A Jesuit's Advice On Classroom Management

Looking back upon my own experiences as a teacher, I can attest without any hesitation that the steepest learning curve to contend with is classroom management. Students I taught as a first-year teacher, now well into college, delight in reminding me of my own trials. Without question, I learned by trial and error.

A new teacher, after reading an essay I wrote called The Jesuit Guide to Teaching, wrote me to ask about advice in managing the classroom. He has been challenged by the administration not to be "too nice" and to "harden his heart" in order to maintain discipline.

I resonated with his initial response to this directive. He writes:
To be honest with you, I have a difficult time discerning when to turn theother cheek and when to flip over the tables and crack the whip in certainsituations. Christ was a man of great kindness, yet he used brutal honestyand even force to make his views known. What should I do? How can I showlove to my students while being firm?
It is, of course, difficult to give truly concrete advice without being present in the classroom to notice the dynamics. That said, let me offer a few limited words of counsel.

  • The classroom is not an inert gathering. Indeed, the idea of an "inert gathering" seems to be something of an oxymoron. Look at each class as a system with many moving parts. As you look at the group, identify the subgroups. If you have a particularly unruly class, some sort of group dynamic is feeding this. You must identify the dynamics of the classroom in order to address the issue head-on. 
  • Once you have identified subgroups - and these take many and various forms - ask yourself, "What is the nature of the disruption?" Farting, in my estimation, tends to be lower on the priority because I had strategically placed air fresheners in the areas I frequented. Thus, when someone let one rip, I didn't feel the need to put energy into the system. My general lack of response didn't feed into their disgusting habits and such practices abated pretty quickly.
  • Here is the key, then: where will you put your energy? My "triggers" tended to be any sort of bullying toward other students and blatant disrespect toward me. Because I strove mightily to show them respect and to treat them like adults, I could expect them to do likewise. When they failed at this, I called them to account for it. 
  • One way of handling this is to be very clear about what is expected in the classroom. Tell them of your expectation and the consequence. One of them will test you, so you must follow through. Failure to do so renders you a doormat: all bark, no bite. 
    • Consider: a parent at the supermarket has a child throwing a tantrum and making a huge scene. The parent issues a threat: "If you don't stop, we're going to leave. You have until the count of three. One...Two...Three. I'm not kidding, you need to be good, okay? I'm not warning you again...". We've all seen a variation on this. Once the child learns that there's no follow-through, no consequence, all bets are off. At some point, you must identify and hold the line 
  • When you do hold a student accountable, do not negotiate with them in the class. This is a waste of time and it threatens to make a spectacle of discipline. Students have an innate sense of Schadenfreude: a curious sense of delight at seeing harm caused to another. You simply cannot put more energy into the system. If they have an issue, curtly inform them that they may see you after school (not after class). 
    • That said, reserve the "See me after class" line for unilateral use. Don't give reasons and don't converse with the student. If there's an issue you feel a need to address, say simply, "X, please see me after class." When you get the "What? What'd I do??" simply say, "As I said, please see me after class and we'll discuss it."
  • As I said in my earlier essay, don't yell. Once you've lost your cool, you have ceded ground you'll never get back. You're a professional. They can't vote, freshmen can't drive, they don't have high school diplomas, they seldom pay taxes, and they can't enlist in the army. Why are you going to give them control over you? 
  • After two months, you may feel as though the battle is over and that you'll have to wait until next year to gain control. You don't. What you do need to do is start implementing rules. Isolate a behavior you must address. When you see it, name it publicly: "So that we are clear, Chris, we do not insult other students in this classroom." If the behavior persists, now that you've named it, follow through with a consequence. "Chris, I warned you already. You have a detention." OR "Sarah, you heard what I said to Chris. You have a detention." The USA doesn't negotiate with terrorists, so don't negotiate with freshmen. Be clear, be fair, and be consistent. 
  • Especially for young teachers, it's okay to make mistakes. No one expects you to have a bag of tricks at the ready. You are expected, however, to have the sense to seek out good mentors. If there's a teacher who has excellent classroom management skills, take the initiative and invite the person to observe you. 
  • A few other things:
    • Don't waste time on taking role. You should know where the students sit by now. If you have a seating chart, do a quick glance up and down the row and make a note of it. 
    • Stand at the front of the class when they enter. You are the boss. When they come in, direct them to their seats and don't let them wander. 
    • Be clear with them, in an ongoing way, of what the immediate expectation is. If they're taking notes, they don't need other books/calculators/etc. on the desk. 
    • Move around. Do you remember, I think Jurassic Park, the idea that T-Rex couldn't see you if you didn't move? Well, it's the opposite: they will only notice you if you move. The more you move, the more on alert they are: they'll focus on you. If you don't move, or get out from behind the podium, they will venture out either by talking or moving about. Your best defense is a mobile offense. Keep them guessing
  • Above all else, show them respect. If you make a bad call, apologize. If you believe what you're doing is the right course of action, stick with it. If necessary, call the parents and get them on your side. They are hearing one, very skewed version of events. You need to be your own PR person. If you have a kid who's being a pain in the rear, call the parents. "Hi Mrs. ______, this is Ryan Duns from _______. I teach ________ in _________ class and I just wanted to share with you some things I've noticed these past few weeks and get a sense of how we could work together to address these issues." If the kid comes in, angry that you called the parents, simply say that your first duty is to their formation as both thinkers and as persons. Personally, I would say something like, "Chris, as your teacher I am here both for your academic and spiritual formation. I would like to have raised this with you man-to-man, but nothing in your behavior has given me any reason to believe that you were mature enough to handle such a conversation. Am I wrong in this? " This way, you've made the kid take ownership of his own actions and you've forced him to give some sort of account. 
Again, I'm no guru and I've made just about every possible mistake. If I was good at anything, I reckon, it was learning from my many mistakes. If you give up on classroom management now, in October, you'll be dead by May/June. It's never to "love them into wholeness" and contribute to their formation. They are forming you into a better teacher and you owe it to them to dedicate all of your personal resources to meeting their needs. As you grow as a competent teacher, so will they grow into more fully formed adults. 


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