Classroom management advice plz
September 24, 2012 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm a newly certified teacher, teaching in the UK, and I'm getting eaten alive. How do I survive the year?

I completed my teacher training in Canada and almost immediately started teaching in a public high school in rural England. The year started about 3 weeks ago, and I am having serious issues in my classroom. My school has a reputation for being behaviourally difficult, and is not strong academically, according to the GCSE exam results (the school has improved over past years though).

I am having particular difficulties with my classes. I am very friendly and good-natured in my everyday life, but once in the classroom, I don't really have that chance. My kids talk and walk around when I try to explain something. They playfight and throw things in class. I've been sworn at on at least 3 different occasions in my 3 weeks there, including getting threatened at one point. One of my classes is known by another teacher as a "nightmare class". The school has a consequence system, and I have given detentions, but the students don't seem to care if I give them detention; they just won't show up. I have called home and left a message with some parents, but that doesn't deter the students either. In some of my challenging classes, there are almost 30 low-ability students, whereas in Canada there would be no more than 16 or so.

I have a pretty good support system of friends and teachers here, and I want to gain the most from the experience. One of my fellow teachers today told me to have a "quirk", something that makes me unique and (presumably?) likable among the students. I feel like I spend so much time putting out fires that I don't have time to let my personality show through. My lessons are far from great and I feel I should put more effort into my lessons, but even when I do put in the time, there are so many behaviour issues that I barely get halfway through what I want to get through. The kids who behave well look at me with pity, and I remember the bad teachers I had when I was younger, and now realize I am one of them, and it sucks.

I have observed other teachers, and they don't have the problems I have; of the 3 or 4 other teachers I've observed, the most trouble they have is low-level talking. Meanwhile, there are other teachers who also seem to have real difficulties. With behaviour. The UK system is also a lot more bureaucracy than the one I came from, with lots of red tape and very specific standards and ways of marking that have to be done that I am completely unfamiliar with. It doesn't help that the head school inspector is not exactly supportive.

I know that many people recommend to set a precedent at the beginning of the year, but I feel like I've missed that chance already. How do I regain control of my classes so I don't lose my mind by February?
posted by marcusesses to Education (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
My wife is a GCSE and A-Level Chemistry teacher, so this advice is second hand and YMMV. IANAT, etc.

A few ideas come to mind:
  • Have the students come up with a "class contract." They suggest things that they think you should be able to expect from them (no chewing, no shouting out, etc.) and things that they think they should be able to expect from you. You have veto and they have the right to ask sweetly for something to be changed. Once agreed, both sides have to stick to it - and you have to be willing to punish those that don't (starting with warnings, etc.).
  • When my wife is having a hard time with a class, she seats them according to a new seating plan. Could be boy/girl/boy/girl or something else, but it aims to keep the disruptive kids apart, since alone they tend to be less trouble
  • What's the discipline system like at your school? My wife's has a three strikes policy for each lesson, with the third strike resulting in the student being removed from the class and having a half-hour detention at the end of the day
  • Would some of your colleagues be willing to have troublesome students from your classes moved into theirs if they start to disrupt a lesson? This works really well with younger students being put into classrooms containing older students; they don't like to be shown up in front of the older, GCSE and A-Level -aged students
  • Don't be afraid to come down on a class hard. You can ease off later, but being stern whilst you get them to play by your rules isn't a terrible thing
Hope that's some help...
posted by gmb at 1:02 PM on September 24, 2012

What age and subject area are you teaching? That can make a difference (I found that once I was able to plan more engaging and just-the-right-level-of-challenging, some of the class management issues melted away). My top general suggestions:
1) Call home frequently.. everyday if need be. Also check with the other teachers of the students (if applicable) to find out if they have similar issues. If so, bring the parent in for a meeting.

2) Speak more quietly; the kids who are behaving will be quiet and listen and some of the borderline kids might also quiet down.

3) have a routine that starts with the first bell. Put the schedule on the board. Make expectations clear.

4) Create some sort of "tiered" lesson where you want EVERYONE to master part of it and then once that's mastered, some of the kiddos can go on to the more challenging pieces independently while you work with the ones that are struggling.

