Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Managing a Classroom for Maximum Effectiveness and Minimum Stress

There is an old saying in the performance improvement area often used by Brian Tracy, though probably originated a lot earlier, that could be well applied to the concept of managing a classroom in a way that will allow kids to learn best while minimizing stress for the teacher: “it’s simple, but it’s not easy.” The simplicity comes from the fact that there are some very straightforward guidelines that can help us create a great climate for learning. The difficulty comes from being able to apply these how, when and where needed, and, more often, recalling and being able to use them effectively in the ‘heat of battle,’ in a manner of speaking. To lower the stress, we would do well to keep in mind a couple of ideas of the late Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale one of which is to, “relax for easy power.” Dr. Peale taught that if we can learn what to do in a situation and apply it consistently, this knowledge should allow us to relax, and our power will flow more easily. Dr. Peale also taught, that, “a clean engine, always delivers power” meaning that if we can keep our focus simple and avoid a lot of excess mental baggage, our mind and lives will function with strength in the same way that a properly cleaned and maintained engine will deliver a constant stream of power to an automobile.

So how do we approach things in a way that will allow us to relax and have an easy flow of clean instructional and learning power in our classrooms?  The starting point actually has little to do with our management skills and more to do with our instruction. The most effectively managed classrooms, perhaps not surprisingly, also tend to be the ones with the highest levels of student engagement, interaction and hands on activities that lead to student growth. An effectively managed class is usually an effectively taught class.  The teacher is aware of the skill levels and abilities of the students, and has designed activities and support levels that match those abilities and skills while challenging students to achieve to their highest level.  

Starting with getting the strategies for learning and activity mixes right, the teacher is able to create engaging instruction that makes classroom management simpler and easier. 

Knowing your students is an important component in being able to manage a class for learning.  Having some idea of the interests of your students outside the classroom is a critical aspect of being effective in managing a class.  You do not need to be an expert in all of the latest computer games, pop fiction or applications your students may be messing around with on facebook or twitter, but some knowledge of what engages them outside the class is critical. 

Doing something as simple as getting your students to use their phones to find out about a topic you are learning in class can create rapport. We often will do an activity where I will have the students see who can get the answer to a query by texting somebody or by searching on the internet.  This lets them see the connection between something most of them love to do anyway (use technology to chat or message friends) and what they are learning in school.  These connections make learning more real for students.

Knowing the limitations of students, what their skills are, what their frustrations are, what they are good at, all can help us in building learner profiles that will help us understand when and where to push a child to excel as well as where to back off. This knowledge can be built up over time by engaging in informal chats with students, having them write in journals, asking them about their concerns; especially critical is watching how they are in informal social engagements with their peers.

The issue of social engagement with other students is very important and is an area where we need to be aware of difficulties that students may be undergoing, as well as strengths, since these observations will tell us much that we cannot learn from day to day observations or academic data.

 Knowing a lot about our students may seem time consuming and not directly related to academic success, but we must remember:  Ultimately we do not teach math or history or science or language, we teach kids.  We are teaching students, people, and not subjects.  Understanding the needs of a child is critical to being able to effectively create learning opportunity and to having a properly balanced and well-managed environment where both achievement and social harmony are accepted and understood as integral to success.

Teaching to strengths is another critical aspect of learning that vastly simplifies the management task.  The more we understand our students and the abilities that they have, the natural tendencies and leanings in activities, the style of learning they most enjoy, the better we can help them learn and grow. We can use multiple intelligence or learning style inventories to get a handle on where students excel or where they are challenged, or even just observe them in classes or engage in dialogue with other teachers about what students are enjoying or excelling at in their classes will provide us with invaluable input.  Just being aware of the skills and abilities of our students changes how we respond to them, and makes us more cognizant of why they may be experiencing difficulties in certain areas or excelling in others.

If we have some grounding in how students think and feel or ‘what makes them tick,’ we will be better able to avoid triggering undesirable behavior in our students. Knowing what sets a student off and how to avoid triggering behaviors is very important to being effective in a classroom because this knowledge allows us to be proactive and avoid problems up front rather than reactively ‘putting out fires’ or having to deal with emergency after emergency.

When we know the challenges, we can accommodate:  I once had a student who for some reason could not work sitting down and became very frustrated when asked to sit for a period of time.  But if he was walking around, all of a sudden he went from being a troubled student creating disruption and disharmony to an average student with significant talents in certain areas, like math, for example. 

I had a chat with him and we made a deal: I give him a one meter zone around his desk and clearly showed where the lines for his roaming were limited (he could not touch his neighbor’s desks, or take any of their things, as an example.) Within this zone he was free to roam at will.  This adjustment made everybody happy; him, because he could be free to learn in a way that was best for him, me, because I was free to continue teaching without wasting time harping on him, and the other students, because they were all freed from the distraction he created when he started running round their desks.

You can even adjust something like this: Because we had administrators who were not comfortable with students being out of their desks during instruction, we had an arrangement whereby if certain individuals came in the room he could go back to sitting down for a few minutes until they left.

