I’ve seen a lot of new teachers throw their hands up and quit teaching because their classes were driving them nuts.  And we’ve all thrown our hands up in the air at some point in the past for the same reason.  Let’s face it:  Students have an amazing capacity to make even the calmest teachers lose their marbles.

Why do the students drive us nuts sometimes?

Depending on the teacher and the circumstances, there are a number of different reasons that misbehavior drives us crazy:

  • It challenges our authority.  All of us know, one way or the other, that we simply can’t make our class into a dictatorship.  Though it would sometimes be nice to tie the kids in their chairs and force them to listen, this is neither a legal nor a sane way to conduct classes.  Ultimately, we control our classes through implied authority, so when students are disrespectful it chips away at our control.
  • It exposes our fundamental weaknesses.  The only time we can teach is when the kids allow us to teach.  Though we have been given the task of putting knowledge in their heads, it’s clear to anybody who has been in a classroom that we can only do this if the class allows it.  After all, if the class simply refuses to listen, we have no real recourse if they’re determined to persist.  When students misbehave, it exposes the fact that we aren’t the only ones with power in our classroom.
  • It detracts from our educational goals.  Regardless of subject, we all want to make sure that our students learn the basics of our subject while in our classes.  Furthermore, the government where we live, while not particularly concerned with learning, is interested in being able to demonstrate that their students do well on standardized tests.  Every minute the kids spend goofing around is one minute we’re not teaching.
  • It takes away our power with administrators and parents.  If the other adults in our professional lives hear that we can’t control our students, we will lose their trust.  If we lose their trust, we can no longer count on their support when we need it.
  • It’s annoying.  If the kids are talking away in the back, it’s hard for me to focus on my job.  More than likely, the students around them are also distracted.

These facts paint a pretty bleak picture for us teachers.  We don’t have any real power, we are accountable to just about everybody, and we’re easily distracted.  Despite this, most teachers eventually learn to control their classes and get the job done.  How?

A disclaimer:

If you’re a new teacher, you’ve heard dozens of theories regarding classroom control. You’ve read about power dynamics and perceived control and so forth, and the only thing that each of these ideas have in common is that they agree the others are wrong.  Thanks, theorists.

I’d like to say that this is different, but it’s not.  These ideas have always worked for me and my classes, but I’m not going to be so arrogant as to say that they’ll work for everybody. Every teacher has a different personality, as does every student, every class, and every school.  I have found that these ideas work for my personality in a variety of public and private schools, but would never suggest that they contain some sort of gnostic significance.  Please take my ideas with a grain of salt, and please don’t assume that these are the secrets of the teaching universe.

Let’s make some assumptions!

Before we can figure out how to effectively control a classroom, there are some basic assumptions we have to make about how the teaching profession works.  My idea assumes that the following statements are true:

  • Students don’t like being bored.  While all students recognize that school will sometimes be boring and all teachers recognize that some topics are kind of dull, you cannot push the students into accepting boring things all of the time.  Some discipline problems aren’t caused by lack of respect, but because the students can’t stand being bored.
  • Students like to learn.  This goes along with the point above.  Our students, like people everywhere, like to see new things and to be exposed to new ideas.  If you show the students these new things, they’ll listen.
  • Students like structure.  Everybody likes a routine.  When I wake up, I hang out with my son, walk him to the bus stop, write for a few hours, pick him up from the bus, and do homework with him before making dinner.  Though I may write about different things and mix things up a bit, the routine itself keeps me from feeling lost as I go through my day.  Our students are the same way – they’re happiest when they generally understand what to expect.
  • Students are honorable.  Given a choice between two things, our students will almost invariably choose the course that helps the most people and demonstrates moral fiber. Though they may misbehave, they fundamentally want to do the right thing.
  • Students dislike being treated as children.  Our students are nearly adults and have complex ideas about how things work.  They are greatly insulted when people refuse to acknowledge their thinking as valid.
  • We don’t know what happens at home.  Any given school undoubtedly contains students who have lots of money and students who depend on food stamps.  One boy might be encouraged by his soccer coach to reach for a Division I scholarship and another may have a Boy Scout leader who looks at him with leering eyes.  One girl may work two jobs after school, while another is given $200/week spending money.  We simply don’t know what our students deal with at home, and making assumptions about their lives is a bad idea.