This will let you pause during class at some point and ask all the students at part 1 to condense into 2 groups, those in part 2 to get into 1-2 groups and those working on the last part to get into a group. You'll see who is actually where. Those that are misbehaving and distracting others will be in that Part 1 group and now naturally segregated. You can put all your efforts on their management but the academic success of the others. Plus, it will give you ammo for your next call home ("Little Joey had 20 min to work on __ but only got to the second question. When we moved seats around, I gave him more instructions and answered questions but he went back to talking and never moved past the __ section and his management took me away from 19 other kids. I need you to come in and chat with me and Joey.")

5) Don't be too hard on yourself - you will learn more this year than you have at any other point in your life. If it's an exceptionally bad class or a wonderful group, your first year teaching is always, ALWAYS difficult.
posted by adorap0621 at 1:07 PM on September 24, 2012

I am very friendly and good-natured in my everyday life, but once in the classroom, I don't really have that chance.

That line jumped out at me. My wife teaches 10th grade history in the U.S. and she maintains that teachers are *not* supposed to be the students' friends. (It may up that way, but any teacher that gives a darn about what their students think about them is sunk.)

One thing I remember her doing when she first started is that one day, she left the door locked at the beginning of class. She stated that since the class acted like they were in kindergarten, she decided that that's where they would start. Using a very patronizing tone, she had them line up in the hallway in alphabetical order, and if they didn't line up properly, she remarked how they were going to have to study their alphabet really hard to get caught up with the rest of the class. Passing seniors would make remarks, and my wife would explain that, since the students were acting like kindergarteners, they were going back to kindergarten and needed to start learning the alphabet.

They had to sit in alphabetical order, and if they didn't, she had them go back into the hall and start all over again. It took two or three days of messing around like this, but eventually the students realized that the only way to get out of lining up every morning was to comply.

Once in the classroom, she simply had very strict rules, and if any one student disobeyed, tit was time for another humiliating lineup in the hall. It got to the point that other teachers and administrators came out to witness the spectacle, and got a good laugh about it. After a while, the kids started policing among themselves to make sure everyone followed the rules.

They had very few privileges, but she started a privilege jar. It was a jar that she added marbles to whenever they acted properly or accomplished a task. Each time the jar was full, they earned a new privilege. If they acted up, she emptied the jar and they started again.

They hated it. They hated her. They complied. By the end of the year, things had seriously turned around and there was great chemistry and cooperation in her classes.

She got very little support from the administration, but then again, she go no interference from them either. They gave her a little time to see whether it would work, and when it did, they got behind her.

Classroom management is one of the hardest skills to master. You may have to attempt many different tactics before you realize what motivates your students. Basically you have carrots and sticks; you have to imaginatively employ both to motivate the students into goo behavior.

Good luck.
posted by Doohickie at 1:13 PM on September 24, 2012 [8 favorites]

I've been teaching middle school for eight years.

You can try something I've referred to as "the whammy" (after a voodoo curse), which is basically to modify the group dynamic by first establishing that "everyone wants" it to be a productive class so that the kids' beliefs about what is and is not acceptable will change in response to what they believe the other kids believe is and is not acceptable.

To put it a little less abstractly, you can put the question to the group, "How many people want this to be a class where they can get their work done?" and get a show of hands, and then point out that everybody seems to want a productive class, and that you're going to work to make sure that happens.

This will throw the people who are looking to cause trouble for a loop, because it shows them that the majority of people don't appreciate it. It will also embolden people who actually want to get work done, because it will show them that they're actually in the majority, and you may find that they start to snap at the kids who try to distract them.

For a kid who is easily influenced by what he thinks his peers will approve of, you've now set it up so that "Shhh! I'm trying to focus!" is a better response to an attempt by another kid to distract him than going along with the distraction, because the kid now believes he's standing up for a value held by the vast majority of his classmates, and the attention he's getting from the distracting student is a lot less attractive.

