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December 1, 2017
Vol. 59
No. 12

Stay Calm and Teach On

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Conquer classroom management with these techniques to keep your cool.

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Classroom Management
When Paul Murphy, a 3rd grade teacher in Michigan, asked a student to move his clip down on the behavior chart (for poking his classmate with a pencil), the young boy "lost it." He ran into the bathroom at the back of the class, locked himself in, and started screaming.
Murphy continued teaching, however, asking his students in an unruffled tone to "look at me and do the best you can to ignore it." Five minutes later, the boy emerged and "he was fine."
"I see it as a challenge," Murphy says. "The more fired up a student is, the calmer I try to make myself."
With practice, the veteran teacher has become adept at defusing situations like these. "I have to consider that there's an audience watching this whole thing go down," he explains. "I'd much rather have students see me as someone who doesn't respond to anger and who doesn't feel the need to win power struggles. It's a long year, and the best way to positively influence students is to build good relationships with them."
Whether a single student or the whole class unravels, feeling stuck in reactive mode can be exhausting. These techniques from classroom management experts, however, could help ease potentially toxic emotions. With practice, teachers can stay calmer in the moment—and get students back on track.

Avoiding the Soapbox

In a heated classroom interaction, there's a tendency to "call students out publicly for their behavior," says Doug Lemov, managing director of the Uncommon Schools charter network and author of Teach Like a Champion. When teachers get frustrated, they might "be loud and chasten students in front of others." Not only does this reaction damage the relationship, but if the student responds, it thrusts the teacher into a "public battle that can be disruptive for everybody."
In his first year with Teach for America, Gary Rubinstein made this mistake all too often with his middle schoolers. "Your instinct tells you to confront a kid in front of the whole class," he says. That "it's going to embarrass them, and that's going to motivate them to act better because they don't like being singled out. But that often backfires because they want to show they're not scared of you."
Lemov recommends intervening with private individual correction whenever possible. Rather than calling a student out aloud for not taking notes, give the class a quick task and walk over to her. Crouch down by her desk and whisper, "This is very important. This is content you need to know to be successful, so I need to see you taking notes whenever my pencil is moving." A private conversation will make the student more accountable and focused on her behavior, explains Lemov. And "she's less likely to be distracted by the emotion of being called out in class."
When walking across the room isn't possible, dropping your voice to a whisper can signal to the student that "this is private, between you and me." Students will be more responsive because they understand you're not trying to "call them out or embarrass them," says Lemov.
If several students are being disruptive, try to "avoid making a big soapbox speech to the class," advises Rubinstein, who now teaches at a high school in New York City. For example, if the bell rings and students aren't quieting down and starting their warm-up exercise, he approaches whoever is talking the loudest and softly asks them to get to work. Then the teaching veteran might go around and talk to a few more students individually, creating a domino effect that quiets the whole class down.

Let the Plan "Do Its Job"

Another deescalating technique is to walk an indirect route to a defiant student's desk. "If I walk right at the student, everyone's going to watch me approach him," says Lemov. "And then I feel like I'm on stage. And if I rush over there, I haven't really taken time to compose myself." Give the appearance that you're circulating, then step over to the student and say, "David, I need your attention for a minute. I need to talk to you about the way you've been acting in the classroom. It's never appropriate to laugh at someone when they answer a question in class." This extra minute can help tremendously, says Lemov.
Michael Linsin, a high school teacher in San Diego and author of the Smart Classroom Management blog, believes that one of the biggest causes of teacher stress and anxiety is "trying to convince students to behave," whether appeasing them through "pep talks" or using "intimidation or questioning" (i.e., Why did you do that?).
"I know exactly what to do every time a student misbehaves," Linsin explains. When it's time to give a consequence, he doesn't tell a student how to think or feel—he sticks to the classroom management plan. "Like a referee, I just follow the script."
Then he turns and walks away from the student. "A lot of teachers will just stand there and wait for a reaction—but that's an invitation for the student to react. It's almost like the teacher is prepared to get stressed out," Linsin observes. "They're waiting for the response and hoping the student takes it well." Instead, simply give the consequence without judgment, turn around, and "continue on with what you were doing as if nothing happened."
By resolving not to "get excited and upset if a student misbehaves," you are following the contract laid out when you taught rules and consequences at the start of the year, says Linsin. "Shifting the responsibility to your classroom management plan removes a huge burden off your shoulders."
Rubinstein, who is also author of Reluctant Disciplinarian, uses a proactive technique called the "no and turn." If a student asks a question to which the answer is no (like, Can I go to the bathroom? or Can I turn this in late?), he responds decisively and walks away. "If you say 'no' and stand there, they're going to argue with you," Rubinstein says. Try to do it, however, "in a matter-of-fact way that doesn't alienate the kid."
Similarly, you can be "pleasant and understanding and even compassionate when you give a consequence," adds Linsin. You might say, "Joseph, you've been doing great lately, and I really appreciate it, but you broke rule number two and so …." Delivering consequences with an amiable tone, body language, and even choice of words "doesn't mean that you absolve a student or tell them that it's OK if they misbehave."