You may or may not agree with these assumptions, but it’s safe to say that, even if our students don’t necessarily adhere to them, they certainly understand that they are statements that most students would agree with.  And, when dealing with people, it’s often just as important to appeal to their ideals as it is to their realities.

How to handle your classroom

The ultimate key to running a classroom is respect.  If you show your students respect, they will respect you in turn.  You can’t fake respect, and you can’t simply say that it exists if it doesn’t.  Respect is something that has to be genuine, and has to be consistent.

Let’s see how this works with each of the assumptions above.

Assumption 1:  Students don’t like being bored

Being respectful to your students means that we have to deal with this boredom directly. If something is boring, there’s nothing wrong with saying something like “I know this is boring, but it’ll come in handy later.”  If you admit that something is dull, you’re acknowledging that their criticisms are valid, but if you state that it’s also important, you’re letting them know that it still needs to be done.  This honesty won’t cause you to lose control – it will strengthen it.

Assumption 2:  Students like to learn

Being respectful to your students means that you teach them.  Don’t give them “make work” worksheets or homework assignments with 50 questions, because when you do this, they’re not actually learning anything.  Unless a video is unusually good, it won’t teach the students anything and they’ll recognize it as a time-killer.  Your students want to know how the world around them works, so minimize those things that fail to do this.

Assumption 3:  Students like structure

If you give your students some degree of structure, you’re showing them that you understand their need for regularity and predictability.  This doesn’t mean that you have to be boring or do everything exactly the same every time, because that’s really antithetical to the idea of being a good teacher.  Come up with a routine and general pattern of teaching, and your students will realize that you understand this need.

To give you an idea of what this looks like, I’ll tell you about the routine that my class follows:

  • Me (yelling): Good morning class!
  • Students:  Good morning Mr. Guch.
  • Me (referring to the front board, which has the day’s agenda, the homework for the past few days, and a list of upcoming events):  Today we have a fantastic day full of wonder and mystery.  First off, we’re going to go over the homework to make sure that you’ve all acquired your chemistry knowledge for the day.  Next, we’ll discuss the lab you did last week, followed by an exciting talk about the magic of stoichiometry.  We’ll do some practice problems, and then it’s off to the lab to make a mess.  Remember that we’ve got a quiz coming up next Tuesday, so come on in and get help if you need it.  Questions?
  • Students:  Usually no questions.

From here, I do exactly what I said I’d do above.  Going over the homework takes perhaps three minutes (I just go over the answers and discuss any questions the students have trouble with), the lecture for the day takes 10-15 minutes, the practice takes ~20 minutes (may vary depending on subject matter), and the lab takes the rest of the period.  My students know exactly what they’ll be doing every day, and this is reinforced by the fact that I start every day in exactly the same way.

Incidentally, this routine makes my life easier, too.  Some days I’m tired and don’t know what I’m doing, and this routine gives me something to work with when planning my lesson in the morning.  I’m sure all of you probably have a morning routine that you follow before heading to work:  Why stop when you get there?

Assumption 4:  Students are honorable

I taught at a school one time where the required procedure while taking in-class tests was to have the students put all unnecessary materials in their bags, and then put the bags in a pile at the front of the room.  Cheating was rampant.

I almost eliminated this problem by getting rid of this requirement.  By showing the students that I respected them enough to trust them to do the right thing, they were more likely to actually do it.  Other teachers seemed to really believe that their students were constantly trying to pull something over on them, so the students reacted in kind.  When I treated them as if they were honorable people, the behavior ceased.