Also, it's important to act as though the kids really DO want it to be a productive class, in order to make the prophecy fulfill itself. This means making an effort to be very quiet while you're walking around the room during independent work, going over to a kid with his hand up during independent work and taking his question quietly instead of taking the question loudly from across the room, and dealing with discipline issues by pointing out that other people are trying to get their work done (and doing this quietly and up close), and explaining good behavior by the class in terms of shared class values, as in, "Wow, I'm really impressed by how well you all are working; I feel lucky to be teaching a group of students who take their work so seriously." Compliments like this work best if they happen in the moment, out of nowhere, when you're witnessing good behavior.

In any case, the more kids observe a productive class, the more they're going to believe it's because of what the other kids want to get out of it, and the more they believe that, the more they'll start to believe it themselves.

The trick is to get that loop started, and you can totally do it. A kid may believe some other kids in the class think it's okay to fool around there, but he doesn't know how EVERYONE there feels, so if you can send the message that most people think it's not okay, and if you can make the reality that child observes consistent with that, he will start to feel social pressure against bad behavior which is at first imagined, but quickly becomes real as his classmates begin to adopt the mindset they think the rest of the class holds.
posted by alphanerd at 1:15 PM on September 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: gmb: Our discipline system is very similar to the one at your wife's school. Three strikes and you're out. If I strictly followed that policy, I would easily kick out half the class. It's more of a "6 strikes and you're out" rule.

adorap0621: I teach years 8-12 (12-16 year olds) science.
posted by marcusesses at 1:18 PM on September 24, 2012

IANAT, but the idea about "quirks" is right on. Since your personality can't get through, "show, don't tell" would seem to apply here. I knew a teacher who wore nothing but purple every. single. day, and it fascinated the kids so much they forgot to act up; it gave them something to talk about with her.

Closer to your situation, read Teacher Man by Frank McCourt (he wrote "Angela's Ashes"). My favorite scene is when his kids are acting up and one of them throws a sandwich. He goes over, picks up the sandwich, and starts to eat it. The kids are so shocked that they stop acting up, and he now has their attention.
posted by Melismata at 1:19 PM on September 24, 2012

The advice my mother, a former teacher, gave a friend going into teaching a few years back was to start out stern and strict. The kids will always push to see how much they can get away with, and if you lay the hammer down to start with, you will gain their respect and you can ease up later in the year.

(And speaking up as a former quiet kid in the back of a room where many students were acting out and the teacher's energy was devoted to controlling them instead of teaching us: please do your best to nip this in the bud!)
posted by telophase at 1:31 PM on September 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

gmb: Our discipline system is very similar to the one at your wife's school. Three strikes and you're out. If I strictly followed that policy, I would easily kick out half the class. It's more of a "6 strikes and you're out" rule.
Is there a particular reason you don't follow the policy to the letter? It may actually shock them into falling into line if they realise you're not willing to have them muck about.
posted by gmb at 1:32 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Our discipline system is very similar to the one at your wife's school. Three strikes and you're out. If I strictly followed that policy, I would easily kick out half the class.

If you don't follow through on the policy the students won't respect it. If the kids know it's supposed to be "3 strikes and you're out" but they can get away with 4-5 strikes, then of course they will carry on fucking around past the 3rd strike.

3 strikes means 3 strikes - if that means kicking out half the class, do it.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:36 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've found that tone is often the deciding factor in my lessons- I make it clear that while I like my students, and don't mind answering questions and being available, I am present as a teacher, and therefore require respect.

If students seem like they're going to be difficult/rowdy, I start out very strict, and loosen up later, when a baseline of good behavior has been established.

Clear rules and expectations are key. Consistently enforcing those rules is also key- if I say you've got one chance to follow this rule properly or you'll be asked to leave, it's one chance and they're out. Your students are old enough to know how to behave properly- you're not mean for expecting them to do so.

Kicking a kid out of class does not mean you're a bad teacher. It doesn't make you mean. It doesn't mean you've failed.

Yes, you may have to kick out half your class. But those who remain will behave- and learn. And the students who you kicked out will learn that you're serious, and stick to your word.

