(The following is a sample chapter from an upcoming book I'm working on called Take CHARGE. It looks at six steps to set up successful classroom management and six steps for deescalating behavioral outbursts. The first part of successful classroom management is confidence and the second part of confidence is positivity. The first part, purpose can be read in the previous post.)
How does one take charge of the classroom?
I work with a lot of teachers in my current capacity at a large urban district in north Texas. I see great schools and struggling schools, strong teachers and weak ones. Educational leadership is powerful but not the deciding factor. Curriculum programs affect learning but not student behavior. What’s the x factor?
I have good news and bad news.
There’s only one factor that decides the level of productivity, instructional focus, and management in a classroom.
It’s not the principal.
It’s not the students themselves.
It’s not the zip code, socio-economic status, parental involvement, race, or culture of the neighborhood.
It’s the teacher.
So, great news! You have the power to change your classroom, to take charge of learning and make your instructional program run like a well-oiled machine!
So, bad news! You can’t blame it on your school atmosphere, your lack of administrative support, the 52,382 district initiatives that start up each August and fizzle out by February, or anything that relates to the students. It’s not their fault.
Are you ready for that type of responsibility?
Clear is kind
Dr. Brene Brown, in her book Dare to Lead, states a painfully simplistic but powerful maxim for communication and living life in general.
Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. For a strong majority of educators that pick up a book on classroom management, the reading is largely an exercise in skimming until they find the silver bullet. Looking for that quick fix, that panacea, they skip along the surface, searching for that one tweak that will finally get their kids to behave.
I have news for you. Your students aren’t the problem.
If they aren’t the problem, then there’s only one person left in your classroom to look at to take responsibility for your current situation. That’s both the good news and the bad news.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say the students were the problem. What would happen if you could lay blame for your classroom discipline woes squarely at the feet of the miscreants currently on your roster?
Absolutely nothing. For one thing, you can’t get rid of them. You don’t make the roster and there’s nowhere else for them to go. More importantly, however, you can’t change anyone but yourself. Let’s pretend there is a magic formula hidden somewhere in this book. It would only work if you applied it to yourself.
That’s the frustrating myth about classroom management that we need to dispel here and now. You can’t control children. You can’t make them behave. That’s not what this book is about.
It’s about changing you. When you’ve accepted that, feel free to continue.
Clear is kind.
A living example
I didn’t always know this. As a teacher, I used to believe, like most of my fellow teachers, that classroom atmosphere largely depended on factors outside of my control. I did my best but, sometimes, I was dealt a bad hand. A few years ago I was faced with a situation that made me rethink all of that.
This particular school was not a strong school. The atmosphere that permeated the hallways was one of resignation and blame. “Those kids” were not going to be successful for a whole host of reasons, many revolving around culture, race, and parentage. As classroom after classroom struggled, some teachers became comfortable in their ineffectiveness. They were doing all they could. It just wasn’t their fault.
And then I walked into one of the kindergarten classrooms. The students looked like all the other ones. The parents of these students were no more capable in providing a loving environment at home, nor were they farther above the poverty level of the area. Several times difficult students were moved from other kindergarten classrooms into hers throughout the year. Those students, almost like magic, started doing well almost immediately.
It wasn’t easy. The teacher had to grind out every single day with her students, fighting against the tsunami of disadvantage that her students brought in with them from home. The difference was not her curriculum, her pedagogy, or her instructional materials.
It was her.
This teacher made a conscious choice every day to believe the best in her students. She saw them as able, as capable, as worthy. When the whole school started to crumble around her, and it did, her room was one of the only bastions of hope around. Her positivity translated into love for her students. When they struggled behaviorally or academically, she assisted them with strength and goodwill. She viewed their misbehavior as out of character, not a definition of who they were. Many of the other teachers held the opposite view - their students’ struggles only went to prove that they were somehow deficient and incapable.
It was largely due to this wonderful teacher, who I was supposed to coach, ironically enough, that I started to wonder about the power of one teacher. If she could do it in the face of adversity and toxicity, why not others? How could teachers learn to take charge of their classrooms and set their students up for success rather than feeling as if they were subject to the vicissitudes of fate?
It all starts with positivity.
