Here’s a dirty little secret about teachers that few people care to admit: Many teachers with poor classroom management aren’t strong instructionally.

I would never assume that a teacher without control of their classroom simply cannot teach (although that is true for some). But in my experience, teachers who have struggled with their classroom management weren’t the best instructionally. I’ve observed some of these teachers and rarely were the students the problem.

Some teachers did a poor job of making their content relevant. Others weren’t excited about their own content and it transmitted to the students.

Some of those teachers were just boring.

To see students disengaged from the lesson—talking to each other, horsing around, playing, dozing off, and even insubordinate when called out—made sense. Yet, the tendency was to deal with the student as an immediate remedy rather than support or even remove the teacher, until the damage had already been done.

I am not advocating that a teacher be removed from the classroom immediately after one poorly executed lesson. Nor do I advocate for the discipline or removal of students who fail to render the desired behavior as a result of the teacher’s poorly executed lesson.

Instructional leaders within the building must (and often do) support teachers with resources and methods on how to be better instructors and managers.

But if you work in a school, you know that little fires can, and do, take the time and attention of instructional leaders away from the work of supporting teachers in real time. Professional development sessions or modules on classroom management serve to remedy teacher struggles—because a classroom that runs like a well-oiled machine is important.

However, in my experiences as both a former teacher and administrator, much of the support provided for teachers in the area of classroom management is centered on how to make your classroom a space of discipline so that teaching can happen, when it should be the opposite.

Classroom management should center on making your classroom an engaging space that makes for engaged students who are disciplined.

The former focuses on disciplining students while the latter focuses on discipling them.

I get the argument that teachers must learn how to discipline students, as well as how to model the behavior they desire out of their students. Yet I believe that, with respect to teaching students, the onus shouldn’t be on behavior, but rather instruction.

The adaptation in lifestyle as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has reaffirmed that thought.

Prior to the pandemic, if my children became restless and fidgety, my wife and I would load them in the car and take them bowling, to the trampoline arena and even to the arcade (yes, those still exist). But in an attempt to keep them safe, we have the basketball court in the driveway, their bikes and the swing set in the backyard. As you can imagine, they got bored with those items rather quickly.

I was saving money during quarantine; my sanity, not so much. But my children are 8-, 5- and 4-years-old—it’s on us, their parents, to engage them with intellectual and physical activities for their growth. Engaging the kids also cuts down on misbehavior. Between all the sight word bingo, Uno, freeze tag and hide-and-go-seek, my wife and I are exhausted, but so are the kids. Those activities make the evening wind down a bit easier and our time with them more enjoyable.

I wouldn’t advise teachers to play hide-and-go-seek or freeze tag in the classroom. But I would advise teachers to work on their instructional methods and techniques if they seek to be better classroom managers. Administrators really don’t have time to put out little fires that teachers themselves could prevent with engaging their students better.

This isn’t to say every child is going to be engaged at every second of the lesson. However, delivering a lesson in the context of established norms, with content of interest, relevant resources and a modern day scenario to help internalize knowledge will go a long way to minimizing student misbehavior.

Rules are important for the classroom. But starting off with rules may send kids the wrong message.

It may say, “Look, this teacher is strict,” when all you’re trying to do is create the parameters for a fun learning environment. A few years back, my first day of seventh grade ancient world history, I started the class with a question. I asked, which is better, the supermarket or corner bodega? Kids started calling out and arguing with one another. The class got quite boisterous.

I raised my hand and got everyone’s attention. I told my kids, “If you want to debate about this, here’s how we do it…” I gave them rules, parameters and procedure. I divided them into teams, gave them time to research and we debated for 30 minutes. From that day forward, on debate days, students knew their roles and what to do. I simply sat in my chair and said, “We can begin.” Students bought into the rules because they bought into the work.

Next, I had to make the content interesting, even if it wasn’t on its face. With the same history class, I had to make the empires of Rome, Kush, Persia, Songhai, Mali and Egypt palatable. Connecting the past with the present, one activity I gave students was a meme/GIF contest with each empire we learned about. Students had to research the best meme or GIF that depicted the empire or peoples of our study in a modern day event, i.e., white actors portraying Egyptian people to expose cultural appropriation.

The school provided students textbooks, but instead we used texts written by Black and Latinx scholars to discuss the ancient civilizations of the ancient Near East, Africa, the Mediterranean, the Americas and the ancient East. With the help of our librarian, students learned culturally relevant online sources to find articles they could access on their laptops and on their cell phones.

Rather than always have them complete a worksheet or answer questions, I’d create a debate topic surrounding the culture of civilizations—for example, should parents arrange the marriages of their children? Students were required to use their knowledge of a civilization to support their arguments, and their classmates could call them out if their evidence was wrong or didn’t apply to the argument. It made for spirited debates. It also helped their ability to internalize information.

All this required extra work on my part. However, my classroom ran smoothly and my students had fun. I built up enough capital in the classroom that my kids rarely gave me a hard time, whether I monitored the hallways or the cafeteria at lunch.

Disciplining children is a part of educating them, but discipline is also a part of discipling them.

Educators discipline, but also teach, mentor, counsel and build relationships with students. To do all of those things, teachers must instruct students in engaging ways that connect the content with a purpose. Teachers who don’t may find themselves walking out of the classroom for good.

Here’s another dirty little secret: maybe they should.

This post originally appeared on Philly’s 7th Ward


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