Students will trust you more if you stick to your word- even if your word is three strikes and you're out.
posted by Cracky at 1:43 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also echoing the above - at the start of the year, do not take any shit. The time for making a bond with the kids and having good chemistry (ha) is later - September is for making the kids learn that if you say you will kick them out, you will kick them out, every time.

They playfight and throw things in class. I've been sworn at on at least 3 different occasions in my 3 weeks there, including getting threatened at one point.

Was there any consequences to the swearing and threats? At my SO's school (also UK secondary) just swearing at a teacher is a temporary exclusion. As I said above - you need to lay down the law and show the kids that if they fuck around they will face the consequences.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:43 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

As others have said, the 6 strike thing is your problem. You MUST be clear and consistent. Tell the kids when they get a strike and why. Make a chart that you and maybe the class (depending on age) can see. What are the school consequences for skipping detentions? Follow them to the later.

If I were you I'd skip my content lessons for at least one day and simply drill routines and appropriate behavior. Have you read Harry Wong's The First Day of School?
posted by that's how you get ants at 1:54 PM on September 24, 2012

I liked Doohickie's suggestion. When I was at school, I had teachers who did similarly (locking the classroom, making us queue outside, sitting us down until we stopped behaving and then sending us back out) and it definitely had a positive impact.

I wouldn't worry about having missed your chance to set a precedent, just start from now and make it clear to your children that things will be different from the very beginning of your next class. It will probably take time, but from my memory, as long as you stick to it and really commit, it can work :-)

Also, speak to the other teachers at your school, young and old. Ask the older ones who aren't having trouble for help and support, find out how they do it. I expect some of the more senior ones in your department will even be happy for you to send the more troublesome cases to them if they act up during class - this used to happen a lot at my school.

But yes, like anything in life, don't suffer it in silence, ask for help and support and I'm sure you'll get it.

Best of luck...
posted by jonrob at 2:17 PM on September 24, 2012

Best answer: All good answers here, and I sympathize. My first year was brutal; they gave me a very troubled and disruptive class because I was so "patient". Thanks, guys. But in retrospect it did teach me a lot.

1. It's tempting, but don't give up. They will sense that you think of them as the "bad" kids and will rise to meet these expectations, as twisted as that sounds. And don't take it personally -- their problems run deeper than you imagine.

2. You are not their friend. You don't have to be likeable. You have to be effective.

3. Dynamics are important. Try to figure out if there is one or two kids who instigate the trouble. When that one kid is away, does the class function? It takes surprisingly little to derail an entire classroom. Keep that kid near you and under control. Find some leverage. Is he on a sports team or does he fear a phone call home? There you go.

4. Keep them busy. Busy, busy, busy. Lots of worksheets.

Although calling home and making contracts and so on are fine ideas, the lack of these things is not the problem. The problem is your approach. You need to be the alpha here. Be in charge. Believe you're in charge. Really sell it. Small things matter. Be prepared and keep things moving along. Dead air is your enemy. Make tasks meaningful but small and connected to each other. Checklists work well so they can self-monitor their progress. Resist the urge to bargain or plead with them. Routine, routine, routine. Kids thrive on it. Don't let them get away with little things, because that just invites them to get away with more. If someone gets up in the middle of your lesson, you make sure they feel some wrath. You need to be a presence in that room. Demand respect, even if you feel silly about it.

Perhaps it sounds crude, but the classroom is a jungle. And if you don't become their leader, someone else will. Nature abhors a (power) vacuum.

Best of luck. If it's any consolation, it does get easier.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 2:19 PM on September 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

The first year is the worst. It DOES get better, and I STILL can remember the pain and anxiety of that first year.

I taught US high school (ages 13-18) for a few years and had a lot of behaviorally challenging students (as in ~70%). I agree with everything The Hyacinth Girl said. You have to give yourself the authority to impose behavior expectations: that is part of your job. You can't teach and they can't learn if they're bouncing off the walls. When I started, I had kids sexually harassing me, throwing books around the room, cussing, etc. By the end of my first year, the classroom would fall silent at a word. It took me about six months to really figure out how to set and reinforce behavioral boundaries, and it won't happen over night. But it CAN happen, and for me, it was when I let myself be the calm adult in charge without exception.