When I did catch a student cheating – it’s inevitable that somebody will – I’d usually have him or her stay after class to talk to me.  I’d confront them with the evidence and then tell them that, off the record, I wanted to know the truth.  I had a reputation for telling the truth, so my students knew that if I said something was off the record, it was truly off the record.

Probably 90% of the time the kids would confess and explain why they had cheated.  These kids weren’t amoral little monsters – they were just trying to do OK on a quiz so they could get better grades and make their parents happy.  My response was always the same:  “Do you want to be the kind of person who does the wrong thing to get ahead, or do you want to be the kind of person who does the right thing?”  And then I’d give each student a choice:  Take whatever grade they received on their quiz through cheating, or take a zero on the quiz and clear their conscience.  I never had anybody choose to accept the fake grade.  Ever.  They always chose to do the right thing.

This worked out in other ways.  When I’d have a kid acting up in class, I’d remove him or her into the hall for a minute or so.  When I came to a natural stopping point, I’d then go outside and explain to them that I didn’t kick them out as a punishment, but because they were disturbing the class.  I’d then ask them if everything was OK with them, and if anything was going on that I should know about – this established that I assumed (usually correctly) that their misbehavior was caused by a response to something else.  Finally, I’d usually end with some variation on “Listen, you know better than this.  I expect better from you, and I’m pretty sure you expect better from yourself.”  And that’s it.  No punishment, no yelling, no blame.  By treating my students as if they were reasonable people who prefer to choose right over wrong, we help to turn our students into people who will choose right over wrong.

[Incidentally, my tendency to ask if everything was OK with the students would occasionally get my students to talk about issues they were having – some quite serious.  In addition to the usual “trouble with friends” and “trouble with family”, I was able to pick up on one substance abuse problem and three kids contemplating suicide.  All had happy endings, thank God.]

A corollary to this point is the very important:  Students expect you to behave honorably.  If we tell our students that we expect them to tell the truth, we need to tell the truth.  If we tell our students that it’s their responsibility to fix their mistakes, we need to fix our mistakes.  If we do something wrong, we have to admit it and do whatever it takes to fix it.

If you always tell the truth, you’ll find that before long, you’ll have the reputation of somebody who never lies.  And if people know that you’re telling the truth, you’ll have a much smoother time dealing with the students who know they can count on your honesty, and parents or administrators who know that they’re dealing with somebody who will always tell it like it is, even when it makes you look bad.  And really, shouldn’t you be 100% honest anyway?

Assumption 5:  Students hate being treated like children

Here’s some bad news for those of you who treat your high school students as if they were little kids:  They aren’t.  Our students aren’t little kids whose biggest worry is about getting XYZ toy for Christmas or getting home quickly to play with Paul from across the street. I’ve discussed topics like politics, religion, history, and futurism with many students in the past, and they’ve taught me a lot of things that I had never considered before.  Our students are not only smart and thoughtful, but also excited about sharing these things with the world.

When teachers realize this, there are a couple of common responses.  One is to treat students as equals because they have the same cognitive ability as adults, while the other is to squash them down and treat them as children to keep them in their places.  Both of these are very bad ideas.

In my experience, high school students are a weird mixture of adult and child.  Here’s why:

