Classroom Management, Part 1

I recently became a mentor of a beginning language teacher, who expressed that one of the biggest struggles she has is dealing with classroom management. This is a very typical problem for beginning teachers of any subject, but can be especially troublesome in the comprehensible input (CI) classroom.

In the CI classroom, the teachers’ main goal is to provide input. In order for this to happen, students need to be open and attentive to the messages they hear and read. When students exhibit negative behavior, they, and possibly those around them, stop paying attention to the input and won’t acquire as much language as they could if they were behaving properly. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that teachers find a way to address and discourage negative behavior when teaching with a CI approach.

Here are some general guidelines about managing student behavior.

1. The best defense is a good offense. The more compelling and engaging lessons your lessons are, the fewer discipline issues you will have. I had many more behavior problems when I taught traditionally than I do now. While that may be partially due to my inexperience as a teacher, a lot of issues arose because of how I was presenting the subject matter. It is very hard to make explicit language teaching compelling, and those students who were weak in grammar or couldn’t memorize thirty words on a vocabulary list soon found themselves struggling. That caused many students to shut down, give up, and, since they were bored and frustrated, start acting out.

Teaching with CI leveled the playing field. Since I don’t teach grammar explicitly or require students to memorize lists of vocabulary words, I have more successful students. In addition, the variety of interesting, fun activities I can do with CI creates a lot of student engagement. And, as Ben Slavic says, if your students are engaged, they will be so busy hanging on your every word that they will forget to act up.

Nevertheless, I know that even the most well-behaved and mature students may zone out or fidget on occasion, which is why I also recommend that you incorporate a few Brain Breaks into every class. Students will be able to relax and move around for a short time, which will make it easier for them to focus. Even the simple act of having the class stand up and sit down a few times can energize them. And in addition, Brain Breaks are fun!

In addition, think about the maturity of your students as you plan your lessons. Younger students, who have shorter attention spans, will need more Brain Breaks and variety than older students will. When I taught at the high school level, I planned two or three different activities per class. Now that I teach at a middle school, my classes have between three and five activities per class. The younger the student, the more variety they need.

Also, think about the time of day and time of year your class is meeting as you choose your CI activity. Student energy levels differ depending on when your class meets. I personally find that my students are most likely to act up after lunch and during the last period of the day before a long weekend or vacation. And younger students may be so excited by the anticipation of summer break that they just can’t control themselves as the weather gets warmer. Keep variables like that in mind as you plan your lessons. I find that those are the days when I play games with my students. You can read about games I play in my class here and here. Alternatively, morning classes are a great time for Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) because students are pretty calm then (you can read about FVR here).

And finally, think about the overall personality of your class as you plan your lessons. I find that classes with a lot of extroverted students respond very well to Storyasking with student actors. However, it is not always effective with my quiet classes, who tend not to make a lot of suggestions and refuse to be students actors. I tend to do more Story Listening with the quiet classes because it fits their temperaments better.

2. Turn your classroom into a community. Classes where students feel safe and respected usually have students who behave better than those where there’s a “teacher versus student” mentality. I create community in a number of ways. First, I have followed the advice of Ben Slavic and Bryce Hedstrom and have set up class jobs. This system is great for making students feel that they are contributing to the class (Read more about that here). Do you have a kid who can’t sit still? Make him your messenger. Do you have a student who likes to doodle? Make her your class artist. Students will be so busy doing their jobs that they will forget to act up.

Another activity that creates community is setting up a password system. Bryce Hedstrom has written extensively about passwords, and has a book out about them too. In my class, students are not allowed to enter the room until they have greeted me at the door with “Bonjour, Madame” or “Buenos días, Señora” and they have said the password for entry into the classroom. So a typical password exchange goes like this:

Student: Bonjour, Madame (Hello Madam).

Me: Salut (Hi). Quelle heure est-il (What time is it)? – This is my part of the password

Student: Je ne sais pas (I don’t know). – This is the students’ part of the password.

