Classroom management: buzzword or mantra? Hype or necessity?
With class sizes of 40 or more the norm, Hong Kong English teachers will tell you that anyone with even the faintest experience in front of a local classroom will know that classroom management is important. Whether or not that awareness translates into effective practice is something entirely different.
Half of the issue is that, especially in the case of new teachers, so much of our attention can be eaten up by negotiating the progression of our lesson towards the aims, towards clarification of target language and production activities, that the real reason students aren’t following you is easily missed.
Classroom management is a term that describes the way a teacher controls and manipulates the interactions between those in the classroom – and being a very broad term, it covers everything from instructions to feedback to grouping to seating arrangements: it is to teaching what a hydraulics system might be to a passenger jet, and in the same vein, it takes careful study, awareness and training to master.
Why is classroom management important?
Without wanting to state the obvious – a classroom without explicit attention and planning of classroom management is a classroom where the teacher is taking a gamble. In reality, there are many teachers, experienced or not, who do this unconsciously – not because they are bad teachers, but because they are confident enough to follow their intuition.
One of the potential issues with this is that when things go wrong, it can be hard to reflect and identify what went wrong, why the problem arose and potential solutions to it for next time. On the other hand, teachers who meticulously plan their classroom interaction patterns run the risk of turning their lessons into rigid platforms in which neither students nor teacher have any flexibility of expression, and soon motivation and interest wanes dangerously.
So the art really lies in a compromise between planning and flexibility. In being able to have a few options that serve the purpose you need to address in order to achieve your aims. In offering students enough support to provide direction and focus and at the same time, being ready to extend, refine, confine or deflect any tasks and distractions that might arise along the way.
What happens without it?
Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes and imagine you are a fly on the wall of one of your classes. This is one of your classes in an ideal scenario – the class you’ve always dreamed of having. Stop and watch and listen. What can you see? What are the students doing? How much noise can you hear? What is the quality of that noise? Can you see any students who have finished early, or who are about to finish early? What are they doing/going to do next? Can you see any students who are having problems? Watch them. How do they solve the problem? What resources do they call on, and in what order?
This is what happens when classrooms are managed efficiently – and if you’ve ever been lucky enough to be a student or observer in one of these classrooms, you’ll appreciate the extent to which they are works of art. They don’t just fall into existence through the principles of chaos theory following the unlikely (read: probability = 0) alignment of cosmic variables. These are complex systems that have been established, reinforced and students who have been trained from day 1.
Yes but I’m already halfway through the semester.
Wait – is that the sound of the world smallest violin I hear?
Suck it up and get started. Your other option is to continue doing what you’re doing without seeing what options might work for your students before you get a clean start when the new academic year starts. Why not aim to hit the ground running, armed with a series of ideas that you think will probably work?
How do I know where to start?
Of course it’s impossible to adjust every single item in your classroom management tool box in one go. So one idea might be to prioritise areas that are causing the most disruption in your lesson. Alternatively, you might like to focus on areas you feel weakest at, or ones that you think help you to achieve your ideal classroom set-up (like the one you might have imagined in the short exercise above). Ideally, you’ll find it most effective to try out one new thing at a time – this will help you to isolate the most effective techniques and refine them for the students you work with.
So here are some tips and ideas you might like to try out in the coming months.
1) Give better instructions
- Vary you voice control when giving instructions. When students get used to the idea of instruction being given in a very quiet, calm manner, they may quickly learn what is required of them to make sure they can hear!
- Try giving your instructions as a chant: pens down, turn around, and look at me! This give you the chance to repeat the instructions until everyone has followed them. You can also try doing this by tapping the pen on the board as your metronome, which helps to signal to learners that it’s time to listen.
- Try giving your instructions with minimal teacher talk in one of two ways. First, you could try eliciting all the instructions for your task. So you might introduce a reading task by asking: ok so look at the pictures, what can you see? Do you think this picture matches the first paragraph or the second? So what do you need to do next? And when you’ve finished, who do you need to talk to? Or secondly (and more challenging) try to establish the instructions by using gesture and mime only. This will really challenge you to think about how to get the learners’ attention and ensure everyone understands what you want them to do.
2) Set better routines
Routines are central to all effective teaching, but have you thought about routines in any of the following ways?
- Entry and exit routines: how do you want the learners to enter and exit the room? Do you want them to choose where they sit? Do you want them to check their homework with the answers on the notice board? Do you want them to sit at the front of the room and share something interesting from their week? Try spending the first 5 or 10 minutes of every class (perhaps as you check names off the register) doing the same thing for the next 5 weeks and see what a difference it makes.
- Transition routines: how much time does it take you to move students from one task to another? Do you give students a time limit? Do you tell them how you want to see them sitting/behaving? Why not try focusing on this deliberately for the next month and see if you can get your students to transition more smoothly.