Another student with Aspergers, a type of disorder that makes it difficult to understand and deal with social situations, was often very combative in the class and wanted to argue constantly. He also enjoyed yelling out responses.  Again I worked with him individually to deal with the challenges.  I had a reward system whereby he got to do something he really liked in the last five minutes of each class session for avoiding yelling out for certain periods of time. Over a period of weeks we increased the time periods in which he had to go without yelling out responses.

When he became combative, I used to take him aside and talk to him, explaining that I was on his team and wanted him to succeed.  As an ex soldier myself, and dealing with a student who I knew liked the military, I would use an analogy:  If I were in your platoon and you were the platoon leader (he liked the idea of himself in command and me working for him!) would you shoot me in the back of the head if I was doing what you asked me to do?  He would laugh and say how crazy an idea that was.  Now you have to know the kids, as this would be most inappropriate with a lot of children, but for him it made him see what he was doing in a different light, and he would laugh and settle down to work as best he was able.

Dealing with problem students effectively, easily and simply with minimal stress requires that we be able to step aside and understand them as individuals with their own challenges.  As a general rule, we need to focus on the behavior, not the person. Changes can be made in behavior, but people as a rule are very resistant to changing who they are, and we also have no right as teachers to adjust personality types.

I always make it a point when I have to work with a student to improve behavior choice to start out by talking genuinely about something the student does well.  Talking about where the difficulty lays means that we work with the student on how the choice was unhelpful and what may need to be changed.  It is always best if you can get the student to see where and why change is needed.  Once that is done, you can work together on a plan for change and improvement. Always assume, even given contrary evidence, the student wants to improve and do the best they can.

Some students can be explosive.  It is most important to separate an explosive student from the class as early as possible when an episode occurs, for the sake of class safety.  It is very important to realize in an explosive episode that this has nothing to do with us as teachers and that our role is to help the student with the challenge. Though hard to do at times, we must not take the situation personally, as this will cause us to make mistakes that could make the situation worse. 

If a younger student is involved and they are crying uncontrollably, they may need to ‘cry it out’ and have a cooling off period.  As soon as possible after, it is important to let the child know you support and believe in them and that the difficulty they had in no way reflects how you see them as a person.  With an older explosive student, if you can get them to come to an understanding of what causes or precipitates an episode, you can develop a signal where they let you know there is a problem and may get the chance to go for a walk outside or visit another class for a few moments to let themselves cool down.  Any discussion of the difficulty should always be in private.

Avoiding conflict and stress in the classroom can be seen mostly as a result of negotiating with students effectively. This means that we treat them with respect, explain the reasons for what we are asking in terms they can understand, and where possible accommodate some of their requests and desires in the class so that they feel ownership as partners in the decision making process.  This is more important as students get older, but is even possible with very young students.  I have even seen kindergarten teachers let students decide which order they would like to do activities.  This ownership of decisions means that students will feel at least partly responsible for what goes on in the classroom, and that makes our job of managing the class much simpler.

As to rules, there have been thousands, probably millions, of pages written as to how to create rules that work in a classroom and we don’t really want to re-visit all of it here, but let’s look at a few ideas.  Generally the rules should be simple, stated in the positive in terms of what you want to happen rather than what you do not want to happen, and there should not be too many rules, four to five is ideal.  The rules should aim at qualities you want to develop such as respect, cooperation, fairness and kindness.  It is often valuable to let the students be involved in formulating the rules, at least to some extent, as again this will increase ownership and student responsibility for results in the class. Avoid negative rules as they will tend to bring out the ‘class lawyer’ who will try to find exceptions or areas where your negative rule does not work.

What should we consider, as ‘the last word’ as we conclude our discussion of some key aspects of classroom management?  It is important that we be aware of our own style and consider it in managing our class.  Often the style of the teacher is not even discussed in talking of how to manage a class, and this is a shortcoming of the research.  

Our style is critical!  If, like me, you are a teacher who is comfortable with a certain amount of noise (I actually enjoy it!) and even discussion not related to the topic at hand, and you are a little looser in terms of what you feel is ok or allowable in a class, you will manage a class much differently than if you are a naturally more quiet person and would rather have an environment with more order and precision.  It is ok for you to talk with students about this, and let them know that some of your preferences are personal, and that another teacher may well manage a class differently.

Kids need to learn that different conduct may be considered appropriate or inappropriate depending on the context.  Sometimes we as teachers may even mislead our students on this point.  I have even heard some teachers tell parents, “we need to be consistent, and expectations at home should match those in the classroom.” But that’s crazy!  I have a six and a seven year old son, and I wrestle with them and throw them on the sofa at home, but I am darn sure their teacher is not doing it! And I would not do it with them at school either.  Different environments, different circumstances, different personalities, different goals, all demand different behavioral responses.  It’s perfectly ok for your style, within the limits of fairness to the students, to at least partly dictate how you manage a class.

Let’s enjoy our classes, our kids, and our teaching!

Blessings, Dr. Andy

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