More Laws of Classroom Management

In last April's Balance, I wrote about the First Law of Classroom Management: The Law of New Beginnings. In this article, I would like to address four more important laws that will lead to better classroom management.

Law Two: The Law of First and Last

In a way, this second law is just an extension of the first. If you stop to think about it, everything, including whatever happens in the classroom, has a beginning and an end. What a teacher does at these critical points influences the students' behavior. Here is a comparison between what effective and ineffective teachers do at the first of every class period.

  • The effective teacher is in the room or at the door as the students arrive; the ineffective teacher is nowhere in sight.
  • The effective teacher assigns seating to students; the ineffective teacher lets students sit where they want and reshuffles them later.
  • The effective teacher has an assignment prepared for each student; the ineffective teacher grouses about administrative details and wastes time doing them. (Wong, The First Days of School, pp. 114, 115)

Classroom "firsts" are important, but the teacher should have an equally well thought-out plan for "lasts" in his classroom. Ending class well is another indication of an effective teacher. Here are some firsts and lasts that will not catch the effective teacher by surprise.

  • The first and last periods of the day can cause special problems if the teacher is not prepared for the unique restlessness that students naturally experience during these times.
  • The first and last minutes of every class require special energy and attention. It is alarming how much instructional time is lost at both ends of each class. Ineffective teachers tend to start class late and do not have their materials ready.
  • They allow the students to put away their books early, put on their coats and sweaters, and socialize during the last two to five minutes of every class. By contrast, effective teachers start on time with a purposeful lesson plan and utilize every minute, right up until the moment the bell rings.
  • The first and last minutes of any fire drill, assembly, or lunch break demand a plan that was thought out in advance. Effective teachers know what to do when the fire alarm sounds or announcements break up the instructional climate of a class. Ineffective teachers, however, do not anticipate these problems. They let the problems disrupt or control the direction of the class.

You can imagine how nervous one student teacher must have felt when the fire drill alarm sounded in the middle of one of her observed lessons. Instead of wringing her hands, however, she gave the students precise and accurate directions and led them to their assigned spot outside the building. When the fire drill was over and the students had filed back to the classroom, she began immediately with a short review of what they had done earlier and outlined what they would be doing the rest of the hour. She had made the first and last minutes count.

Law Three: The Law of Anticipating the Obvious

Because of the nature of schools, conflicts will happen and the unexpected will occur. Teachers should anticipate, rather than ignore, these situations that disrupt normal routines.

Take, for example, the school calendar. Events come–unusual weather conditions, holidays, PTA meetings, concerts, plays, etc.–and school will still be in session even though the students (and teachers?) want to be elsewhere. Unusual weather conditions are predicted in the Farmer's Almanac but are not usually scheduled on school calendars. But the effective teacher anticipates tornado warnings or other weather problems during certain times of the year.

Sometime after school starts in the new year, an annual pageant takes place, usually in northern schools. Some student, while trying to find the subjects and verbs in her workbook exercise, looks out the window and exclaims, "It's snowing, Miss Sledrunner!"

"I see it! I see it!" follow the others.

"Can we go outside just for a minute to catch some flakes on our tongues?"

"Yeah, Miss Freeze let us do it last year."

Now comes the defining moment for new teachers. In a teachers' manual, given to them at the start of school, they found a shopping list of standard speeches, like the annual "What-did-we-learn-from-our-summer-vacation?" speech that appears toward the front of all such manuals. Somewhere near the middle is the speech that comes into play for the situation that is causing the current disruption–the first appearance of snow.

Miss Sledrunner, manual in hand, opens it to the appropriate speech and utters these memorable words–words that have become school-lore classics:

"Awright, awright! You've seen snow before. Now grow up and sit down! Get back to work and find those subjects and verbs."

To reinforce her point, she closes the blinds in order to avoid further disruptions.

After running into this problem year-after-year, a veteran English teacher in Michigan gave up trying to get the students refocused on this unscheduled, but obviously predictable, day in the school year. Rather than let it become a source of disruption and personal irritation, she planned a lesson that could be taught whenever a snowfall came.

She found some stories and poems to read. They talked about their favorite snow activities and what their families did on snow days. She then had the students write about these activities, relating their writing to whatever they happened to be working on at the time, such as nouns, verbs, or writing skills. Having a snow-day lesson plan in her desk drawer, as well as other lesson plans for Valentines Day, Presidents' Day, Thanksgiving, etc., saved her a lot of headaches.

