How can I control an out-of-control classroom?
September 6, 2009 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Controlling classroom behavior: Theory/practice? More inside!

So, my wife and I made it to South Korea safe and sound. We're having a killer time! The only problem is, uh, the job we came here to do. A classic story: Teaching English in Korea turns out to be more like Keep Busy in English. For younger kids I've been able to manage with a combination of Powerpoints and lesson-focused activities to keep them occupied, if not entirely attentive.

Older kids (5th/6th grade) are a nightmare. They get up and run around, they throw things, they howl in Korean and no amount of my desperate English pleadings can seem to bring them around.

My 5th grade co-teacher doesn't even show up to class most of time. My 6th grade teacher is MUCH better, but she's reallly discouraged by what's going on and is taking an enormous personal stake in their behavior.

Teachers of the world: What's your advice? Based on previous hive-mind suggestion, I proposed an incentive system. The biggest problem to me seems to be that one or two especially coy troublemakers can ruin the whole class. By focusing on the behavior of the whole class (I have about 300 students per grade, nearly a 1000 in total, so per-student evaluation is not really doable), we can hopefully mitigate those troublemakers by providing an incentive to ignore their tricks.

Does that make sense? Does anyone have further advice on implementing an executing incentive systems? Is an incentive system the wrong way to go on this?
posted by GilloD to Education (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
How many students in your classroom?
1st, get the Admin team to track down the 5th grade teacher- that's inexcusable. 2nd, have a native speaker contact the parents of the main troublemakers. 3rd, institute tangible consequences for bad behavior- loss of privilege, participation, etc. Incentives are fine for reinforcing good behavior, but there also must be unequivocal consequences for bad behavior.
posted by TDIpod at 9:12 PM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

What exactly are the troublemakers doing, and how are the other children responding to their bad behavior?
posted by metalheart at 9:51 PM on September 6, 2009

One of the key things you're going to need to find out is what the school's policy for the student's behavior. In your free time, look in (from, say, the hallway) on the class when you're not around. As an English teacher in Japan, I've had students do things in class they wouldn't dream of doing in a "real" (in their eyes) class, where there was a Japanese teacher in charge. If the students are quite different in front of Korean teachers, point that out if you can get a meeting with the people in charge (head of the year, principle, whathaveyou). See if anything can be done to help you.

If you do set rules, you absolutely must follow them, pretty much without exclusion. If you go back on one rule, the kids will test all the other rules. In essence, do not make a rule you can't or won't enforce. Also, the level of enforcement, it most likely won't be up to you. The school will most likely have policy in place, and, well, from a friends experience and the Tokyo Korean School, that did include corporal punishment, which is something my friend (and I) were pretty horrified by. Not that you'd be expected to do anything, just be aware that by trying to enforce some kind of order, if the wrong set of ears hears your complaints/struggles, they might decide that's what's in order.

Never give an ultimatum, to any student, at any age. You will always "lose" because all the student has to do is say no, and you'll have lost a massive amount of face in front of the class, which will make things progressively harder. Always offer at least two choices to the children, one of them being what you want them to do, and the other being (to their minds) so hideously bad that they'd never choose it. Unfortunately, if they did actually choose B, well, you'll have to follow through with it.

Learn Korean. If you can speak even a little in the classroom, it will help. Being able to understand the kids will also help you.

As for the teacher who is frequently not around, by all means do try to find out why that's happening, but be prepared to deal with the fact that you're teaching English in a situation where some, if not many, of the teachers you work with don't feel what you teach to be all that important. In Japan, sometimes there are issues between the native speakers and the Japanese English teachers over what is truly important. Many times, native speakers are left out of decision making all together, and treated like living tape recorders. In those unfortunate situations, the native teacher's complaints about the situation are often ignored. I hope you're not in a situation like that. Please do talk to the head of the year, the homeroom teacher, the head of the English faculty, and try to find out what you can do to get the classroom in order.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:53 PM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

You need to lower your expectations on what is acceptable and what is not, especially in a different culture. Try not to get too emotional invested in whether or not your classes are "well behaved" or not.

Accept that things are chaotic at the moment, and that any change will be incremental.

As for suggestions on how to modify behaviour, my first would be:

1) learn how to say "be quiet" and "sit down" and "get to work" in Korean.

It will make a big difference if they're not trying to parse the English into Korean.

When you tell kids to be quiet or sit down, don't turn it into a potential power struggle. That is, don't tell the entire class to be quiet, and don't single out individual students *in front of the entire class* to be quiet.

Set the class on an activity, and then circulate amongst the students. If kids are not on task, either tell them to be quiet in Korean, or to get to work, or to sit down. Do it quietly - don't shout. Spend about 2 seconds with one student - any longer, and it will turn into a power struggle. Just say "be quiet" or "sit down" or "get to work".

Getting to know students' names is also very very very very useful. We all like hearing our own name, and it helps shut down the silly buggers. But don't focus on the jokers exclusively - try to engage the "nice" students.

