his teacher education program and some problems that weren't revealed during student teaching.

The saying "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" is particularly important for beginning teachers. Even an experienced teacher, who may be moving to a new school or taking over a new class, would do well to remember that getting off to a good start is significant in avoiding future problems. The teacher can make several significant preparations for that first day. Before the students show up, most schools provide teachers with a class roster. Usually the teacher looks at it, counts the number of students, and puts it aside. The wise teacher, however, considers this roster a tool for a good beginning. It will enable him to take the initiative when the students enter his room for the first time.

Using the roster, the teacher can assign seats ahead of time. He might set the seating chart on the overhead projector, attach the name cards to the desks, or indicate in some other way where the students are to sit. Then the teacher will be free to greet them at the door and welcome them to his room. He will confirm for them that they are in the right place and make them feel at home. A smile, a handshake, and an encouraging word all let the students know that you think they will make a great contribution to your class.

According to the Wongs, the first job of an effective teacher is to get the students to work on a task that he has predetermined. While others are being greeted and still coming into the room, the teacher should give the students who have arrived a task to begin work on. The assignment could be written on the board or on a handout at their seats. It might include filling out a questionnaire with important biographical information or writing a description of former teachers and what they learned from them. Many of the students will not want to do this because "school hasn't started yet." Explain to them quietly that school has started in your room and that you will be collecting this first-day assignment shortly.

When all the students have arrived and are still working, you can take the attendance with your prearranged seating chart. There may be legitimate reasons for taking attendance by reading the students' names aloud, such as learning how to pronounce names correctly. But for the most part, this ritual wastes valuable instructional time, and over-repeated readings communicate to the students that working and learning are not so important after all. Bells are a convenience for administrators, and they help teachers know when all the students should be there, but bells do not start or end classes. Teachers do that. This first beginning, then, is an opportunity to teach this first procedure.

The second procedure to teach the students on this first day is the simple operation of handing in their papers. For example, have the students pass the papers from their right to left, one after the other, so that the pile stays intact. When all the papers reach the students on the far left, have them pass the papers to the front, each student putting his pile on top of the pile handed to him from behind. Whatever procedure you use, give the instructions, rehearse the procedure, and, if necessary (and it will be), do it again until it is right.

By the time your first class has begun, you will have done two important things. You will have demonstrated to the students that you are a capable leader who knows what you want and what you are doing. You will also have taught them what they are to do with these two procedures that they will encounter every day of this school year.

After you have collected these first papers, you should make your opening speech. Prepare it carefully. You don't have to read it verbatim, but to ensure that you will not omit anything, you might write it out. Your speech will probably include what the class will be studying this year. Tell the students about the projects you have planned and the books they will be reading. Use this occasion to post your classroom rules, which should amount to no more than five, and to give each student his own copy of these rules.

There are other laws of successful classroom management, but none so critical as this first law of classroom management: the law of new beginnings. The first class is unlike any other. You will never have another opportunity to meet this group of students for the first time. Use the time wisely.

Read my second article, More Laws of Classroom Management

 by Bill Yost. Updated September 6, 2016.

© 2023