Tips for the Tough Classroom

Ten years ago, in my first full year of teaching, I made a commitment to write every night when I got home. Most nights I would pour a glass of wine, find a spot on the couch or at a desk and begin to process the events of the day and try to make sense of all the experiences that were new to me. Some days I stopped after a few paragraphs, and some days I rambled on for pages. In the end, I had about 200 pages of unedited first year teacher experiences. 

Occasionally, I pull those pages out and read. It’s a way to remember things I normally forget. 

On day one, I wrote about being worried about my chest hurting. In many ways, it hasn’t really stopped hurting since that day. 

On day two, I wrote about another thing that stayed part of my life for the last 10 years: the unruly classroom. The class that talks too much, or you can’t control, and the class that left me feeling like I should probably retire after just my second day of teaching. I described it like this: 

“Most of my classes go really well, but then there is one that I feel more like an annoying kid at the end of a lunch table. I keep trying to pitch in to the conversation, but nobody notices me and I feel ignored. I yell. One kid just smiled and it kind of made me want to fight him. But then I thought that fighting a 15 year old would be the kind of thing gets me fired and put in the newspaper. There are probably more respectable ways to go out.” 

I read these things on days like today, the day before I start my second decade in this profession, because it helps me to realize how much I have learned and grown. I still have tough classrooms, but It is rare now that I feel like the ignored kid at the end of the lunch table. 

I sat in a PD this week with teachers all across my district, and I was kind of shocked that most of them were talking about student behaviors. Of course, some of those conversations digress into the murky world of deficit mindsets and us/them mentalities and I usually try to avoid those people. But many of those conversations were with concerned teachers who were worried about their ability to deliver their content because of legitimate classroom management fears. Some of these teachers were new to the profession, but others had been teaching for years and were echoing the same fears. 

I haven’t entirely graduated from those concerns myself. It’s probably at least part of the reason that my stomach hasn’t felt normal for at least a week and my wife keeps telling me that I seem like I’m “somewhere else.” I’ll be able to keep kids in their seats and doing some work, but at the heart of all of those classroom management anxiety are questions about connection.
What if I can’t connect? What if whatever I am offering isn’t relevant this year? Or, what if I can’t make it matter? 

I want to give myself some advice. It feels less personal to say that I am offering this advice to younger teachers or to frame it as some kind of letter to myself 10 years ago because, more realistically, this is just a way to remind myself of the things I know to be true that will help me this year. Hopefully, they help you as well. 

Classes are made up of people.

Part of my problem that first year was the temptation to believe that the entire 7th period class was the problem. I wanted to think about it wholistically instead of individually. Things got easier when I internalized the reality that all classes are made up of people. And giving space for each individual actually helps the behavior of the class. It’s a lot of individual work, but it is the right work if you want to get back to a productive classroom. This meant using every spare moment I had to start to get to know each of the students in that class. I started with the one that I kind of wanted to fight, mostly because I felt guilty. Then worked on the ones that seemed to influence the environment the most. Even the hardest classroom environments drastically change when some of the more negative influencers turn into positive influencers. Sometimes this isn’t easy to recognize while you are teaching. It may help to ask a friend to come visit your room and try to observe which students are leading, and which students are following. Of course, I suggest you get to know all your students. But in some situations, that can’t happen until you get control of your classroom. The quickest way to do that is to find the influencers and start to work with them. It can change everything. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Grade Everything.

When classrooms are challenging, I make sure that students have some kind of written feedback every day. This could be a note on their work, a mark of some kind, or a grade in the gradebook. However, if I’m frustrated after a class, I always wait a few hours to look a their work. I never want to grade or give feedback emotionally, and that few hours always gives me the distance I need to be objective. As much as I love classroom discussion, that has to wait until next week when they class is functioning well. In challenging rooms, it matters that kids feel there is tangible work to accomplish and that they will be told if they succeed. If students want to talk for an entire period and avoid instruction, they will fail. That seems really harsh, but it establishes needed norms in a room. This room is about growing, and you don’t grow if you don’t put in some focused effort. Too often, I hear teachers complain about tough classrooms and I ask them what they have tried. They talk about phone calls home, which I’ll get to in a second. Then they basically go on to say that all they have done is changed the seating chart and yelled a bit more. Then the kids leave and they cry and they want to quit. 

Come on, Teacher. Pull yourself together and try something else. So much of teaching is about making as many connections as possible in different ways. So grade the work, make a note, and make sure you tell kids how they are doing. And do this every day. 

Avoid Shame and Fear. At any age. 

This is a conversation I have had hundreds of times over the years. 

Teacher: Joe is horrible in my class. 

Me: What have you tried? 

Teacher: I call home most days, and I kick him out of class at least twice a week. 

Me: Is that working? 

Teacher: What do you mean?

Me: Is Joe getting better in your class? 

I think you can tell where this is going. The answer is almost never yes. In other words, no student changes their behavior because we are calling home a lot and kicking them out of class, but these things are often near the top of the list of teacher interventions. If those things do “work” a little, it is likely because of fear, which stands in the way of learning. It’s not that we are bad teachers, it’s just that many of us lose creativity and rationality when we are frustrated.
If we are going to call parents about behavior, I might suggest a different approach that is probably more helpful. First, we can always tell students we are going to call home before we do it. We can tell them that we don’t think they are learning right now, and we want to call home to try to figure out better ways to make the class work for them. This avoids the childhood nightmare of getting home and having a parent staring at you for a reason that you don’t yet know. Secondly, we can call parents seeking advice as to how to help their child in class as opposed to telling them that their kid doesn’t know how to act. 

Parents are usually kind of surprised. I tell them that I just want to help their child get more from my class and right now it’s not working. It keeps the student from huge trouble at home, and avoids that shame moment for both the parent and the student. It enables everybody as a problem-solver, instead of holding that role exclusively for the teacher. 

Of course, classrooms can still be tough. And some of them will be. They will be crowded and loud and insubordinate. However, they don’t need to stay that way.