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September 1, 2015
Vol. 57
No. 9

Rules and Relationships: Which Comes First?

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For new teachers, balancing student relationships and classroom management can feel more like a riddle than a natural habit.

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Classroom Management
When teachers enter the classroom for the first time, they're faced with the classic chicken-and-egg scenario. Which comes first—building positive relationships with students or establishing order in the classroom?
It's a question Professor Tracey Garrett asks on the final exam of her classroom management course at Rider University. There is a tendency, she says, for new teachers to see care and order as "mutually exclusive concepts." However, Garrett wants her preservice teachers to understand that "developing rules and routines—which is essential to creating order—is actually a caring thing to do." When students feel a sense of safety and order in their classrooms, relationships can flourish.
Part of the challenge in balancing care and order can be traced back to preservice training. With a limited number of credits that can be assigned in a program, classroom management often gets pushed to the side or becomes an add-on to other courses, says Garrett. And there's a lingering misconception that classroom management can only be learned through experience, note Garrett and Rick Smith, author of Conscious Classroom Management. It's no wonder teachers commonly identify this as their top challenge.
"Classroom management is like the white screen in the movie theater," says Smith. "We always ignore it, but without it, the show can't go on."
At Rider, students are required to take field courses before participating in Garrett's classroom management elective so they can draw on real observations and examine what they learn from a teacher's perspective. Garrett bases the course on five things new teachers should know how to do from day one: organize the physical environment, create rules and routines, develop relationships, implement engaging instruction, and handle discipline. Managing care and order, she says, is woven throughout.
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Building Inner Authority

Without a solid foundation to draw on, new teachers tend to teeter on one end or the other of the care and order "seesaw," says Smith. "One side is how positively you connect with students, and the other is how willing you are to hold your ground."
Achieving balance depends on the level of what Smith calls "a teacher's inner authority vs. inner apology." A teacher with inner authority displays "withitness" and is confident, consistent, and fair. She "assumes the best about kids"—that they want to learn "appropriate behavior in a safe and structured environment."
On the other hand, a teacher with inner apology isn't viewed as an authority figure and tends to ask for rather than state what she wants, Smith explains. For example, when introducing a change, an inner apology teacher might say, in an unsure, pleading tone, "Class, it's kind of noisy, OK, so, um, can we maybe try to do something different?" This shows more concern with students' immediate reactions than what they need for long-term success, Smith elaborates. Conversely, an inner authority teacher might simply state, "Class, things are getting too noisy, so we're going to do something different."
This kind of acumen takes time and experience to develop, Smith acknowledges. But when new teachers hold their ground and learn to rely on effective strategies, their capacity to provide structure and convey care (through their tone, posture, and body language) builds over time.

Being Clear and Consistent

As a first-year elementary teacher, Otis Kriegel made his fair share of mistakes. But inconsistency proved to be his Achilles heel: "I would do one thing and it wouldn't work, so I'd do it differently the next day, and then differently the day after that, and [so on]." As a result, "kids didn't really know the limits."
Now a veteran teacher at Lower Manhattan Community Middle School in New York and a teacher trainer, Kriegel says he's much more consistent and communicative, which has led to improved relationships with his students. He's also better at explaining the rationale for why he's doing things: "Hey, I'm going to teach over here because I'm using the whiteboard" or "I want us to sit outside so we can observe the clouds."
Kriegel teaches digital arts to 35 students at a time in an "unorthodox classroom"—a large library/computer lab that has several learning stations and two or three different projects going on at once. "We can't function as a classroom community unless we know how to communicate with each other," he says.

