Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Learning to Manage Classroom Management

This module in my Master's course is about teacher evaluation, and has prompted me to think a lot about self-assessment and reflection.  My blog is all well and good, but I tend to humble-brag about my strong points, or ideas I tried that worked out well.  This week, I'm going to reflect on an area of need.

I'll be completely honest: Classroom management is, without a doubt, one of my weak points as a teacher, and has therefore been one of my least favorite parts of teaching.  I am a non-confrontational guy.  In fact, I am apparently not all that intimidating, period.  A couple months back, I asked one of my students to do his best Mr. Gibson impersonation and he responded by broadening his smile and walking with a jaunty bounce in his step.  Evidently, I am as menacing as Mr. Rogers.  (By the way, I truly enjoyed the impersonation--I figure, I put so much time and energy into impersonating my own teachers when I was in high school that I might as well have a sense of humor about what comes around).

My trouble is, at the start, I had a tough time separating discipline from an emotional response.  In my first year of teaching, I allowed every little thing, every little challenge to my authority to bother me and wound up breaking the cardinal rule of "never lose your cool" time and again.

My reaction since then has been to practice patience--to not allow defiance or off-task behavior to bother me personally.  And boy, have I learned patience!  Anyone who knew me in my childhood knows that I'm not a patient person by nature and that I can have a fiery temper (that's true of all red-heads, right?).  Patience is good.  I am a better person for having developed this patience.  Unfortunately, in the classroom, this has come at the expense of me consistently setting and enforcing rules like I know I should be, out of a fear that I will get angry in the process.

My philosophy after that unfortunate first year has been one of treating my 11th graders like college students: they can make their own decisions about time use (including bad ones) and then must live with the natural consequences, and I won't stop them.  If they want to waste a class period of work-time, then they must be prepared to do that work later with the full recognition that their stress was their own making.

This sounds sensible on paper, but here's the blinding flash of the obvious that recently struck me:
Most 11th graders are not ready for this.
I love my students dearly and have seen Juniors accomplish some truly remarkable things in and out of class, but most--not all, mind, but a definite majority that includes otherwise bright and thoughtful kids--cannot make the connection between their misuse of time and their stress later, or at least they stubbornly refuse to.  It comes out in the complaining, or more subtle suggestion that I did not allow enough time, or that I picked a bad time to give an assignment, or that their other teachers gave too much work.  I should note here that this 11th grade class has been fairly responsible on the whole and no specific incident caused me to have this revelation--it just dawned on me during class earlier this week as I observed my students making decisions about how to spend in-class work time, and had the eureka moment that I could be teaching them better habits.  I realized that if I allow students to make bad choices and they are not actually taking responsibility and learning from those bad choices, and are blaming myself or someone else, then they are not ready for that level of freedom to begin with.  Again, no judgment at all on the quality of their character--it's a developmental thing.  They need time, training and feedback to grow into that level of responsibility.

I tell each class of 11th graders I teach at the start of the year that 11th grade is my favorite age level to teach and that's the truth.  I tell them that in essence, they start the year as sophomores and they end as Seniors.  They begin as underclassmen and emerge with their Comps topics selected and a list of colleges in mind that they will apply to in the fall.  If Senior year is a test-run for the freshman year of college, then they need to be ready for the experience at the end of their Junior year.  Yet, I now recognize that Junior year must be about preparing them, not only academically, but also in terms of their habits and their citizenship in a classroom setting.  I cannot simply assume they are starting out with this level of independence, diligence and initiative.  Would I have been ready for that level of independence as a high school Junior?  Not remotely.

So, my own understanding of classroom management has deepened.  I can see now that I must absorb classroom management into my curriculum.  It, too, must be part of the journey of Junior year, and must be backwards designed and taught to, just as my course themes, enduring understandings and major skills must be taught to.  This, I think, is the key to separating discipline from visceral emotion--it's part of the teaching in the same way that thesis writing, timeliness, or an understanding of economic systems are part of the curriculum.  When students struggle with thesis writing, I don't get upset, nor do I simply let it slide.  I provide feedback and ask the student to try again.  If knowing how to communicate clearly through an orderly thesis is part of becoming a person of justice, how much more-so is good decision making and positive behavior within a community?

This revelation was a simple one, but will have profound implications on how I frame classroom management in the remainder of this year, and in years to come.

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