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Better Classroom Management Can’t Wait. How to Make Changes Now (Opinion)

Next year. Whenever I talk to new teachers, whether informally or within a teacher education course that I instruct, there is consistent talk of the changes they will make “next year.”

Many first-year teachers in particular speak longingly about how their actions and classrooms will be improved the following school year. They describe all their mistakes this past year and how they will fix them in the fall.

Undoubtedly, one will eventually regurgitate some version of the old saw: “The first two weeks of the school year are crucial for classroom management and establishing rules and expectations.”

Teachers believe these two weeks are when they should develop the classroom structures that will allow students to know what to expect for the remainder of the school year. Conversely, because they were unable to establish such structures within their first two weeks of a school year, they can only look forward to correcting it the following year.

I’m here to say it’s all a lie.

Believing that one can establish their classroom management plan in the first two weeks of the school year is just one of the many “truths” about “managing” student behavior that teachers learn.

In my own first year of teaching, the first two weeks—and beyond—were full of difficulties. I struggled to understand which rules to enact or how to enforce consequences consistently. At some point, things improved but only well after two weeks. Through support and experience, I and many beginning teachers get better at managing the classroom.

But how? This is the question that all preservice and beginning teachers ask as they consider classroom management. Having now spent over a decade teaching preservice teachers and researching how teachers successfully manage classrooms, I’ve identified some key strategies that can improve classroom management at any point in the year.

Interestingly, these strategies have developed from repeated maxims—or what I deem as misconceptions:

“I build relationships before, between, and after classes.”

While informal conversations before class or between periods are positive, teachers can build relationships within lessons more effectively. Building relationships is central to every classroom, but it’s easier said than done. I love this meta-analysis (find the main table!) that lists concrete strategies from praise and check-ins to rewards and self-regulation.

You won’t know how to manage your students until you know who they are. This means ignoring other trite expressions, such as “not smiling before Christmas.”

“I need to focus on a good lesson, not classroom management.”

A good lesson engages students, reducing opportunities to misbehave. A good lesson also can be derailed if students’ perspectives are not considered. Here are a few tips:

  • Think about what students do for each activity, not just what the teacher does. Interesting demonstrations and lectures often have students sitting quietly at their desks for a whole lesson. Consider other ways they could learn the material (e.g., small-group activities) and the appropriate directions and transitions needed to get there.
  • Build from their interest. Whether it’s using examples about Paw Patrol or Taylor Swift, incorporating students’ interests engages them.
  • Overplan material. Timing is difficult for beginning teachers, so it’s important to have an abundance of activities per day. You’d rather end long (and put a pin in it for tomorrow) than not have enough for your students to do. The more you have prepared, the less time you’ll spend dealing with misbehavior.

“I manage all my students the same.”

Consistent rules, procedures, and expectations are crucial in establishing the boundaries of your classroom. However, while the sentiment of treating everyone the same is understandable, we know that discipline is not administered equally.

Instead, teachers must be responsive to their class and understand that students may respond differently to consequences. Just like we do with instruction, it is important to manage behavior in a way that meets students where they are rather than treating them all the same.

Allow for some flexibility or have students offer suggestions for what’s important for their learning. Teachers can also find ways to promote positive interactions, such as utilizing nonverbal actions, specific praise, and parent partnerships to accommodate for student differences.

While these classroom management sayings are meant to help beginning teachers, they ultimately hurt students by ignoring how teachers can adapt classroom management skills throughout the school year. Of course, these recommendations are not exhaustive, and teachers must recognize that what works now may not work with next year’s students.

Instead of buying into these misnomers, teachers need to focus on skills that they can improve now. Don’t try to change everything all at once; find a few specific strategies to prioritize per day or week and solidify them in your classroom.

Teachers can even utilize the current classroom as a trial-and-error period to see which strategies they like best. Instead of waiting until next year’s first two weeks, how about changing things today?

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