Well-Oiled Routines

In Starting School Right: How do I plan for a successful first week in my classroom? (ASCD Arias, forthcoming), Kriegel stresses the value of being in charge yet open to feedback. One method is to convey clear routines and procedures at the beginning of the year but have students create classroom rules, he says. Routines, Garrett clarifies, focus on "providing direction about how to accomplish a task" while rules are about "preventing certain types of behaviors."
"Start with the basics," suggests Kriegel: within the first hour, tell kids how you're going to get their attention, how they're going to get your attention, what they need to do when they have to go to the bathroom, etc. Because there are so many moving parts to Kriegel's digital arts classroom, most of his routines and procedures involve materials.
"When classroom procedures are clear and kids know what they're doing," adds Smith, "the acting out is minimized dramatically." Smith promotes using "pictures for procedures," especially in elementary classrooms, to give students visual reminders of how to behave. In one example, he recommends posting pictures above the classroom door that show students in a "poor line, an intermediate line, and a perfect line." Label them one to three (with three being a perfect line), and tell your students that they need a three before they start walking. "Stand at the doorway and hold up the number of fingers that correspond to their line. Pretty soon, you won't have to say a word" because kids will see the number you're holding up and automatically adjust. Smith says it's a great way to streamline transitions, which ultimately helps the teacher become "more comfortable and confident and grow her inner authority faster."

Rules for Engagement

Unlike routines and procedures that are developed in a bubble, generating rules should be a collaborative process, says Kriegel. When you brainstorm rules with students, "they'll have greater buy-in to how the system works." And the conversations can be revealing: if students have trouble generating rules, "that informs you about their school experience," he says. Now "you have something else to teach them"—you'll have to come up with a list of rules together, model them, have students practice them, and repeat the process.
Garrett cautions that if new teachers believe students should buy-in to rules (such as "we come to class prepared," "one person speaks at a time," and "we treat each other with respect"), the process has to be done authentically. She shows preservice teachers a video of what not to do that depicts a teacher developing rules with students, writing them on the board, and erasing them all at the end, saying they boil down to two rules—her rules.
That's not how it should work, she laughs. "Brainstorm a bunch [of rules], then lead students through a process to eliminate similar ones." When you look for themes, they "see where their rule went," making for an authentic exercise.

Reflect and Retool

After laying out your rules and routines, how do you retool when something's not working? "Consistency is not about being robotic, it's about being human," explains Smith. "Tell students about the change, then practice and give a timeframe for learning it." Bigger changes can take up to 10 days to resonate with students and become habit, he emphasizes, so stick with it.
Kriegel agrees that explaining why you're making a change helps garner student buy-in. "It's no fun walking around in the dark. You bump into things and it's a disaster. Let everyone in on what you're doing and why you're doing it."
When one of his digital arts students asked why the class had to take notes in their notebooks and on their laptops, Kriegel realized the process was confusing and duplicative. He had students abandon their notebooks mid-semester, and he explained in detail why they were switching to a paperless system.
All rules and procedures are flexible, he articulates. Kriegel treats the list he makes at the beginning of the year "as a living, breathing classroom constitution." He adds, "We look at it, develop it, agree on it, and then revisit it. We ask, is this still working in November?"
In the first year, it helps to think of the classroom as a laboratory, remarks Smith. "We're not perfect; sometimes we lose our cool and sometimes we don't know what to do in a given situation. However, our imperfections can fuel deeper connections with students: as we accept our own insecurities, our students relax as well, knowing that their humanness is welcome in our classrooms."

Care-Full Leadership

Garrett often reminds preservice teachers that, although outlining processes in the first few days is important, so is relating your passion and enthusiasm. When she asks middle and high school students what they did on their first day of school, they commonly respond, "I went to this class and I heard the rules, I went to that class and I heard the rules, and so on." Instead, explains Garrett, "I want to hear them say, 'I went to science and I loved my teacher. She's going to teach me about this, this, and this. She's so passionate about what she teaches.'"
As Garrett notes, "Research supports that students, especially in middle and high school, make a conscious decision whether to behave or misbehave, and the number one factor they [base] that decision on is whether they connect with their teacher."
A study by education researcher Robert Marzano suggests that "the quality of teacher-student relationships is the keystone for all other aspects of classroom management." Building that connection doesn't mean you give up your role as an authority figure, Garrett assures. "[Your] students are not looking for a friend. They're looking for you to be friendly and caring."

First-Year Teachers Don't Have to Struggle

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, most teacher preparation programs provide few opportunities to learn and practice classroom management strategies. However, principals can help fill the gap by discussing the "Big Five" tenets of classroom management during their induction programs—and offering new teachers ongoing support in this area throughout the year. Discover how at www.ascd.org/eu0915newteacher.

Sarah McKibben is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership magazine.

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