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Stories about classroom management

  • Emily wants order--humane, productive order.
  • Kamel's rules aren't working.
  • Sylvia wants to spend time on subject matter.
  • Mark's classroom time was disappearing by the boatload.
  • James wants good relationships with students.
  • Roberta and her students are strangers.
  • Mohammed aims to have a family-like class.
  • Miriam's students abuse each other.
  • Rachel wants her students to be "with it" and "with her."
  • Roberto's students are just going through the motions.
  • Morgan gets "respect;" is the price too high?
  • Felicity had become a tyrant.

Emily wants order--humane, productive order.

From hard experience in student teaching, new teacher Emily knows that she must set and uphold a set of general rules for conduct in the class.  During student teaching, she, her cooperating teacher, and her field instructor all agreed that she needed to work on that. She had too often tried to be friendly and avoid conflict, at considerable cost to productive order in her classroom. While understanding that she must set and uphold rules, she wanted to do so in ways that would make her more a teacher than a cop, give her a better chance of building satisfactory working relationships with students, and save her from constant grating interaction with her students.

Emily's mentor, Juanita, supported Emily's aim to get not just order, but humane order in which the work gets done. She also reported her experience that achieving the desired balance can be hard to do. Juanita commented that a lot depends on the rules themselves. She invited Emily to look with her at the tool called establishing and teaching rules for a classroom learning community." Together, they used it to examine Emily's classroom rules and the steps she had taken to establish them early in the year..

Juanita also suggested that Emily should avoid getting into tunnel vision about rules, because good order--civil and productive activity--is not a matter of rules alone, but more like a campaign that includes creating and using routines, building relationships with students, motivating them to learn, and enforcing the rules in reasonable and economical ways.

Kamel's rules aren't working.

Kamel was very frustrated. He had come to feel like he was constantly enforcing rules that he thought he had set clearly, and believed that the students ought to understand and conform to.  Kamel's rules just weren't working as he intended. Some or many of the students often acted as though they did not recognize when the rules applied, or did not agree with them. Few students were taking responsibility to know and follow the rules. Sometimes students behaved as though they had never even heard the rules. 

At a loss, Kamel had come to suspect that he was going to have to start over again. A little worried that he might make himself look like a hapless rookie, Kamel posed the problem to his mentor teacher, Helen.

Helen firmly reassured Kamel that his problem is typical for new teachers and sometimes plagues experienced teachers as well. She agreed that Kamel might be right in thinking that the problem lay in rules, and that starting over again in October could get the students' attention. Helen suggested that she and Kamel should see what they could find in the ASSIST web site, and soon they came upon a tool titled "Establishing and teaching rules for a classroom learning community." Before long, they made one useful discovery: Kamel had not thought of teaching rules much as he might teach subject matter. Helen shared ways in which she tried to do that.

In the course of their conversation, Helen also suggested some other potential reasons for the problems that Kamel was experiencing. The students’ inattention and misbehavior might reflect problems of motivation. Since Kamel is new at teaching, he might not have set up classroom routines that tend to make the work go more smoothly and so minimize misbehavior. Helen wondered if the misbehavior might stem from weak relationships with students; if Kamel has not attended to building those relationships, then he would have less moral influence with the students. Or maybe, as often happens, Kamel was overreacting to minor matters that more experienced teachers would tend to ignore or handle with correspondingly minor moves, like non-verbals. Because the problem was stalling Kamel's progress as a teacher, Kamel and Helen agreed to turn the problem into a project that they would explore along those several lines.


Sylvia wants to spend time on subject matter.

Sylvia's first love is her subject matter; teaching offered the opportunity to interact with young people about it. From her own experience as a student, Sylvia recognized that it was all too easy for teachers to spend a lot of classroom time on matters that are far less interesting and satisfying than the subject matter, and in student teaching she often felt that time was being wasted. As she thought about her first year of teaching, she resolved to maximize the time that she spends doing what she most likes to do: working with kids to understand subject matter. So, when she met her mentor Frank, shortly before school began, and he asked her what she most wanted to achieve, that was the first thing Sylvia said.

Frank supported her sense of priorities and reported that using time effectively was a continuing struggle for him as well. He commented that one key matter, for him, was to set up smooth routines at the beginning of the year. Dimly recalling that the ASSIST web site had something about routines, he was able to find it fairly quickly on his classroom computer, and he and Sylvia began looking at it together. It looked like a place to begin, by inviting them to list potential routines, evaluate them and start thinking about how to define them and teach them to students. So, they downloaded the Rich Text Format version, opened it in the word processor, and began....

