Labor Day marks the end of summer and the beginning of school for most of the United States. It is partly a time of frustration over the short summer and a time of anticipation and renewal due to the start up of a new school cycle. Students are excited about seeing old friends and meeting a new teacher. Teachers are excited about beginning with a fresh bunch of children and rekindling learning with a new or renewed curriculum. Starting over is like being given a second chance to correct mistakes, refine successful practices, and try out newly acquired strategies.
How does a new or veteran teacher best focus oneself to accomplish the daunting task of initiating a new school year? Does he or she concentrate on room organization and decor first, or should an educator develop unit and lesson plans that correspond to state standards in order to target the tested skills for the year? As we all know, it's never too early to load one's educational ammunition for the big one at the end of the year!
But believe it or not, there is something even more important than instructional planning and room presentation for the start of school. The brass ring that every educator should lunge for first is classroom management, not to be confused with classroom discipline. Classroom management is the day-to-day routines and procedures for achieving small to large tasks with a roomful of energetic and strong-willed youngsters. Without it, all the state-aligned curricula and picture-perfect room environment will not impress parents, students, or educators if the learners are controlling what goes on in the classroom and creating unnecessary stress for all.
How do teachers plan for classroom management before they know the students and/or the schedule for the day? Does one plan fit all, regardless of the personalities and behavior dynamics involved? Does a teacher try to make his or her classroom run like a well-oiled machine and the learners respond like robots on cue? Does classroom organization and management solve most discipline problems before they happen and make the reward/consequence behavior modification system obsolete?
While ideally we would like to think that a well managed classroom is almost problem free, there are those pupils who do not comply with the best intended routines and procedures and thrive on the negative attention of non-conformity. However, most learners appreciate the boundaries and predictable expectations of established and learned procedures and function well within organized space and time.
The best guide as to how to tackle the creation of a structured, smoothly running learning environment is Harry and Rosemary Wong's The First Days Of School. They emphasize everything from how students sharpen pencils efficiently to how to quickly and effectively gain teacher control of a class that is loud and chaotic without yelling. Rather than stressing that teachers jump on that state-mandated curriculum before they get behind on the district's pacing schedule, the Wongs prioritize how to learn before what to learn.
Wise teachers spend the first weeks of school practicing such basics as how to enter the classroom and get ready for the day, how to distribute various returned papers, how to begin working without teacher prompts, how to turn in assignments, how to use the restroom orderly, how to line up to leave the classroom, how to follow cafeteria routines. On and on and over and over it goes until everyone indicates they know the procedures.
However, there are always a few who carelessly or deliberately ignore the routine even if they know what to do. Sometimes such behavior can be eliminated by making the whole class repeat the procedure until all follow directions. Be prepared for groans in unison, but peer pressure can do a lot to change behavior! At other times, singling out the offenders and repeating the steps until either exhaustion or correctness wins out gets the point across.
Having a procedure for unexpected events is as essential as for the expected ones. When the class loses noise control or is in an assembly, teachers restore order with a signal that saves vocal chords and their sanity. If they are late returning to the room after the class returns from a special class, they need to practice a procedure where the students start the class momentum themselves. If they are called from the room briefly, they have a plan in place for the learners to proceed without him or her.
All of this may be taken for granted, but it is surprising how these small steps save time, teacher frustration, distraction from learning, and class behavior problems. We assume children know how to do these common sense tasks, but remember that common sense is not always so common and the slightest break from structure sends some pupils into take-over mode.
A well managed classroom is one where nothing is assumed nor left to chance. There is a practiced and established procedure for all foreseen situations. Instruction and space are organized to facilitate these procedures as well as teacher expectations. For those who are "memory or compliance challenged", teachers should have a system of rules and consequences to help them. Focusing first on classroom management can make the difference, in most, cases, in the quality of the school experience for any teacher and class.
C. S. Gordon is an educator and 360 Education Solutions contributor