Being aware of situations that are likely to occur is one way of anticipating the obvious. Teachers should have a plan to follow when not if misbehavior occurs. This plan will help them to be assertive when it comes time to act and to be consistent when they have to deal with a variety of problems. Thinking ahead about what needs to be done, the effective teacher plans a course of action and acts affirmatively when the time comes to carry it out.

Law Four: The Law of Appearing to Know What You're Doing

At the beginning of your teaching experience, it is just as important to look as if you know what you're doing as it is to know what you're doing. A teacher has all year to demonstrate his knowledge of a subject, but only once does he have a window of opportunity to gain the confidence of the students. Here are a few suggestions to help teachers demonstrate this law to their students.

  1. Dress the part.

    Harry Wong likes to say that "you will be treated as you are dressed." You are more likely to be treated as a professional if you are dressed like one. In a day when some schools are moving to a more casual dress code for teachers, it would be a mistake for a teacher to begin the year, let alone his or her career, that way.

    An effective teacher does not have to be on the cutting edge of fashion but should not be on the trailing edge, either. Reasonably conservative attire with classic colors–grays, blues, browns– will help present a positive, professional appearance.

    Shoes should be comfortable but not casual to a fault. Athletic shoes are, by far, the most comfortable shoes I own, but they are not the shoes I wear when I need to project a positive image as a teacher. Today's shoe manufacturers offer a number of shoes that will satisfy both your comfort and your professional needs.

  2. Be proactive rather than reactive.

    Setting the tone for the class on the first day of school is one way to communicate to the students that you know what you are doing. Getting ahead, trying to circumvent difficulties before they occur, can do wonders for communicating professional behavior to students.

  3. Have a plan for classroom routines.

    There is a routine for almost everything a teacher does in the classroom, and teaching the students their responsibilities in carrying out routines correctly makes a difference in how they will behave. Routines should be established for beginning and ending a class; distributing and collecting papers; taking attendance; sending reports to the office; taking notes; conducting a fire drill; going to a pep rally or school assembly; conducting opening exercises; collecting homework; taking tests and quizzes; getting the students' attention; and for countless other procedures that the teacher and students must carry out in order to make the classroom an effective learning place.

    These routines have nothing to do with the knowledge of the subject you are teaching, but they have everything to do with the students' perception of whether or not you know your subject.

Law Five: The Law of Decisive Leadership

A teacher once asked me what was the most important factor in teaching. That sounded like one of those what's-the-most-important-lesson-in-life-and-tell-me-in-one-minute questions. Without too much hesitation, though, I told him, "Fire in your belly." That's an expression I use for internal motivation.

Many beginning teachers rely on management techniques but do not have the force of their convictions to support them. A student teacher who was having particular difficulty with managing her class stood in front of the room and tried a number of management techniques but was unsuccessful in bringing order to the classroom. She tried raising her hands in the hope that the students would see her and be quiet. She followed by putting her finger to her lips to try to get the students to stop talking. When this did not work, she said, "Give me five!"–a procedure for getting order that is encouraged by Harry Wong. She tried two or three other order-restoring techniques with similarly unsuccessful results.

Her problem was not that she was unaware of techniques that can be used to get students' attention. It was that she was unconvincing when she used them. The students knew by her voice, body posture, and facial expression that she did not mean what she said. She lacked the leadership that demanded attention.

Steven Daniels in How Two Gerbils, 20 Goldfish, 200 Games, and 2,000 Books and I Taught Them How to Read said about his first year failure, "By reacting to them instead of initiating action myself, I had failed to provide decisive leadership." Returning to school the next year after a year of failure, he began to show decisive leadership by anticipating where students were going to cause problems and taking preventive action before problems came up.

A teacher can flawlessly carry out the first four laws, but unless he or she has convincing intensity, learning all of Harry Wong's techniques–or anyone else's– will be superfluous.

There are more than five principles that lead to successful classroom management, but the five discussed in these two Balance articles are influential in the development and maintenance of successful classrooms. The Christian teacher is God's person in God's place, and the way the classroom is conducted ultimately influences the students' view of God. We want our classrooms to be not just places of learning but also centers of right conduct for God's glory.

 by Bill Yost. Updated October 21, 2015.

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