Classroom Management — Kids Speak Out

By Nancy Barile on August 9, 2010
  • Grades: 9–12



Classroom management can be one of the toughest skills for a teacher to master, but it is essential. Without it, learning cannot occur.  I teach a graduate course in classroom management at a local college. As a high school English teacher who's spent the past fifteen years in an urban community, I felt I had the practical experience, as well as the academic background, to teach this class effectively. Even so, I felt that I was falling short in truly conveying the classroom management experiences that the soon-to-be teachers would face. When I began reflecting on my own experiences as a new teacher, I thought about particular students who tested my limits and pushed me to the brink. I thought about how I dealt with those students well — and when I completely dropped the ball. Wouldn't it be great for teachers to hear firsthand how students view classroom management? Read what they had to say, and watch videos of some of my current students reflecting on the topic.

(Post includes Video)



Students Who Tested the Limits



Steven and Derek were both seniors in my Mysteries class, an English elective designed to help students improve their reading skills and their creative writing technique. They were a challenge from day one. Both had lengthy discipline records; both were fifth year seniors. They were constantly testing me. While I prefer my classroom environment to be welcoming and relaxed, Steven and Derek initially thought that meant they could get away with anything. It wasn't long before I had to reel both of them in and set them straight.





Steven had already dropped out of school once. He lived alone in a foreclosed house not far from school. Because Steven was completely on his own, I soon learned that the stresses of his daily life sometimes got the best of him. One day in class he came up to my desk and asked if he could "take a lap." "Take a lap?" I asked, dumbfounded. "Yeah, I just need to move around for a few minutes. I promise I will do my work." I decided to let Steven take a lap. He took my pass and came back a few minutes later, sat down, and got to work. From that time on, Steven would occasionally ask me to "take a lap." I always allowed him to do so, and he never took advantage. When he came back, he was always focused and on task. After that, Steven ceased being a problem. I got to know him, and he soon saw me as an ally in his goal of achieving his high school diploma.

Derek was a bit of an "Eddie Haskell" type. For those of you younger than fifty, that means he liked to flatter a teacher in order to get out of trouble. The first time Derek took the bathroom pass, he disappeared for ten minutes. I wrote him up to his dean. Derek was furious. He didn't talk to me for at least a week, until I pulled him aside and discussed the situation with him. Derek eventually admitted he deserved to be written up, and he also admitted he was testing me. Derek had a great wit, and I used humor to handle his classroom management issues. It wasn't long before he was completing his assignments on time and earning an A. Derek's final paper for my class was fifteen pages long (it actually exceeded the assignment parameters). It was a well-thought out mystery, and Derek admitted it was the best work he had done in high school. 


So I asked Steven and Derek if they'd like to speak to my grad school students. They recruited one of their friends, Matt, who, with a little difficulty, had received his high school diploma that June, the first one in his family to do so.

The Kids Speak

It was a hot July night when the boys met my twenty-two grad students. They discussed the significance of their first impression of a teacher, and how necessary it was for the teacher to strike just the right balance of friendly, respectful, and stern. It was important that the teacher be patient with them. If the teacher presented him/herself as an easy mark by not having classroom rules established the first day, by not being well-versed in the content area, and by not having well-structured lesson plans, the students felt that the teacher could be an easy target for unruly behavior. 



Each one of the high school students said that they "test" a new teacher almost immediately, and each used the same method: the student would ask to go to the bathroom and would then stay an inordinate amount of time out of the classroom. If, when the student came back, the teacher did not address the lapse in time, the student knew he could take advantage.





The scheduled half hour stretched to two hours as the graduate students peppered the high school students with questions. I found myself taking notes. The students reiterated how they tended not to act up when they felt that the teacher truly "cared about" them, as evidenced by the teacher asking questions about the student's work, home life, and job. Taking an active interest in the student's life was powerful. Rewarding the student for his effort was also key.




From the presentation, I culled the strategies most effective in dealing with and engaging students like Derek, Steven, and Matt:



  • Have high expectations for ALL students. Students recognize when a teacher doesn't expect much from them, and they will respond accordingly.

  • Establish rules and procedures for your classroom and make sure students are aware of them.

  • Use progressive discipline. If you throw a student out of your room on the first day, you won't have anywhere to go with future infractions.

