Have you ever walked by a classroom and seen all of the students working quietly on an assignment or actively participating in the lesson and then walking past the classroom next to it you see everyone is kind of doing their own thing while a lesson is in progress? I’m talking about cell phones out, chatting in the back of the classroom, heck chatting in the front of the classroom, work being done for other classes, or even games being played on their cell phone or laptop? When I see this, it always leaves me wondering, what did those teachers do different from one another that has their classes operating how they do.
Most will say, “Well it’s all about classroom management.” According to Elizabeth Mulvahill in her article What is Classroom Management, “classroom management refers to the wide variety of skills and techniques that teachers use to ensure that their classroom runs smoothly, without disruptive behavior from students.” Most of the people who I have encountered who work in education have a very similar definition of classroom management that they lead with. However, as I’ve read this definition, as well as many others that are similar, I find it very flawed.
But before I get to the why behind my dislike of the definition, I’ll start with my dislike for the idea of “classroom management” all together. At the beginning of every year, teachers are taught to start with their classroom rules, in an effort to set expectations and a precedent for what will be expected throughout the year. I start with, “There’s one rule in this classroom, what do you think it is?” Usually students begin to call out a few ideas such as, “No calling out,” “Keep your hands to yourself,” “No cursing,” “Ask to use the bathroom… “ etc. To each of these responses I answer NOPE. After several wrong guesses, I tell my students the one rule is RESPECT. We then list out the components of respect and what it entails or looks like depending on who we are talking about. What does respect look like in this classroom from student to student? What does respect look like from student to teacher? What does respect look like from students to themselves? (That is my favorite because it leads us to talk about accountability, effort and perseverance.) What does respect look like from me, the teacher, to them, the students?
The last one always throws them off. Usually they sit there for a few moments as if the idea of a teacher believing they should show their students respect was foreign to them. Well honestly for most it is. Not that they haven’t had teachers who were nice and kind to them before, but they chalk it up to that teacher just being a nice person in general. Most have never had someone out right tell them, “You deserve respect from me as well.” Well of course once they have gotten past the initial shock of the question, they all have answers to “What does respect look like from me to them?” I’d take a guess and say the influx of responses is a result of their experiences with teachers where they didn’t feel respected.
How I see it, there are two roles in the classroom. Neither can fully operate without the other. No one role is more important or superior to the other. As the teacher my role is to facilitate learning (which can be modeled in many different ways). The students’ role is to learn (not only content but life,) which can also be modeled in different ways, but also requires many different parts. Regardless of the role, both people need each other in order to hit their full potential for the role they are playing.
I said all of that to say, it isn’t my job to manage a class or a student, it’s our job, as the teacher and students, to create an environment where learning happens and we are both equally responsible for making that happen. The issue I have with Elizabeth Mulvahill’s definition of classroom management, “the wide variety of skills and techniques that teachers use to ensure that their classroom runs smoothly, without disruptive behavior from students,” is the ending. I teach high school mathematics grades 9-12 ages approximately 13-18. “Without disruptive behavior from students,” is such an unrealistic expectation and while I do understand it may not be meant in absolute, so many teachers move in absolutes when it comes to behavior.
A classroom that has not seen any disruptive behavior whatsoever is one that has no children. I’m not only referring to blatantly disrespectful behavior but any behavior that disrupts a lesson or the class environment: calling out, laughing, side conversations, smart comments, sharpening your pencil while the lesson is being taught.. etc. Those moments become teachable moments and life lessons. However, if the expectation is that they don’t exist then the reaction to them when they happen, because they will happen, oftentimes becomes way harsher and egregious then necessary. That expectation alone is dangerous. It sends students the message that they have to be and behave perfectly and can not make mistakes. When in reality the message that we should be sending, or rather the lesson we should be teaching is how to handle moments and situations when they have made a poor decision or behaved outside of the expectation that was set for themselves. They should be learning, how do you mend the relationship that was harmed by that poor decision?
But instead, in many situations, they’re scolded because they knew better. There’s an expectation of perfection, when we ourselves are flawed, make mistakes and are imperfect. Oftentimes educators run with the narrative that they are superior to the students, whether consciously or unconsciously. “I’m an adult, you are a child.” “When I tell you to do something you do it without question.” “They’re just kids and need to always follow directions.” Listen, these 2022 kids are DIFFERENT (in a good way)! When I grew up these comments were the norm. If an adult told you to do something or said something to you it was an absolute. Even when they were wrong. There was no questioning of any sort. Which I felt was unhealthy, because oftentimes the adult was wrong or out of line.
But these 2022 kiddos have learned to advocate for themselves, not always with the best delivery, but advocacy nonetheless. So, if I had to give a definition of classroom management, it would be "creating an environment and atmosphere of respect" and in my eyes that makes both teacher and student equally responsible for classroom management.
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