In the course of this work, they came to agree that, while routines are important, they are one part of a package for getting students to do schoolwork. Other parts would be establishing and teaching a set of rules, building relations with and among students, and motivating students to learn. They also commented that the "lesson-running" and "interaction" routines could not be well defined without getting into teaching strategies, like leading discussions. Starting with routines, they had defined a larger project to help Sylvia spend as much time as possible doing what she wanted to do: teach subject matter.


Mark's classroom time was disappearing by the boatload.

All through October, Mark often felt that his time was slip, sliding away--by the ton. The calendar moved through the days much faster than the class moved through the topics in the curriculum. Transitions between activities seemed to eat up huge amounts of time. So did activities that were necessary but contributed nothing directly to learning: taking the lunch count, handing out orders for school pictures, getting kids to the counselors' office, etc. Even when class was working on subject matter, it sometimes felt like a slow slog through deep mud. Most of the students seemed willing enough, but all too often the activity was like a junior high school dance, with a lot of people standing around and not much dancing going on. Time going to waste. Mark concluded that he had to do something about it, so he raised the matter with Juan, his mentor teacher.

Mark was much relieved by Juan's first remark: "I remember being where you are, and all too often I still find myself in that same place, thinking that time is getting away from me." And Mark was intrigued by the second remark: "You can think of yourself as leading the students through the work (and that can feel like dragging an army though glue). Or, you can think of yourself as organizing a team that does its work economically and well. Nowadays, like a lot of other experienced teachers, I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year setting up a bunch of routines and teaching the students to perform them." Juan suggested that they look together at a tool about routines on the ASSIST web site. Before long, they found that Mark couldn't list many routines for his class, and he had not much defined or taught the ones he could list. The problem became a project, and Mark went away with some ideas for routines to introduce, and a plan on how to teach them.

Upon parting, Juan suggested that Mark would want to keep in mind some other parts of a game plan for making a class into a team: Building relationships among the students, for example.


James wants good relationships with students.

James was drawn to teaching most strongly by the prospect of working with children and young adults; he liked to do that, in various settings including teaching. He recognized that there was a trap in only wanting to get along well with the kids. He knew that he had to be the adult in the room, and that meant, for example, that he had to set and enforce rules so that all his students would have a reasonable chance to learn. He thought he had avoided the trap and had learned, in his student teaching and first year, to play the authority figure reasonably well. At the same time, he wanted the sort of relationships with his students that had drawn him to teaching. He called upon his mentor, Bob, to help him think about the matter.

Bob had been drawn to teaching mainly by his interest in subject matter. Moreover, he was pretty much content with his somewhat formal and civil relationships with students. Nevertheless, he recognized that James's intention was legitimate, and that he had an obligation to help James pursue it. He browsed for something to offer James, in the ASSIST web site, and found a tool titled "Balanced use of strategies for forming relationships with students." Scanning the possibilities, he saw several moves that he himself made to get along with his students, but had not thought of as "building relationships." So, he and James had some common ground to work on.

And the tool invited work: Which of the strategies was James using? When? How often? Bob could ask James to recall and analyze the strategies he had used in the last few weeks.


Roberta and her students are strangers.

Roberta had come to think and feel that she and her students had become sworn enemies at worst, and distant strangers at best.  Her interactions with them tended to range from the subtly hostile to the coolly civil. Roberta had no doubt that she was in control of her classroom--both the principal and her mentor Judith had confirmed that impression. Moreover, the kids were pretty much passing tests and getting work done. It just wasn't any fun for her or them. That’s not how it was supposed to be, according to Roberta.  If this is teaching, she thought, she would have to think again about whether teaching is the work for her. Fortunately, Judith had been open to all sorts of conversations, so Roberta started this one.

Judith promptly confirmed Roberta's sense that the matter was important: "How are you going to get out of bed and come happily to work for next twenty-five or thirty years under these conditions? Probably, you won't. You'll either leave, or worse, stay and burn out. You've got to get some satisfaction for yourself, and soon." Judith had a lot of ideas about how Roberta might improve her relationships with her students. To help organize the conversation, Judith made a copy of a tool she found in ASSIST, called "Balanced use of strategies for forming relationships with students." She downloaded and printed it, and she and Roberta started surveying Roberta' practice in this area. They soon found several moves to talk about. Perhaps Roberta's life in the classroom could be improved.