You set the tone for your classroom. Yes, it’s inhabited by many other little humans, and they all contribute their pieces of puzzle. But you are the leader, and you decide, consciously or subconsciously, what the general mood will be.
That’s a lot of responsibility. What do you want to do with it?
Jon Gordon, in The Energy Bus, actually starts his book with this as the first principle. You are the driver of your bus. To me, that’s an incredibly liberating ideal. While many teachers feel like their classroom is out of control, they themselves hold the keys to improving their lot.
Gordon has many things to say about energy and positivity, but one of the most impactful is about attention. What you put your focus and attention on starts to show up more in your life. Your focus is your reality.
You can’t control children, but you can control your focus. If you look for positive moments, those will start to rise above the murk. You see, every day is filled with both positive and negative instances. Even in the most perfect situations, some details are less than ideal. On the flip side, absolute train wreck days still have a few glossy moments. You get a mixed bag each day, but what you decide to do with it is one of the biggest decisions you’ll ever make.
Later on in this book we’ll discuss your attention more in detail as the largest weapon you have to influence student behavior. For now, let’s just look at how your attention creates the climate in your classroom.
A classroom’s climate is its background noise. It’s the energy, mostly unseen, that fills in every space and shapes how you and the students interact with each other. For example, a student might bump into another student while walking up the aisle toward your desk. In a positive climate, the student that was bumped would most likely think that it was an accident. The errant student would apologize quickly, set anything right that was knocked out of place, and the matter would be over. If you even noticed it, you might thank the offending student for apologizing and ask the student that was bumped if he or she is okay.
Take the same situation in a negative climate. The student who was bumped jumps to the worst possible conclusion and believes the “bump” was either an intentional act, a precursor to more intimidation to come, or both. That student immediately retaliates, shoving back and yelling something sharp and profanity-laced. The initial student, regardless of the purposeful or accidental nature of the bump, is now on the defensive. Not to lose face, this student responds in kind and a simple situation becomes a rapidly deteriorating dumpster fire.
You, as the ever-vigilant teacher, are on the watch for your little hoodlums to show their true colors. Whichever action you happened to see first, either the bump or the reaction, raises alarm bells in your mind. Not wanting your authority to be diminished in any way, you jump in feet first, yelling at one of the students, shaming him or her for such an insensitive act and demanding that everyone take their seats immediately. Throwing gasoline onto the fire, one or both of the students involved resent the injustice of your quick judgment and decide that backing down is not an option.
It largely depends on the climate of the classroom. This emotional dark matter that fills every crack and cranny of your room is influenced over time by one small act or another. It doesn’t get created in a day or a week but, over time, pervades the four walls of your room. Ultimately, it’s your choice as to what the climate looks and feels like.
You are outnumbered. Sometimes your students surpass your physical presence by 25 or even 30 to 1. But what students have in sheer force, you more than make up for in presence. You are the teacher. You are the adult. Students naturally look for order, for predictability. If your classroom is one that provides for those psychological guardrails within a positive framework, then they will be far less likely to challenge you.
Mind you, I didn’t say that they will never challenge you. They will. It’s in their nature and it’s actually a good sign. We don’t want children to grow up weak-willed and subservient. Those students become adults led around by the nose by those with the loudest voice. Instead, we want students who know where the boundaries are and can operate within them with agency and autonomy. Sometimes simply telling students what those behavioral boundaries are enough. More often, though, students have to experience those limits personally.
This is where your positivity sets the atmosphere for your classroom. How you react to misbehavior, to challenges, and to rudeness goes a long way toward shaping the feeling of your classroom. If you are a dog owner, you know that as you go for a long walk, you’ll need to bring a plastic bag or two to courteously clean up your dog’s messes. You’ll also walk in starts and stops as your dog sniffs. Every. Single. Bush. And. Tree.
That’s simply in your dog’s nature. To not defecate and sniff every piece of flora would actually be quite strange. It’s the same with children. They are going to push your buttons. They’ll forget their homework, call out in class, bump into neighbors, and snatch pencils and other shiny objects from others. That’s what they do. Rather than letting those instances in which children are doing what children simply do unnerve you, approach it with positivity.