  • High school students have the capacity to think about the same things as adults, and to make good judgements based on what they hear.  On the flip side, teenagers don’t have the same experience and knowledge as adults, so they don’t have anything to draw on in order to learn about what works in the world and what doesn’t.  When teenagers make bad decisions, one of the possible reasons is that they’ve made good decisions based on very incomplete knowledge.  And, unluckily for them, they only pick up this knowledge by observing and learning for many years.
  • High school students live in adult bodies and experience the same “desires” that adults do.  Unfortunately for them, teenagers don’t have any experience controlling these emotions.  Let’s just go ahead and say something that most people won’t admit:  Teenagers usually have the bodies of adults.  The boys are tall and have deep voices, while the girls have grown their boobs and grown out of that weird bony phase. However, even though biology may be telling these kids that it’s time to get romantic, the kids simply neither have the judgement to make good decisions about their sexuality, nor any practice controlling these desires.  What we see as inappropriate sexuality on the part of girls and clumsy romantic attempts on the part of boys is the way that they’re learning how to be adults.  This may be easy to dismiss from the viewpoint of a teacher, but for them these feelings are very real, and very much part of what it means to be an adult.
  • High school students like both childish and grown-up things.  I once had a student who programmed his own computer – to figure out the best way to make stable Lego structures.  I had another girl who was a leader in her class and active in both school and church – who informed me one day that she was going to have a “Barbie party” with her friends in which they’d all bring over their favorite Barbies to play. Though this is only a guess, I can only assume that our students are excited about the future, but still know and love the things from their childhood.  Thus, they live with one foot in both worlds.

So, what do you do in the classroom to deal with this?  Treat the students as equals – or as much like equals as you can.  What this means is that you:

  • Don’t talk down to students:  They are thinking and rational people and don’t deserve this insult.
  • Don’t get too bent out of shape about weird clothing and behavior:  Obviously, if these things are disruptive to the class or offend morals, it’s entirely reasonable to ask for them to change.  However, even in these cases, don’t make a federal case out of it, because what they’re doing is natural for kids their age.
  • Don’t put up with their nonsense:  Our students realize that when adults behave badly, they are punished fairly swiftly in a fair, but severe way.  If a student talks back, you don’t need to give him three warnings – discipline him immediately with the phrase “Come on, you know better than to behave like this.”  Being an adult means responsibility, and along with the privileges of being treated as an adult come the responsibilities to act like one.
  • Be flexible:  Some of your students are nearly adults, while others are basically kids. There’s nothing wrong with tailoring your punishments to each kid based on where they’re coming from and their level of maturity.  This is what happens in the “real world”, and you can do this, too.
  • Don’t do demeaning activities to keep them entertained:  I’ve played games with my classes before, and many of them are silly little games that are based on childhood games such as Bingo and Battleship.  I’ve even had my students color stuff on a periodic table to make it simpler to understand.  However, you can only get away with these things if they are the exception to the rule, and if they clearly have some immediate educational goal.  If you have your students color on a regular basis or show them videos instead of teaching them the material yourself, the students will realize that you think of them as being simple-minded.
  • Assume they’re telling the truth:  Your students will sometimes tell the truth and sometimes lie.  Assume that they’re telling the truth, and only make judgements to the contrary if the evidence supports it.  It makes you look a little foolish if you let a guilty person off, but it makes everybody hate you if you punish an innocent person.

Assumption 6:  We don’t know what happens at home

There are few things as true as this.  If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you know what sorts of strange, funny, and tragic situations your students see on a daily basis. Even if your school has a reputation for one kind of student, don’t assume that this is true.

One of the best ways to use this in managing your classroom is to be a little bit flexible. We all know that homework needs to be turned in the day it’s due, but if one of your students works 10 hours a day after school (I’ve seen it), it won’t make your life any tougher to give him or her an extension from time-to-time.  Not only will that student be more likely to support you, but his or her friends will, too.

Another thing to consider is that your most troubled students may be the ones who need the most help from you.  I’ve had students who caused lots of trouble because they had just miserable situations at home, and I found that my willingness to help out – even if they didn’t want help – made a big difference.  Even if your students never reach out for help, it will mean a great deal to them if you make it known that you’re available to help if they need it.

The big conclusion

If I had to sum up my suggestions for handling discipline in a classroom, it would be in this sentence:

Treat the students like people.

Your students aren’t less smart than you are, less hard-working, or any less-interested in their education.  If you treat students with disrespect, you’re telling them that they are beneath you and that you don’t feel that it’s important to treat them right.  Treating your students respectfully isn’t just good for classroom management – it’s also a good way to keep you positive and optimistic about your students’ performances.

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