  • Have a "private" conversation with students about their behavior. Never underestimate the power of speaking to a student as a mature, responsible adult.

  • Humor can go a long way to de-escalating a potentially troublesome classroom management issue. Just be cautious with sarcasm.

  • Address classroom infractions. At the very least, speak to the student about his or her behavior and give a warning.

  • Be consistent with discipline. And try to look at each infraction with "new" eyes. Sometimes the usual suspects aren't the responsible parties.

043993446x_lgJim Burke's book, Classroom Management, is a handy little desk reference that covers all the ins and outs of classroom management from meeting the needs of English language learners to supporting students with special needs. I highly recommend it.


What helpful hints for classroom management do you think your students would provide? What questions about classroom management do you still need answered? Drop me a line!




Thank you for your comment, Mary. I agree that Classroom Management should be at the forefront of teacher education programs, and in many cases, it is not. If you can't manage your classroom, kids won't learn. I'm glad you were able to work out those problems. And de-escalation always works better than escalation, but unfortunately, I still see a lot of escalation going on in some schools!

Now I hand students a piece of paper when they get a session and I don’t have to argue.

I just read your blog entry: Classroom Management, The kids will have their say. I really enjoyed reading it enlightened me on the mistakes I made my first year. My first year was a disaster. My father is a pediatrician and spoke before the city council and the school committee in his town complaining that students were coming to him with stomach problems because of their bathroom policies. So I promised him I would be relaxed about my bathroom policies. Now I realize that was when things went downhill. The next year my bathroom policies became very extensive. Overall I give a couple of sessions in September and that’s it for the rest of the year.

Another mistake I realized after reading your blog was that I didn’t know how to deescalate a situation. Prior to coming to RHS, I taught at a private school where the administration would handle situations if they escalated and students could be expelled. I didn’t have any experience with deescalating situations. I remember watching a reality show called, “Brat Camp” where the counselors would quietly give orders and took a noncombative approach

I strongly believe that rules are necessary in all classrooms, kindergarten through grade 12, and the research in the area backs up this point of view. Rules and regulations can guide classroom interactions and set parameters for behavior, as well as things like grading and due dates for assignments. Rules are also important for setting protocol for dealing with issues such as plagiarism. While most students internalize the basic rules set since kindergarten, it is essential that teachers have policies and procedures for their classroom for students to refer to. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend performing little skits about the rules and regulations of a classroom, it is important that the information is conveyed to students and their parents and families. Most students welcome classroom rules and regulations because they define expectations and eliminate confusion.

As a recent high school graduate, I'd have to agree. I was never much of a discipline problem, but I would do very little of the work if I didn't respect the teacher and feel like they actually cared about their students and their profession. I suspect I would not have done well enough to graduate if I had had a different English teacher senior year.

The only thing that I'm not sure about is classroom rules. They're usually obvious, and no one actually remembers them for each classroom. I always found it a horribly boring waste of potential learning time to go over the same basic principles we'd been learning since kindergarten. I think it hit rock bottom when my ninth-grade science teacher broke us into groups and gave each group a slip of paper with one of her rules posted on it to write and perform a skit about. By the end of that class she'd lost any hope of us taking her seriously.

Looking back on high school, I definitely did better work for teachers who cared more about me than just what I did in the classroom. Your advice is extremely helpful. Using students to help teachers learn how to better manage their classroom is a great idea!

Hi nancy, It is so important to maintain classroom management...once you respect kids they respect you. This blog is so great for all teachers; not just the first, second and third year...thanks for sharing.

Thanks, Dan! Your kids are lucky to have YOU!

I work with difficult students and Nancy has given me many ideas on how to deal with them on a daily basis. These blogs help very much, especially for first year teachers. Thank you Nancy for your great advice and your tireless effort to help every kid in your community!

Thanks, Christa - I'm glad to hear that the techniques have the support of a social worker. And thank you, Marc! Sometimes it's good to strip down all the rhetoric and hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak!

Great stuff! Yes, it is always heartening to see students who have been historically difficult step up and excel. It is clear that your approach of thorough preparation, thoughtful planning, and careful listening is what makes this possible. With all the education buzzwords that abound, these key principles remain paramount. Thanks for the reminder!