Kids misbehave in school for a number of reasons:
  • They are bored: I am sure you're doing everything to make your lessons as engaging as possible, but talk to as many other teachers in your field and beg, borrow, and steal successful lesson plans & projects. Over plan. Don't give them time to screw around.
  • They are scared of looking stupid: This is one of the hardest issues to overcome because a chunk of this can only be dealt with once there's a sense of trust between you and the student who is acting out. Still, while you're relationship-building, make expectations for grading/marking, assignment directions, etc. as clear and transparent as possible so an earnest attempt to figure out what to do, how to do it, and where to go for more information can be successful.
  • They are dealing with pressing personal matters: Not much you can do when they're taking care of all their brothers or sisters, dealing with an abusive partner or parent-guardian, etc. other than to let them know you see them as a person, you care, and will do what you can to help them in your class.

One of my mentor teachers gave me an amazing tip: the 3 minute a day rule. Pick one kid a week who is your biggest challenge and talk to him or her for three minutes a day about something COMPLETELY unrelated to school. Do this for a week. It helps build the relationship, which makes it harder for them to misbehave. It doesn't work with everyone, but it worked with most of my students.

Finally, this book is the best one I've found on classroom management. He did a PD at my school and managed to keep the faculty engaged the entire time--and FSM knows, teachers are the toughest crowd of all! This would have been a godsend my first year of teaching.

And you know what? Despite having a rep as being a real hard ass, my kids ended up liking me anyway. They truly want boundaries and adults they can trust to keep their word, even that means imposing reasonable consequences when necessary.
posted by smirkette at 2:47 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice everyone! I'll be sure to steal some (most? all?) of these. I appreciate the feedback.

Another thing that I find to be a bit difficult is the schedule runs on a 2-week rotation throughout the year, and I teach 9 different classes over those 2 weeks. It's tough because I teach more than 200 students, and only see most of them twice a week. I will have to try to be extra diligent learning names and getting to know the students.
posted by marcusesses at 3:34 PM on September 24, 2012

Assigned seating charts were the only way I ever learned my 175 kids' names. They hated it, but hey, it also generally makes it harder for them to screw around with their friends! And knowing their names as quickly possible will also help reduce some of the disruption.
posted by smirkette at 3:45 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Holy hell, yeah, names are important. Yes, assigned seating will help with that and with the discipline issue.

Pro tip: I make flash-cards of names for myself with pictures I snap of the kids in the groups I only teach once a week and, no kidding, study at home. That way I can greet kids at the door by name the very next time we meet and they're reminded that 1) I care about them enough to know their name, and ask about their day every day, yay!, my teacher loves me! 2) I know their name and can thus pin behavioral consequences on them as needed, boo, my teacher can follow-up if I'm a jerk to her.
posted by charmedimsure at 4:31 PM on September 24, 2012

I had the exact same problem when I did my teacher training in BC - my supervising teacher was new to the school and the other teachers did a real number on him by offloading all of the "worst" students into his class roll - he wouldn't know the difference.

I started teaching them at the beginning of term, so there was no ability for him to go in and set tone and develop relationships. So I bombed big time.

Kids were walking around, talking back to me, all sorts of nightmarish stuff.

My supervisor gave me a couple of tricks for dealing with that situation:

1) give kids a chance to succeed immediately. This means giving them an easy assignment like a worksheet right at the beginning of class to do. It's easy, and it's also concrete - the students know what to do.

2) Always make it about the work, and not the student. Behaviour is subjective, and therefore controversial, but if the student is talking and not doing their worksheet, you can just say "Do your worksheet".

3) Don't talk. Some kids find it hard to process information by listening. Give them the worksheets and other assignments like writing off of the board.

4) Don't say please. Initially, the students will see that as a sign of weakness.

Basically, you have to set them up for success, and then build on that success. In this kind of environment, the take no prisoners, sink or swim method is not going to work, because while the kids are failing your life as a teacher will be living hell.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:34 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah, don't sweat the small stuff. No detentions or whatever. It's a total fucking waste of time and energy, it's political, it becomes a great distraction, and then what do you do when they don't show up? Run after them and drag them into class?

