EP07: There are a dizzying number of effective ways to lead a classroom. How can you figure out which style is right for you? Learn from a mistake I made in emulating another teacher’s management techniques, and develop the confidence to make decisions about what works best for you AND your students.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is essentially a talk radio show that you can listen to online or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. Learn more about the podcast, view blog posts for all past episodes, or subscribe in iTunes to get new episodes right away.
Maybe you see that co-worker who lets students hang out in her after school until 6 pm every night and you feel guilty for not going way above and beyond to connect with your students. Or maybe you see other teachers who are super laidback and friendly with kids, and assume you need to lighten up and are too strict. Or maybe you see teachers who never seem to have fun with their students, but their kids get really high test scores, and you’re wondering if you should abandon all the memorable experiences you give your students and get down to business more.
My purpose today is to give you the confidence to discover your unique teaching and management style. It has always been my strong personal belief that there is no one right way to teach and no one right way to manage a classroom. There is no one “right” way that is effective for every single student.
Quiet or introverted teachers can do a terrific job running a classroom. Boisterous and extroverted people can also do a wonderful job. People with high energy levels can manage well and so can those with lower energy levels. There are an almost innumerable amount of effective ways to redirect off-task behavior and to create a well-running classroom.
And additionally, I believe that different management styles work in different situations. What is effective in kindergarten in the rural areas of Montana is not the same thing that is effective with middle school in downtown Chicago. So you can’t just hold up one teacher’s classroom management style and say: this is how every teacher should manage student behavior. This is how every classroom should be run.
I would argue that expressing who you are as a person is at the crux of your effectiveness. The unique personality traits, quirks, and interests you bring to the classroom can–and should–be integrated and celebrated.
Now this is all stuff that sounds really good but is very hard to remember when you’re working every day in a school. It’s very tempting to emulate the effective teachers you see around you–maybe even on a subconscious level.
I made that mistake myself when I was a fairly new teacher and had just changed grade levels. The teacher next door to me had been teaching for almost 30 years. I’ll call her Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones had a reputation for getting her students to earn very high scores on tests, and she was well-respected. In that particular school and that particular point in time, Mrs. Jone’s brand of authoritarian teaching was sort of held up as the ideal because most of the other teachers were getting cussed out on the daily and the kids did not respect them.
I wanted to be respected like Mrs. Jones was. My personal teaching was pretty regimented like hers–I’m really big into routines and clearly defined expectations and consequences and such–but I tend not to draw kids into direct confrontation when they’re off-task. I’m more of a Love and Logic or Responsive Classroom person by nature.
But I figured I should be like Mrs. Jones so I started being more strict with my kids. I started enforcing consequences, swiftly, at every minor infraction. If I wasn’t sure whether to let a behavior slide or not, I’d think to myself, “What would Mrs. Jones do?” and I end up erring on the side of being overly harsh. And it worked, I guess. My way had been working, too, but I noticed my kids were less likely to backtalk me and most of all, I just felt like I looked more in control. I was on this sort of power trip.
And it continued on like that for the better part of the school year until one day, Mrs. Jones told me a former student had come to visit her. I thought that was the coolest thing and I couldn’t wait until my students were all grown up and could come back and tell me how I made such a difference in their lives and was just, the wind beneath their wings.
So I asked Mrs. Jones what the young lady had said to her, and she said, “That girl told me that I was the worst teacher she ever had because I never believed in her. I used to tell her everyday she was lazy and she was never going to amount to anything if she didn’t get her butt in gear. So she wanted to come back to tell me that I was wrong, can you believe that? She tried to say she’s some big executive at a TV station now.”
Now that was like, the worst story I had ever heard. I was horrified. I could not imagine one of my students telling me 20 years later I had nearly destroyed their self-esteem and they had succeeded in SPITE of me. But Mrs. Jones was completely unfazed. This was at lunch time and she just sat there eating her sandwich.