It is great to see such wonderful work being done here! My experience working in a school as a social worker allowed me to see exactly what you are talking about!

From the "testing" one can really see where the students' needs really come through.

I especially enjoyed watching these video responses from the students. Looks like you have a great bunch!

I can relate to your comments above. Growing up in a family full of teachers, I was constantly reminded to "be real" with my students. At the time, I did not know what that meant. Today, I certainly do!

It is such a joy to see this being suggested. Keeping an open line of communication will no-doubt provide a safe way for students to begin trusting teachers. This is especially so in students who may have particular difficulties in their academics. Consistency in discipline and setting high student expectations are key to continuing to build that relationship.

I look forward to stopping by more often to see what you are up to! I love reading about these success stories!

Thanks for the great advice, Take care!

Thanks, Courtney! Seeing the transformation of those students from when they entered the class to where they are now is most definitely rewarding! See you soon!

I think it was amazing that you were able to get some of your more challenging students into our classroom to speak with us. Often it’s the challenging students’ perspective that is overlooked or hard to get. The fact that those three students came I think really shows the respect that they have for you. I learned a lot of valuable information, especially the characteristics your students respect in a teacher. Thank you!

Danielle, I agree with you 100% - whether my students are in AP or in one of my more "challenging" classes, the rules need to be consistent across the board. Alesia, I have to say that 99% of the time the student WILL come around, however, in the rare case s/he doesn't, then the issue gets referred to the dean or vice principal, a parent gets called, and discipline is given out. And Raquel, meeting kids halfway is really key - especially with the tough kids! You have to be flexible.

Just realized that I didn't answer Adrienne B's question! While I compeletely disagree with the "don't smile until Christmas" advice, I DO believe in setting firm rules and regulations and then following up on them consistently. It's much easier to "let out a little rope" than to "reel the rope back in," so starting off in control is the way to go.

I really like the way you develop a comfortable relationship with the students. For instance, allowing Steve to take laps. I think it's important for teachers to meet students half-way if they want a gret relationship.

After listening to the students comments, I noticed that all they really want is for the teachers to connect with them and show them that you care. What would you do if after trying to establish a connection with the student and showing them that you are there to help them they still act up and do not respect you?

As a professional aide in a behavior program I believe that one of the most effective tools in classroom management is consistency. Students will respond with greater understanding to your discipline if you are consistent with all of your students. Even the most difficult students need all of the support you can provide, no matter how frustrated you may become.

Thanks, Tony! Good luck in your upcoming year. Be sure to check back, and if you need any help, let me know! ~ Nancy

As a young teacher gearing up for the coming academic year, this piece has put a lot of important issues into perspective. Our curricula can be so challenging that we sometimes focus too much on the texts, and not enough on "keeping all of our ducks in a row" before even drawing their attention to the texts.

I plan on keeping a printed version of your "7 Strategies" handy throughout the year. Wish me luck!

Colonel - Thank you for your amazing comment on my post! I am sure that being the daughter of a retired Marine (Sam Petriello, 6th Marine Division) helped me to arrive naturally at some of these strategies (and he will be so proud when I call him in the morning to read your comment to him over the phone). (I also have two nephews who graduated from the Air Force Academy.) It was also great to hear that these techniques are grounded in the Servant Leadership Model. I am sure that your daughter will develop strong classroom management as her experience increases, and if she puts these ideas to work, she WILL see results. The boys who spoke to my class did say that young, female teachers especially need to start off strong with firm rules and regulations in place or the tendency is to try and take advantage and see how much they can get away with. Please tell your daughter that if she needs any support during the year, I am only an email away! ~ Nancy

Sally, good luck with your student teaching, and please check back or email me if you need help! Samantha, it's clear you got EXACTLY what I wanted you to out of the presentation! Nivea and Natalie, I appreciate your kind words!


I came across your Scholastic post on a routine visit to my daughter's house yesterday before she set out on a short vacation. Sara is a second year, high school history teacher for Monroe Woodbury High in NY. She believes that because she is a new and relatively young teacher, her students feel comfortable acting out in her class. She teaches grades 9-11 and is looking to tighten up on her classroom management with the right balance of discipline, leadership, and personality. In a google search for different discipline techniques from high school teachers she found Scholastic's site. She so very much enjoyed your ideas and anecdotes she vehemently requested me to read them to see what I thought.