Mohammed aims to produce a family-like classroom.

Mohammed came from a large family that got along pretty well with each other. They supported each other and felt something like a club whose members were glad to belong. He valued that quality of relationship, and he was convinced that it could and should apply in school classrooms. While recognizing that classes cannot literally be families and teachers cannot be parents, he tended to think that his classes ought to be like agreeable families or spirit-and-morale work groups. Assuming that pretty much everyone feels the same way, he told his goal to Cheryl, his mentor teacher, and asked her to help him with it.

Initially, Cheryl was stumped. An only child of a somewhat austere and distant family, she could connect with the family idea. But on second thought, she had seen substantial differences not only in workplaces, but also in her own classes over the years.  She was inclined to think that the differences among those classes was pretty much luck of the draw--some students interact well and others don't. But she also recognized that the immediate effect of saying "luck of the draw" would be to terminate any effort on her part, or on Mohammed's part, to make a difference in this characteristic of classes. In the ASSIST web site, she had noticed but passed over a tool that might apply: "Balanced used of strategies for building relationships among students." Relying on her familiarity with the classroom to get her and Mohammed through an encounter with an unfamiliar rubric, she downloaded it and asked Mohammed to join her in a strategy session....

As they talked, Cheryl and then Mohammed started to notice that other aspects of management might be approached in ways that could contribute to Mohammed's campaign to produce something like a family or community in his classes. Both rules and routines could address that goal. And Mohammed's strategies for dealing with inattention and misbehavior probably would have some effect: "Justice" in a community probably would look more like restitution than retribution.


Miriam's students abuse each other.

With increasing dismay, Miriam observed many ways in which her students treated each other rudely, harshly or cruelly.  She got along pretty well with most of the kids, but they did not get along well with each other. Between-student hassles took a lot of time away from instruction. And some of the kids were bullied and put down in painfully obvious fashion. To Miriam, this was starting to look like a failure in the school’s mission of social and moral education, and in the all-school campaign to reduce bullying and otherwise make the school a safe place for all students. Miriam recognized that she had seen such behavior in schools throughout her life as student now as teacher, and had participated in some. Her own attempts to moderate behavior seemed to have little effect, but she was not ready to throw in the towel on this seemingly stubborn symptom. So in the weekly meeting over coffee, she raised the matter with Greg, who taught across the hall.

Greg said that for a long time he tended to feel that "it's just the way kids are,” but he had something like a conversion experience when his own children grew to the age of his students. Then, he came to see the matter as more from a parent’s point of view, and perhaps from a bullied student's point of view, as from a teacher’s point of view.  He was not content with his own practice in this area. The faculty were making a concerted effort to do something, and maybe that would improve the odds. So Greg proposed that he and Miriam should have a project in which they would pursue the matter together. In a fairly short search, they found "Balanced use of strategies for building relationships among students," and made it one of their tools for planning and assessing progress. Maybe something could be done, partly by working on relationships among students, partly by using their own relationships with students, and partly by working on rules and other matters.


Rachel wants students to be "with it" and "with her."

Occasionally in student teaching and in the first year of teaching, Rachel was excited when it seemed that many or most students were "with it," and “with her.” They took some initiative to involve themselves in the work, directed their behavior in productive ways that engaged the subject matter, put some energy into what they were doing, and persisted in the face of problems they encountered.  Those had been wonderful moments; Rachel wanted more of them. Understanding that she can’t have them all of the time, she nevertheless resolves to try to have them more often. Her mentor Michelle said "any time, any topic," so Michelle chooses this topic, today.

Michelle agrees to the description of those precious moments, suggests that "motivation" is important and pulls out a tool that she has been working with herself: "Balanced use of motivation strategies." Looking it over, both teachers comment on the significance of the connection between students' valuing a task and students' expecting to succeed in a task. If either value or expectation is low, then motivation is low. If you do something to promote valuing, you do nothing for kids who don't expect to succeed at the task, and vice versa.

The two teachers review the strategies for increasing the value students put on a learning task and for increasing their expectation of success. Rachel comments, "I won't be learning to use all of these very soon." Michelle replies, "So where do you want to start? One from each section? Which ones? We've got all year, and then some."


Roberto's students are just going through the motions.

