Classroom Quality of Life: Stopping Conflicts Before They Begin

By Justin Lim on August 17, 2009

When I first began observing teachers for my credentialing program, there was something that I noticed about how conflicts between teachers and students began. I noticed that the majority of issues started when students either didn’t know what to do, or didn’t have anything to do.

Let me give you a scenario that you’ve probably seen more than a few times:

The teacher gives simple directions for his students to turn to a page in their books and to take out their notes. He starts lecturing when he hears Joey talking to Linda. The teacher asks Joey to stop talking and Joey responds in a defensive tone, “I’m just asking her what page we’re on…” At this point the teacher is insulted, not so much because Joey is lost, but more because of the way that he responded. Joey is frustrated because he thinks that he just got in trouble for trying to follow directions. Where the scenario goes from here can be anywhere from simply two irked individuals to Joey getting sent to the office and ruining the teacher’s afternoon.

If you’ve never seen that scenario before, then maybe this will sound familiar:

The class is working quietly on a worksheet when little Joey starts talking to Linda again… The teacher uses the instinctive, “please get back to work Joey,” but as soon as she says it she already knows what Joey’s going to say. “I’m already done…” The best that the teacher can come up with is, “well then don’t distract Linda from doing her work.” There’s a problem though. “I’m done too,” Linda says. The teacher knows that it’s not exactly reasonable to get angry, but also has to make it known that continued talking is unacceptable.  The teacher is frustrated because the students are using a defensive tone. The students are frustrated because they think that they’re getting in trouble over nothing. Once again, what happens from here can range from no big deal to stressed out for the rest of the day.

Here’s why I almost never have to deal with these issues.

1.    Differentiate Directions:

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Good teachers know that when giving directions, they have to say it and write it on the board. However, even after giving the instruction multiple times, they still have students who get lost. In order to solve this problem I started giving visual directions. I took pictures of common classroom setups and put them together in a Powerpoint presentation. For instance, I took a picture of our textbook and added a text box so that all I have to do is type in the page number and project it on the board. The students always figure out the rest.

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It may seem unnecessary, but it’s a huge advantage, especially for my English Learners and my Special Populations students. It saves me the headache of having to repeat myself and it’s a lot faster than verbal directions. Of course, I can only use this strategy for commonly repeated setups, but even still it’s greatly improved my quality of life in the classroom. During the past year, in all six periods, I’ve only had one student ever ask me what page we were on. Before I could respond I heard about four voices saying, “dude, it’s right there.”

Best of all, my students are ready to go much faster, which leads me to my next point. 

2.    Eliminate Transitions

Transitions are a breeding ground for conversations and distractions. Think of commonly repeated tasks and then think of ways to make them quick and smooth. Something that I’ve done is to use literature sorters as mailboxes for my students. I do this so that I don’t have to pass anything out in class. Sure, it may only take one to two minutes to return homework assignments, but those minutes add up. Moreover, it only takes one bad incident during those two minutes to ruin the rest of my day. Also, instead of collecting homework, I have students turn it in at a designated spot before class.

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These two simple procedures probably give me about three to five extra minutes of instruction a day. I don’t know how many “Joey” scenarios I’ve avoided, but I do know that when transitions are smooth, my enjoyment and quality of instruction go way up.

Hopefully, for some of you this will help to relieve a little bit of stress from a hectic workday. As teachers, we need all the stress relief that we can get.

If anybody has any good tips or comments please let us know your thoughts!

Warmest regards,

Justin Lim

Rosemead High School

El Monte Union High School District

Comments

Hi Justin, Congrats on becoming a teacher mentor. Thanks ofr sharing your great ideas on strategies for improving the all important classroom quality of life. Hope you have a great year!

[Edit: Response]

Hey Tracey!

Thanks for the encouragement! I hope that you have a great year too!

Warm regards,

Justin

Hi Justin, Liked your ideas. I noticed that you teach Scholastic's R180 program. I am interested in the workbook that you show in your slides. Can you share what the contents are? Is it used because your rBooks are non-consumable? I also teach stage C. I am local in Rowland Unified. Maybe we can get together and share ideas.

Thanks, Sandi Wong

Great ideas, Justin! I'm going to pass along the "make your desk look like this" idea to a couple of my colleagues. They will have students next year who will definitely benefit from this.

Mrs. C,

I hope that it helps!

Warmest regards,

Justin Lim

Hi Justin,

I so agree that its easy for someone's to misinterpret a simple request if the tone sounds defensive. I think you offer two really good suggestions for helping to minimize interactions that could lead to conflict. Here's an article: http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3751026 with some more great tips for classroom management. Thanks!

Love the idea of projecting:

"Make your desk look like this."

Brilliant!

Hi Justin, I have tried to work with the mailbox system but I have over 140 students that pass through my class within a day. Any suggestions as to how I can implement the mailbox idea without the high cost? Thanks

Hi Jennifer,

I know a teacher who stacked up old dairy crates and inserted cardboard dividers. You can buy them online for relatively cheap. Eventually, she found literature sorters that another teacher was no longer using. She also talked to her resource administrator and had the school buy two literature sorters with 72 slots each.

I also know an English teacher who made a deal with the Woodshop teacher to have some mailboxes built.

You can also try www.donorschoose.org, which is a site where people offer to donate items that you need for your class. I know quite a few teachers who have received entire book sets from this site.

Lastly, if you do end up buying literature sorters, reinforce anything that is cardboard before you assemble them. The first few that I bought started falling apart after a few years. Now, I put duct tape along any edges that books might rub against and use extra glue along all of the joints.

Jennifer, I feel your pain. I think that I've spent about $200 over the years just for literature organizers. In the end though, the headache that it saved me in class has been worth it.

Warmest regards,

Justin

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