Every bad thing that happens in your classroom is not an attack on your authority. Even though it might seem like it at times, your students are not actively plotting to overthrow your regime and institute anarchy within your four walls. They’re simply being kids. When they mess up, they are showing you that they need help managing their emotions, or their tongues, or their bodies. They need someone to show them, with love and positivity, a better way.
By maintaining a positive outlook on everything that happens, but not taking things personally but observing them from a detached perspective, you get to choose your response and its flavor. Your positive response will begin to overpower any negativity that your students bring in with them. That’s your strength as a teacher. Do you want a more positive, trusting atmosphere?
It all starts with you.
In Teach, Breathe, Learn, Meena Srinivasan states that we cannot teach peace or happiness. There isn’t a curriculum guide or scope and sequence for making our students show higher proficiency on a positivity scale. Instead, we must be positive, be peaceful, and be happy. If we begin to change ourselves, then our reactions, which tend to happen automatically, become more positive and loving. We transmit our own state of being to our students not through a six week program but through how we show up each and every day.
Cura te ipsum - physician, heal thyself.
So, here’s the good news about taking the first giant leap toward taking charge of your classroom. It’s not going to take anything extra. You don’t have to stop teaching something important to carve out 15 minutes a day for instructing students on positivity. Though there will be some executive skills and emotional literacy we’ll discuss later on that can be taught explicitly, a positive climate comes not from direct instruction.
Srinivasan shares that it’s not about what you teach but how you teach it. The love and joy behind your teaching is perhaps the strongest impression you will leave with your students. Underneath every word you speak, every expression that crosses your face, is another message. That message, the message behind your words, are what your students truly hear in their hearts.
While you think they are listening to your wonderful explanation about the standard algorithm for multiplying numbers, they aren’t. You might think that they are enthralled with your literary analysis, but that’s much more important to you than it is to them. Your students are listening for other messages, such as, “My teacher likes me,” or, “My teacher believes in me,” or, “My teacher thinks I’m capable and intelligent.” It’s the tone behind your voice, outlining your daily interactions, that contributes to the positivity or negativity of your classroom culture.
In Happy Class, Jenna Sage shares some tips on how to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness and gratitude. These ideas work both for teachers trying to improve their own positivity quotient but also as classroom activities to begin empowering students to choose their outlook.
First, gratitude, or the attitude of being thankful, is something that can be grown by focused attention. Each day, teachers can take out a journal or spiral notebook and, before the students show up, jot down a few things they are thankful for. What is going right? What is helpful in their lives? What are things they take for granted that, if absent, would make their worlds darker?
As teachers, we have a lot to be thankful for. Not even counting personal situations, we are blessed to be given the responsibility to shape the future of students. We can be thankful that we are employed and essential. Writing this sentence in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, parents across the world are now very aware, if they weren’t already, of how hard teaching is and how lucky they are to have us.
We can be thankful that we have students who show up every day. We can bless the parents that feed and clothe our students, the administrators that do so much behind the scenes to keep things going, and the support staff, like cafeteria servers and janitors, that all pitch in to make learning possible. There is a lot of goodness that happens every day in a school. It’s always been there, it’s just up to you to notice it. Writing down a few things you’re grateful for consistently can produce a marvelous change in your attitude in just a short time.
Also, once a day doesn’t have to be the only time that you take a moment to be thankful. Many teachers utilize alarms on their smartphones to remind them about various daily occurrences, such as when to take attendance or when to pick up their students from lunch. In the same way, teachers can set a simple chime to go off every hour or two. When they hear the chime, they can simply take a moment wherever they are, pause, take a deep breath, and silently name one thing they are thankful for at that moment. This would be a great opportunity to teach this simple habit to students as well. The more they reflect on what they are thankful for, the more that the atmosphere of your classroom will slowly fill with positivity.
Finally, teaching yourself to pause in stressful moments can be a life-saver in regards to your outlook. Sometimes, we say and do things reflexively that have a strong negative impact on our classroom. If we can train ourselves to stay in the moment when our emotions begin to rise, we can sometimes stop and consider. Something as simple as saying to ourselves, “1-2-3, is it good for me?” allows us a moment to consider our response and decide whether it’s helpful or hurtful. If we can catch some of our words before they make a situation worse, we can instead inject positivity into the crisis.
Remember, what you focus on becomes your reality.