For Roberto, most of the year so far has been like trying to drag a bunch of mules through deep mud.  It's not that he has a bunch of nasty kids for students; he has been able to get along with most of them, and most of them tend to get along with each other. They don't often disobey or run off on tangents, and Roberto usually can get them back pretty quickly. It's that they're just going through the motions, doing just enough to satisfy the main requirements, but probably not enough to learn much of value. Work proceeds in little, sluggish marches--when Roberto gives direct orders.

Doubting that he would stay long in teaching if this is the deal, Roberto fires up his web browser, gets the ASSIST site that his principal pointed out to him and soon finds a tool: "Balanced use of motivation strategies." Thinking that it probably has something to offer but also looks somewhat challenging, he takes a printout of the tool to his next talk with his mentor teacher. Susan confirms Roberto's good sense in recognizing the symptom and its importance not only for the students' learning, but also for Roberto's staying in the game. Just barely getting kids to do schoolwork is not enough, particularly for the higher standards and harder questions in schools these days.

Turning to the tool, Susan asks Roberto to think about what we mean by “motivation to learn.”  It should be coming from the students, not from the teacher.  From the teacher's angle, it should not be like dragging mules through mud, but something more like inviting guests to a dinner. Motivation is an internal state of students, and the question is how to connect with it. Roberto and Susan see two main ways: raise the value they place on the task and raise their expectation of success in that task. Those are different things to do, and there is an array of ways to do each. Staring at the tool and talking to Susan, Roberto soon declares that he has not yet begun a systematic campaign for motivating students to learn. More nearly, he has been wielding the carrot and the stick. Susan asks him where he wants to start, and how she can help...


Morgan gets "respect;" is the price too high?

In student teaching, Morgan learned to make the firm look, command and tone of voice that can make most students desist from whatever they were doing and re-join the class.  And, he has been getting better at producing that look and tone in his first year of teaching.  But he doesn’t much like doing it. Increasingly, he suspects that that kind of success is also some kind of failure. Why did it seem necessary, so often, to produce that face and tone?  And what was that face and tone doing to his relationships with students?

John, his mentor teacher, suggested that often progress consists mainly in trading a worse problem for a better one. Also, that Morgan had a better problem than being unable to get his class to do anything. John then turned the problem into a question and a project: When and why are you using that face and tone, and what are your alternatives? To jump-start their work on that question, the teachers hunted up the tool, "Restrained use of options for responding to inattention and misbehavior." Their first reaction was that that list of options is long, and runs from ignoring some misbehavior to detention. So the expression "restrained use" began to make some sense--stay in the top part of the list, if you can. And the tool made some interesting distinctions, for example, between "non-directive" and "directive" interventions.

Mastering the various options would take some time. The tool suggested ways in which John could help, in part by visiting Morgan's class and helping to make a record of the options Morgan was using. When they analyzed the results, they could also ask how Morgan's use of the options for dealing with misbehavior was affecting his attempts to build relationships with students.


Felicity had become a tyrant.

Driving home one Friday afternoon, beat to the bone from banging on kids all day, Felicity concluded that she had, entirely contrary to her intention, become a tyrant in her classroom. Reluctantly, she confronted the prospect that constantly exercising her authority as teacher was exhausting her, undermining her attempts to build relationships with her students and more effectively disrupting her class than anything most students were doing. It was all wrong. She was at the end of her rope.

Hearing her sad conclusion the following Monday afternoon, mentor Jane half-apologized: "I should have anticipated this kind of problem and made a plan to help you get through it. There are two typical rookie errors in the discipline department. One is failing to notice or stop any inattention or misbehavior short of felonies. In that direction, you end up trying to teach when there is so much misbehavior that teaching and learning could not possibly be going on. The other typical error is to jump hard on every little thing, become the tyrant, make it harder to gain ground in other aspects of teaching, and exhaust yourself to boot. Let's do what we should have done in the first place: make a plan for getting you through this rough patch."

Felicity remembered seeing a tool in the ASSIST web site, so got it out: "Restrained use of options for responding to inattention and misbehavior." Felicity and Jane set to discussing the alternatives to playing the tyrant.

Along the way, Jane also suggested that another kind of error is to interpret every problem as a problem of discipline, when it might be more useful to think that it is a problem of disorganized instruction: failure to establish, teach, and maintain rules and routines; failure to build relationships with students; and failure to motivate students to learn, among other possibilities.

*This part is based largely on ideas and options in Weinstein, C.S., & Mignano, A.J. (2003). Elementary/Secondary Classroom Management: Lessons from Research and Practice. New York: McGraw-Hill.