Also, try to learn how to praise in Korean, such as saying "wow, that's great!" or "wow, you're smart!"

2) if your class is out of control, just give them worksheets

The students should have something that is easy to do. If your classes are out of control, just give them worksheets, and plenty of them. Avoid talking or explaining things to the class. Just focus on worksheets. They can be word searches, colouring, fill in the blanks. Give them something concrete (think: Piaget's concrete operational stage of development).

If quicker students finish a worksheet, give them another. But keep it simple. The point is, every student should have something to do, and every student should know what they should do. But avoid standing up in front of the students and talking to them. It is hard for some to understand, and is somewhat boring, so troublemakers will try to derail things (they don't do it on purpose, by the way, it's just something they do without even thinking about it).

3) incentives

If your class is totally chaotic, focus on the worksheets. Give students stickers (and a card to affix the stickers to) for every worksheet they finish. Give them a prize when they collect a certain number of stickers and reach a certain target. Initially, give them a prize every class, so students know that there are prizes - perhaps students who complete 3-5 worksheets. Only 30% of the class should be able to reach this target at first.

By focusing on concrete, achievable outcomes, and minimizing the amount of parsing the students have to strain to do (ie, speak basic Korean), your class should begin to turn around in about a week.

Once things settle down, try to make use of the students' physical energy by playing games - total physical participation-type learning. You should probably work up to that by playing games on the blackboard like hangman.

Games should last no longer than 15 minutes (10 is ideal).

Good luck! And remember - we've all been there before.


FWIW, I wouldn't bother with admin. It's a political battle, and is a waste of your limited resources.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:01 PM on September 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am going to suggest a very simple trick that was given to me by a junior high teacher at am inner city school where student misbehavior was... unimaginably bad. And it worked like a charm for her. And it worked like a charm for me (at an inner city high school). And it worked for a friend of mine who then subbed at another school with kids not prone to behave well:

Glare. Silently. Speak not a word.

Yes, that's it. When the classroom is crazy, you pick one kid -- just one -- who's at the heart of the mischief. Doesn't matter if there are others also shrieking, screaming, running, bouncing, cursing, texting, whatever. Just pick one of them. And glare at him with all your might. A livid, eye-bulging glare.

But don't speak a word.

Here's what'll happen. Nobody'll notice at first. Then somebody will. Then somebody else. As the ruckus continues but you continue to glare in livid silence, the better kids will settle down. The really wild ones won't notice... at first. Somebody might ask you why you're glaring. Don't respond. Somebody will ask, "Why don't you speak?" You don't respond. Your glaring silence will begin to unnerve some of the students. One or two of them will eventually say to the rabblerousers, "S/hhe's glaring," and then, "Shut up, shut up."

It may take a few minutes at first. They will feel very long. You will wonder if it's not going to work. Trust that it will work. Just keep glaring.

Only once you have utter and total silence, do you then proceed. But do not remark on what just happened. Just calmly continue with what you were saying before, as though the interruption -- whether it was fifteen seconds of chaos, or fifteen minutes of it -- never occurred.

If this works (and really, I used this in classrooms full of kids from a variety of cultural contexts, and never had it fail), then you will certainly have to use it again, but you will never again have to glare quite so long before winning total silence.

I have no idea why this works so well. But I think it's the utter silence, even once kids start asking you sassy questions, that does it -- it unnerves them so completely that the class then turns on the few kids who aren't unnerved by it, and deploy sudden and vicious peer pressureto force them to behave.
posted by artemisia at 10:05 PM on September 6, 2009 [29 favorites]

Response by poster: Great advice in here. Thanks!

As for the 5th grade teacher, she's a disaster area and I was warned by the vice-principal, so. She's out!

I've never taught before and got literally just thrown into it last week, so I'm trying to develop good habits. It was clear that "Being everyone's pal" was a well worn PATH OF DOOM, so I tried being stricter today. The novelty of my presence was enough to get most kids to fall in line.

The real problem is that they sunk like a zillion dollars into this English language learning center. There are computer and peripherals everywhere in various states of being completely destroyed. It leaves a lot of opprotunities for a kid to swing a mouse like a lasso or pick the keys off the keyboard etc etc.

I'd say the majority problem comes from 1 or 2 kis who just inspire everyone else. They laugh, they makes jokes (loudly), they'll take stuff from other kids, they'll get up and walk around. A useful analogy might be that my product (EDUCATION!) is way more expensive than theirs (FUNNY TIMES!) if attention is a currency.
posted by GilloD at 11:04 PM on September 6, 2009

Perhaps my generation's just totally jaded, but the whole "blank stare" thing only made "bad" kids in my classes burst out laughing. Heck, it amused those of us who weren't too bad. Depending on how equally jaded your students are, they'll know that a stare is just, well, a stare. It holds no power.