Students are also required to make eye contact with me. This establishes a connection between the two of us and helps contribute to the community building (some other teachers, mostly males, also require students to shake hands, because touch also establishes a connection). For that brief exchange, that one student has my undivided attention. They know that I see them and that they are the most important person in my life at the moment. I hope it makes them feel special and valued and that they are an important member of my class and school community.

Another great activity that builds community is the Special Person Interview. This is another activity that comes from Bryce Hedstrom. This activity requires students to answer a series of questions about themselves. As a result, the class as a whole gets to learn a lot of information about each other. Thanks to this activity, I know everyone’s birthday and we acknowledge them all. And as we learn about who likes to watch Gilmore Girls and who is afraid of clowns, we build our community by getting to know each other better, and over time student behavior improves.

One practice that definitely does not build community is refusing to translate into the native language when students are confused. This is a topic I have written about before in this post. I’m not advocating that teachers should translate words that could be easily explained through gestures or visuals (for example, my students recognize the word for “dog” and “cat” in French but I have never said the English equivalent in class). But I also think that refusing to translate more abstract expressions like “should” will result in a huge waste of class time as the teacher tries to explain the word through gestures or visuals. It will also set up a power struggle in your class where the teacher knows the translation and the students do not. The “teacher versus students” environment that may be created could lead to some behavior issues if they decide to act out in response to what they see as an unfair, tyrannical practice (I once had a student yell “Screw you” and walk out of class because he was so frustrated that he didn’t understand what was being said). A teacher who is willing to translate (maybe as a last resort in some instances) sends the message that s/he is committed to ensuring that all students understand the language and thus are capable of being successful in class.

3. Be fair, consistent, respectful, and firm. At one of my previous jobs, I taught with a guy who was funny and friendly. He would sometimes “hold court” by telling the students jokes and stories instead of teaching a full lesson. Nobody needed permission to leave the room, so his students were constantly roaming the halls. Students often talked about how funny this teacher was and how much they enjoyed his class…until he tried to hold them accountable for something. Then these same students began to rebel and complain about the class by saying things like, “I failed that test, but how could I pass it when the guy doesn’t really teach?” And some students, who were used to the chaotic atmosphere of the class, started misbehaving because they erroneously believed that they could do anything they want because the teacher didn’t really enforce any rules. By the spring, the teacher was always stressed out because he had no control over his students, and on at least one occasion he completely lost his temper and started screaming at the class. After that, student behavior would improve marginally, but the cycle would begin again before too long.

Across the hall from the popular teacher was another teacher who operated using a different strategy. He greeted every student by name when they walked into class. He made a point to say “please” and “thank you” regularly when talking to students. He had a few rules that he enforced fairly, respectfully, and consistently. If he made a mistake, he would apologize to the class and make restitution. He would joke good-naturedly with the class, but he let it be known that there was a line that students could not cross. He attended as many concerts, sports competitions, and quiz bowl tournaments as he could to support his students. He held the students accountable for their mistakes too and made himself available to help struggling students. As far as I know, this teacher never had any major discipline problems except for too much talking every once in a while.

The moral of the story is that you absolutely will not be able to manage your class by being the cool, popular teacher. Students may like that teacher, but they will not respect him or her enough to listen to him or her and follow instructions. Do not try to be your students’ friend by creating an atmosphere where the students feel that they are on equal footing with you. Instead, create an atmosphere where you are a fair, respectful, and kind  authority figure who expects students to show respect for all people in the class and the class procedures.

And finally, if you find yourself struggling with managing behavior in your classes, consider reading up about classroom management for ideas and help. You may want to subscribe to the Smart Classroom Management website, which sends out regular newsletters addressing common classroom management issues. And don’t be afraid to ask your department head or administrative team for help. They can suggest books for you to read, can help you find professional development opportunities to attend, and come to your classroom to observe and constructively critique your classroom management skills. I know it may be embarrassing to admit that you are struggling , but be proactive and not reactive. It is much better to swallow your pride and ask for help as soon as you realize you need it than explain to your administrator that you are struggling after parents have called the school to complain that your class is too rowdy an environment for their child to learn.

Look for a second installment to this post soon where I discuss some CI-specific classroom management strategies.

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