So I asked her, “Well, what in the world did you say back to that?” And she told me, “I just looked at her. There is no way that girl is any executive for a TV station. She was a liar back then, and she’s a liar now.”
And all of the sudden, I realized I had made a terrible, terrible mistake trying to be someone I was not. I was trying to emulate something that I did not fully understand, that I did not consider the long-term implications of, most importantly, that did not fit with who I was as a person.
That day changed me as a teacher forever. I no longer looked around at the teachers I saw who were successful and wanted to be like them. I realized I could incorporate some of their teachings strategies and lesson ideas, but I would always, always need to filter everything I witnessed through the lens of what works for ME, personally. Emulating Mrs. Jones’ management style never felt good to me, it never felt right deep in my soul. It always felt a bit phony and it went against the type of person I wanted to be, and the type of people I wanted my students to be.
Nowadays, in many schools, I think the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and a more lenient, child-centered approach to classroom management is favored. There have been many times when I watched coworkers who were much more lax with their students than I was and I questioned whether I should loosen up.
In one school I taught in, almost all the teachers let their kids run wild in the hallways—they were shouting and pushing and making it impossible for the rest of us to learn even with our doors closed, and I was practically the only one who required my students to walk quietly down the hall. The kids would ask me, “How come we have to be quiet and they don’t?” There were many days when I wondered if I should just change my rules to match the rules of everyone else in school. But I couldn’t do it. It just wasn’t me. I was not comfortable with my students behaving that way—I needed my students to be calm in the hallways so they could enter the classroom calmly and we could get to work right away, and I just couldn’t let them yell and run and then literally two seconds later get them to sit down and be quiet.
It all comes back to my point that there is no one right way to manage or lead a classroom. I do not think that every teacher should insist on straight, quiet lines. Nor do I think those of us who prefer more orderliness should loosen up. Every teacher and every class is unique and decisions about classroom management should be made on an individual basis, and should be flexible and open to changing as circumstances change.
One one side of the spectrum, we have management styles that are so lenient that it creates chaos and interferes with student learning, and on the other side, we have a style that is so strict that it destroys children’s sense of worth. But for most of us, most of the time, the choices we make in the classroom do not fall on total opposite ends of the spectrum. There is a huge gray area in the middle, and I think we have to have the confidence in ourselves to figure out where we stand and feel good about it.
I am encouraging you today to evaluate the way you are running your classroom and be really honest with yourself about how well it is meeting the needs of you and your students.
If you are doing things that feel icky to you (that’s really the best word for it, right? Icky!) just because you see other people doing it, it’s time to expand your repertoire of teaching strategies and figure out something that you can really stand behind.
I also want you to evaluate whether or not you are doing things that you know are not effective for your students. If your management style is not strong enough and it’s keeping some of your kids from learning what they should, or if your management style is too strong and you can tell you are breaking some of your students’ spirits, then please, for the sake of your kids, get real with yourself about that. It’s nothing to be ashamed of–every single one us does things on a daily basis that we regret and wish we could take back. That’s perfectly normal.
But the difference between an effective teacher and an ineffective one is self-reflection.
Do you take the time to evaluate what is really working for you and your kids?
Are you willing to confront your shortcomings head on and look for a better way?
Are you open to learning from other people–not copying their style exactly, but choosing bits and pieces that mesh with who you are as a person and how you know your classroom should be run?
I’d like to leave you with a motivational quote for the week ahead that I call the Takeaway Truth. Today’s quote is from Maya Angelou, who said: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
And I think that should be our guiding principle as we uncover our own unique classroom management styles. It’s not so much about what we say or do, it’s about how we make kids feel.
You can make a child feel like the scum of the earth even if you never issue a punishment, and conversely, you can make a child feel empowered and capable of change even as you confront their misbehavior. As we consider the choices we make about how to run our classrooms and lead our students, we have to also give consideration to how those small choices make us feel and how they make our students feel, because that is ultimately what we’re all going to remember.
Next week: How to approach teaching as an adventure
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