I only know what I've read about Korean education, but regarding vandalizing, it seems you would do well to actually call parents at the end of a school day. At the very least, this might help you learn which kids are bad because they want their friends to like them, and which are bad because their home environment could be much better. Since this is teaching English in Korea, I realize you may personally have somewhat of a language barrier when it comes to talking to parents, so maybe having a superior do this would work better. Then again, that might not be an option.

I'm of the opinion that few children act out in classrooms unless they're bored. The other children follow the leadership of the bad apples, because you and the other teachers aren't offering anything more interesting. If you were, at least a few more would be ignoring the bad kids. I say this, because this is a very human reaction, from childhood, all through adulthood. We have different methods of valuation at different stages of our life, but every stage puts a value on what's taking up their time. Somehow you need to shift the attitudes of the kids that aren't initiating the trouble, so that when the usual troublemakers start something up, the kids aren't interested and perhaps a little annoyed.

What sort of methods are you using to teach? I know you were looking for methodology suggestions in your last question, so which have you made use of? As kids get older, I think the more practical and humorous you can make things, the better. That age group is also becoming interested in popular culture icons and material, regardless of where they're from, so this could be an angle. Have you considered looking at movies in English more? Everyone likes a good movie, really, and I have many European and Asian friends who learned a lot of the most enigmatic nuances of English by watching movies.

You say there is expensive and valuable equipment at the school, so how is it being used? (Well, not when it's being vandalized, that is.) There's expensive and valuable equipment in many schools today, but most of it is restricted, monitored and used in the dullest of ways. But if you have these computers and somewhat unrestricted net access, you have a world of possibilities, a world of ways to make your English lessons seem much more worthwhile, because I imagine for many of these students there's some question of why they're there, in that classroom with you and the other teacher(s). Making travel, international communication and other things like that interesting to them may help you a lot.

I'm skeptical of incentive-based systems, when they are by themselves, as I think it teaches kids from an early age to think that learning is never an incentive itself. It's kind of adults encouraging that thinking with, "Oh, I know this work is horrible. Just suffer through, and you'll get a gold star / candy / extra credit." I do think that if you have a system of incentives, it does have to be balanced with some form of punishment. For instance, vandalizing school property can't go without consequences, else things spiral out of control, to the point that you're just rewarding kids for not doing violent things like that. (Saw it happen in my school.) This TED Talk, though it's about adults and businessmen mainly, sort of expresses my emotions about incentives in education, particularly the education of older children.
posted by metalheart at 1:00 AM on September 7, 2009

Nthing artemesia. The glare and wall of silence works for me here in Los Angeles. Eject the ringleaders, and as curtly as possible. I have students who address me with obscene language, and I just say "Get out. Go say that to the administration and see how far you get." Another "You need to try out for American Idol." The rest of the class howls with derisive laughter and they dial it back right away.
posted by effluvia at 7:26 AM on September 7, 2009

Not a classroom teacher, but here's a technique that works for me. I teach figure skating at a community ice arena, and it seems like parents of ADD kids think this is the perfect environment for them. You can just imagine how disruptive, not to say dangerous, it is to have an unresponsive, out of control 9 year old on skates. What I do is physically restrain the child. No choke holds or anything (although I've been tempted). Just, I instruct the disruptive child, quietly "come stand up here with me", then place him/her in front of me, my hands on both of his/her shoulders. If s/he starts squirming I say, "I will not let go of you unless you stop moving. If you move I will hold onto you". This is amazingly effective. After several weeks of this a simple hand on the kid's shoulder serves as a trigger to settle them down. Works with up to two students at time (one hand on each kid). I have never had to deal with a group of more than 25 students (statutory limit in a skating class).

I have learned to say "I will let go when you stand still" in Japanese, Spanish and German, as needed (fml. sigh).
posted by nax at 10:16 AM on September 7, 2009

Perhaps my generation's just totally jaded, but the whole "blank stare" thing only made "bad" kids in my classes burst out laughing. Heck, it amused those of us who weren't too bad. Depending on how equally jaded your students are, they'll know that a stare is just, well, a stare. It holds no power.

Hmm, maybe your teacher was doing it wrong. It's definitely not a blank stare. It's an eye- and vein-popping "just went batshit crazy" stare. It is not a stare my kids have ever seen before from a teacher -- that's for sure. :)

(To be honest, I always had a good deal of fun doing it. Amusing to watch the bad-ass wind up to "What the fuck are you looking at?", and then all the way back down to a muttered "She's crazy" before subsiding into silence.)

Since the OP is dealing with fifth grades, s/he may want to omit vein popping as well as the batshit crazy vibe.
posted by artemisia at 10:31 AM on September 7, 2009

Be careful with what Nax suggested above. I'm not sure how it is in Korea, but coming from my Father-in-Law who is a superintendent, one of the most important things he's told me about teaching is DO NOT TOUCH THE CHILDREN! That's a pretty good way to lose your job here in America.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 11:16 PM on September 7, 2009

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