- Language routines: how do your students manage communication breakdowns? Do you remind them of classroom and task-dependent language? I always elicit this from my students before they do a task (i.e. the “plan” in plan>do>review), but more than that I drill them on it. So my tasks always begin with so what do you say if….. The good thing about this is it give you a momentary opportunity to build in jazz chants and rhythm work on a regular basis.
- Task routines: So what about fast finishers? What about dictionaries? What about students asking each other for help? Try asking students how and when these things are important (again…what do you do if….?) before you start any task, and then keep a record during the task (which is visible on the whiteboard) of all students who demonstrate they can do this while they are working. It’s also a great opportunity to channel your inner Yoda by answering all their questions with a question. Teacher, I don’t know how to do this. Hmmmmmm Have you asked your friend for help? Have you checked the dictionary?
3) Group students more efficiently
Getting students into groups quickly and efficiently is essential to prevent you from losing momentum in a class. Have you tried any of these?
- Ask three students to tell you their favourite _________ (day, ice cream flavor, sport, colour, shirt pattern, time to wake up, cookie ingredient….etc) and group students accordingly.
- Tell the students to run and touch one wall in the classroom if they think ___________, and the opposite wall if they think ________ (whatever the opposite it). Give them 2 minutes to chat to the person standing next to them and then ask them to sit down next to each other.
- Have you ever simply asked students if they would like to choose their own groups or partners? I occasionally use this as way to negotiate with the learners. So it might involve me setting criteria or expectations that include: the amount of time learners have to choose, sit down and start working on a task; how much English I expect to hear them use or how quickly I expect them to finish the task.
4) Get a grip on your whiteboard work
A well-written whiteboard is a work of art, there’s no denying that. But have you tried any of these ideas?
- Always carry two different coloured pens in your hand so you’re not constantly searching for “any pen that is a different colour to the one you’ve already written with”.
- Don’t write a lesson plan, write a board plan, and use it to teach from. This will help you think about what the point of each stage is, as you consider what you’re giving feedback on and how you think it should be presented to learners.
- Try nominating learners to come up and write answers on the whiteboard from time to time – there is a degree of unpredictability that will work in your favour.
5) Get your materials management under control
Something that many teachers take for granted is the impact their materials can have on a class…and that’s even before the students get their hands on a worksheet. I call this materials management and predicting difficulties and solutions can be one key determiner to a smooth and efficient lesson.
- Use a materials helper each week to distribute and collect worksheets – ensure they are well-prepared to check everyone has written their names etc on all worksheets they collect!
- Prepare a homework in/out tray for students to drop worksheets in once they are finished. You’ll quickly find out who is on board with the homework when their marked worksheets pile up in your out tray.
- Rather than go through the homework mechanically, print one large copy off, write in suggested answers and post in on the back wall. Inform students they can check the answers at any point when they get a free moment during the lesson.
- Do you ever hand out one-between-two, then when you hand out the second worksheet, it takes 10 minutes for one of the students in each pair to copy out all the answers? Why not prompt students at the beginning by telling them they are only to discuss answers when you hand out one-between-two….PENS DOWN!
6) Be the master of managing (not controlling!) behavior
This is perhaps what most people associate with the notion of classroom management – though this is just one small factor in a successfully managed classroom.
- Do you have students that are hard to control because they like to make THE. SAME. JOKE. 20. TIMES?! One of the best nuggets of wisdom I learned from watching colleague…..simply reply to the students (in a deadpan face, of course) “It’s only funny once”….and then move on. This changed my life.
- Channel your inner parent: focus on the students who are following instructions, prompt those who aren’t with patronizing questions: now is that what I asked you to do? Look at Sarah….is she doing the same thing? No? What’s she doing? Ok thank you Sarah, that’s excellent writing. I’d like you to write like Sarah please.
- At the end of the day, many students are difficult to manage because they don’t understand what the boundaries and expectations are. Reminding them with a simple question “would you do ______ if your parents were here?” can be a very powerful move.
- I would, however, highly encourage you to find ways of managing difficult classes without resorting to points or gamification – while it does work for many teachers, it can detract from the ultimate purpose of being in the classroom: learning. In this regard it really helps to learn students’ names, use them and praise students regularly, send positive letters home to parents about good behavior and good examples of work, and encourage students to select work they are proud of to be displayed in the classroom, or shown to their parents.
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James contributes to the TESOL team as a CertTESOL/DipTESOL trainer as well as one of EFA's digital content managers. He holds a Cambridge DELTA, Trinity TYLEC and is currently completing a postgraduate diploma in teaching (secondary). He contributes to English language teaching publications, including the English Australia Journal, The British Council and the International House Journal of Education and Development.