As a 29 year retired Army Colonel and once the Mathematics Department Head for the United States Military Academy, I thought with some arrogance; "What could I learn from a high school teacher describing good classroom management?"

What I found here was an outstanding blend of teaching strategies and sage insights, as well as the very tennants of Servant Leadership as defined by Robert Greenleaf and supported by leadership writers like Stephen Covery as well as the United States Military.

Your remarks below describe the very bedrock of the Servant Leader Concept: "The students reiterated how they tended not to act up when they felt that the teacher truly "cared about" them, as evidenced by the teacher asking questions about the student's work, home life, and job. Taking an active interest in the student's life was powerful. Rewarding the student for his effort was also key. Never underestimate the power of speaking to a student as a mature, responsible adult." In 29 years of leading some of this nation's finest young soldiers and 11 years teaching some of the most progressive young minds, I can say without a doubt that sharing a mutual respect in the teacher-student or commander-soldier relationship is the most effective means of inspiring young people and commanding respect.

I found all your other final points to be right on the money and firmly believe they should be ingrained in every teacher's brain and followed by anyone aspiring to be a great leader. Thank you for teaching and inspiring a new fresh-faced group of teachers, and I wish you continued success in your upcoming educational years. I'm sure my daughter will post her thoughts and thank you's when she returns from summer vacation in 10 days.

Thank You and Godspeed,

Col (ret.) George C. Jamison

Hi Nancy, As you know, new teachers have the hardest time with this b/c they are so busy trying to get up to speed with the curriculum. It seems your students want what all students want – respect, interesting content and appropriate/reasonable boundaries. Thanks for sharing their helpful points of view. Best, Natalie

You have so many great ideas and perspectives; your article is truly enlightened!

Great stategies! As a new teacher I have been given the same advice by many..."Don't smile until Christmas". I was just wondering what your take on that is.

I was a part of this year's graduate class when three of your students came to speak (Andy, Derrick, and Matt). As a new teacher, I took PAGES of notes. Over and over I heard the same themes repeated – treating students with respect, setting clear guidelines, knowing your content, creating varied/relevant lesson plans, and truly caring about students and their lives, interests, opinions and questions - all made a big difference in how the students behaved overall. It was a great experience listening to these students share their thoughts with us and I sincerely hope more graduate programs include such vibrant and relevant guest speakers! Thank you Nancy for introducing this program into our coursework!

These are great suggestions. I am going to use some of them for my student teaching. Thanks so much for posting!!

Thanks, Elle! The kids LOVE being on a college campus and speaking to the class. I always get them dinner in the cafeteria beforehand. Derek and Matt have done it 2 years in a row!

I couldn't agree with you more - I hope all the new teachers are taking notes, as I am.

I am absolutely enlightened to see that the students who had once been an interruption in the classroom were able to voice their opinions and experiences with you and within college classrooms. I am certain that they feel that their voices are of value and are empowered by the ability to use them for positive. This is an absolute case of turning something negative to positive!

Keep up the good work!

Thank you so much! I think you are amazing!

Bill, your post is on the money! There is no opting out of an assignment!

I agree, Dan, we can learn so much from our students! And, Grace, they ARE great kids!

Thank you, Mary! Those kids often lack structure and stability in their lives, so they love it in school. And Patti, you are SO right - we DO teach students, not just grade levels and subjects!

This is a great success story and very valuable information for all teachers to remember. It reminds me that we teach students not grade levels or subjects.

Nancy, I really like hearing the students' perspective. I think they appreciate the structure and stability--even at high school level.

Pacing and high academic expectations are also good strategies for classroom management and should be carefully established along with these rules. The consequence for NOT doing the assignment should be DOING the assignment. By not letting students off the hook, by not giving them the option to choose to fail we build a positive, disciplined academic environment.

What great kids! It's good to know that teachers are listening to what the kids say.

I think perspective or current teachers could learn a lot from asking questions to reformed kids. I believe it would be very beneficial.

Post a Comment
(Please sign in to leave a comment. Privacy Policy)
RSS Subscribe ButtonSign up to get these great teaching ideas delivered automatically.Subscribe now >