Also, don't rely on the headmaster or whoever for discipline, because you just lose political capital rapidly with the administration. Keep in class. As long as they aren't breaking the law don't worry about it.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:36 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

You probably can't get it immediately, but if you can get any Kagan Training, do it. They teach world-wide. My wife strongly recommends it. (Going to the site just now, it looks like they have a lot of online resources.)
posted by Doohickie at 11:29 AM on September 25, 2012

From what I gather, Kagan is a series of classroom management activities that get kids to work in groups together, work in competition with other groups, etc., and you can tailor which activities you use to the dynamics of your class. They don't tell you what to teach, but give you aids as far as how you teach it to maximize student engagement.
posted by Doohickie at 11:31 AM on September 25, 2012

Best answer: I've had similar experiences. I, too, am quirky and witty and fun... when I get a chance. In a well-run classroom, I'm easily the most immature person in the room, but all that only works if I actually get the chance.

I strongly suspect that the problem here isn't you, but rather a weak administration (principal/headmaster/whatever). These kids learned, well before meeting you, that they have no reason to give a damn.

From what you're saying, a lot of worthwhile strategies -- praise, speaking quietly rather than loud -- just won't work, because you won't get the chance. Phone calls home don't work because these kids have parents who have essentially given up. (You have to make the phone calls just to show you tried, though.)

Honestly, it's time to start being a jerk in those classrooms. Be harsh. Enforce the rules. As has been stated, it's surprising how many kids will find that preferable. Often it's the kids I yell at the most who miss me the most when I'm gone.

Don't give them choices. Stop caring about their opinions. Never, ever ask them for feedback on your teaching style or your classroom management. And, as has been suggested, try to gear your lesson plans so that you have less to explain to them; they're talking over you anyway, so every lecture/direct instruction lesson is just another opportunity to ignore you. Get them actually working and used to that.

And start throwing kids out. Throw them out in groups. Make your school live up to its stated discipline policy.

Also: I know this sounds insane -- I know how hard it really can be to get a teaching job (hell, I'm in the US; for all I know, it's harder here) -- but start looking for other schools where you might work. The problem may not be you at all. The problem may be the school.

I know this is awful. I've been in a similar nightmare scenario. I've ended my days filling out witness statements for the police. Stick it out, manage your stress, don't feel bad about where these kids are going in life--some will figure things out and get their act together, and others won't, and you just plain can't save them all.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:54 PM on September 25, 2012

Also, I'm gonna disagree here with KokoRyu, but only tentatively: some administrations really do want you to throw the kids out, and they really do want you to document, and they really will back you up. Others will not. Others will SAY that's what they want, but then when you do it they just get pissy. You have to feel them out for that and adjust accordingly.

A strong administration will make a huge difference. A weak administration leads to situations exactly like this, though, so I suspect that they (and parents who've quit parenting) are your real problem.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:56 PM on September 25, 2012

Your class may be testing you because you are a new teacher and new to the area. You may have a particularly troubled bunch, but that makes rules all the more important. I would have a frank talk with the administration about what direction they want you to proceed with enforcing the discipline policies.

It is not too late.

I am teaching older students who have a mix of backgrounds. Classroom disruption happens and is often initiated/prolonged by troubled students. If you can't get it under control, students do lose respect for your authority and those who wouldn't have started the trouble will join in.

Another thing to consider, some students can't handle lots of lecture/talking. It can help to have quiet "work time" where everyone is working on a worksheet or something. If you start with total quiet and everyone sitting in desks, you have a place from which to start enforcing rules. This also gives over-stimulated students some chill-out time and space.

Overall though, strong enforcement of the rules is key, and getting direction and backup from your administrators is essential. If you don't have strong backup, then do your best and maybe consider more newby-teacher friendly schools for next year.
posted by artdesk at 9:29 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Very useful thread for me, and I teach Taekwondo. I'm realizing I'm too nice and it makes the kids think they have license to goof off when I'm the only black belt in the room. The three strikes thing will be put into use tomorrow. :)
posted by luckynerd at 5:57 PM on February 24, 2013

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