"Calm as a Mountain Lake"

Responding emotionally to student outbursts can become almost "Pavlovian after a while," says Linsin. To break the cycle, teachers must determine ahead of time that they're not going to take the behavior personally.
Linsin relies on what he calls the "decide first" method: Before school starts each morning, he sits at his desk, takes a few breaths, and makes the conscious decision that no matter what situation arises, he will keep his cool. "You visualize the very worst thing that can happen that day, like a stampede of wildebeests crashing through your door, and [resolve] that you're going to remain as calm as a mountain lake."
This can be taken a step further by visualizing the behaviors that present themselves most often in your classroom, and "physically walking around the room and rehearsing giving a consequence." At first, it might take 5 or 10 minutes, but eventually maybe 30 seconds.
"It sounds simple," Linsin says, "but it's incredible how well that works."
Lemov says practice like this is often underrated. "Teaching is a performance profession," he observes. "You go live in front of 30 kids, five times a day, and to be successful, you have to practice."
Pick a specific student and have a colleague role-play some of the behaviors the student typically exhibits. "Practice [your response] three, four, or five times and get feedback," advises Lemov. "So, when you have to talk to this student about something, you know the language you're going to choose."
By rehearsing, teachers are "more likely to be able to manage their emotions and less likely to have the situation explode on them."

Root of the Problem

Early in his career, Rubinstein's biggest classroom management mistake was teaching too much material in one lesson. "If I went too fast, kids started losing their confidence," he recalls. "And because they would need to be good at something—they would be good at frustrating the teacher."
In Rubinstein's experience, "the root of the problem" could be that the lesson itself is too challenging or hastily designed. "Trying to cram too much stuff in" can quickly throw a class off track, agrees 3rd grade teacher Murphy. If he skips preteaching behaviors and expectations, for instance, he may have to repeat a lesson with his distracted students. Or, if Murphy gets "antsy" and moves a lesson along too quickly, he might ignore when a student blurts out an answer.
"I don't think classroom management can work without great instruction," notes Lemov. "It's reasonable and fair to ask kids to be productive, orderly, and respectful to each other in a classroom." But then "a teacher has to reward them with engaging, fascinating, real instruction in exchange for them meeting those expectations, which can often be high and tiring and challenging."

Reset with a Rationale

If your classroom is struggling with behavior, try resetting with a simple lesson in which students can feel successful, suggests Rubinstein. Instead of a three-day project that requires a lot of materials and can "get pretty wild," return to a "more traditional lesson with guided instruction and independent practice time."
"It's almost ignoring the bad day and treating it as if it was such an anomaly that it's not even worth making a big deal about," Rubinstein says.
"When things start to spiral downward, you want to reset really quickly," adds Lemov—and be precise in your language. "When people get nervous, they tend to throw more words at the problem." One of the core skills of great behavioral managers is "economy of language"—telling someone the most important thing to do, and only that.
Besides in-the-moment resets, holiday breaks or extended absences offer a natural opening for starting anew. Just make sure to give students a learning rationale for the reset, "which you can invent," says Lemov. When returning from winter break, for example, tell students, "Great, guys, we're halfway through the year and we've got a lot to accomplish so we can be super successful. We need to nail the routines for how we do things in the classroom so we're productive and the class is as engaging as it can possibly be." Or, "We only have 30 days until our big unit test on Lord of the Flies, and this novel is really important, so we need to make sure we crush it."
"It goes back to procedures and routines," says Lemov. "Identify two or three problem areas (like silent independent work), carefully plan out solutions, and have students practice so that they know how to do it right."
As you reteach procedures, instead of saying, "That wasn't good enough," try, "That was good, but we want everything we do in this classroom to be great. Let's see if we can do that perfectly." Positive framing, Lemov continues, "can be a culture shift in the classroom and earn a lot of student buy-in."
In his 27-year teaching career, Linsin says it's "incredible how quickly the culture can change" in a classroom, like when a substitute fills in. "But that's good, because [it means] I can change it in the other direction, also."
After an absence, Linsin reteaches routines, but "not in a mean way or 'sheriff is back in town' kind of way." He models a routine like entering the classroom, has one or two students model it, then has the whole class follow. "You don't want to do it over and over again as a punishment or drudgery," he advises. Approach it with the "same enthusiasm you have when teaching a favorite book or poem."

Teach Like a Cat

Although he rarely loses his cool these days, Paul Murphy wasn't always so Zen-like: As a new teacher, he would snap at a defiant student one minute and enthusiastically teach a lesson the next. The intense ups and downs were emotionally exhausting, he recalls.
Murphy noticed that his more experienced colleagues had a much calmer affect, which their students mirrored. In a matter of self-preservation, the 3rd grade educator vowed to "teach like a cat"—be less excitable and reactionary, and save his energy reserves for lively and engaging lessons.
It's not about "being Ferris Bueller's teacher and boring kids to death," he insists. It's about "picking your moments."
Maintaining a calm demeanor requires perspective. At the end of the day, it's easy to "feel dejected" because of an isolated incident that happened right before the bell rang, says Murphy. But what about the rest of the day? If three or four students were acting out, that means that 18 of 22 students "were really good."
"When a kid misbehaves, I try to remind myself that it's not about me," he emphasizes. "It's almost always about something going on in that kid's life that we don't know about. I think empathy can help us not react."

Sarah McKibben is the director of digital and editorial content for ASCD.

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