Since classroom management is one of the toughest aspects of first-year teaching, this installment of Been There, Done That asks seasoned pros to think back on the challenges they encountered early on and how they handled them. You can use their insights and ideas to help you resolve behavior issues that pop up in your own classroom from time to time.
When you think back to your first year of teaching, what was one of your most difficult challenges and how did you handle it?
"I had a fourth period class that just about got the best of me. The kids seemed to just ping off each other with outbursts, all in an effort to avoid learning. I learned that the best strategy was not to respond, even though I was often inclined to retaliate with comments of my own. But I found taking two deep breaths to keep myself from reacting and using a bored stare before moving on usually deflated the efforts of the student who simply wanted to be entertained [by the teacher's reaction]. And really, that is the crux of the matter. For many students, school is either boring or frustrating. I have found that the more relevant to adolescent lives I make my lessons, the more I know about my students' needs, and that the more engaging my instruction, the fewer disruptions I have."
—Lisa Marsh, Pensacola, Florida
"My first year out of the teaching gate, I had one student who was bipolar, ADHD, and oppositional defiant. I immediately tapped into my number one resource — his mom. She was able to give me hints and ideas about what made this little boy tick. I knew right away what tactics to avoid and what might be tried when difficulty arose. I knew what his strengths and interests were so I could channel those when he needed to be diverted. After observing and teaching him for a few weeks, I then scheduled a meeting with the behavioral therapist, who was able to work with me in creating a behavior plan that focused on positive reinforcements. Other than that, I became great at deep breathing exercises and meditation."
—Heather Smurr, Boerne, Texas
"My first year of teaching was a little different than most. I took over a multi-age class one trimester into the school year. I faced the challenge of becoming a part of 'their classroom.' I knew I would have to really get to know my kids quickly. A mentor explained the value of getting to know the students on a personal level. I made it a point to know every student's name by the end of the first day. Within the first week, I learned at least one personal fact about each student. As the year progressed and issues came up, I could always tap into that connection I had developed. Students knew I cared about them and were more willing to work through tough situations."
—Jennifer Jensen, Castle Rock, Colorado
"During my first year, I always assigned a 'do now' activity when my students came into the classroom. I expected them to complete the activity, and if it wasn't completed, to finish it for homework. However, I found that I was spending more time reminding them to do their work, asking them to listen to morning announcements, and tracking down incomplete assignments. I called a morning meeting to discuss my concern and asked what we could do as a team. Several students told me that when they came in each morning, it was important to have a chance to reconnect with their classmates. One student asked whether they would be able to have 'chat time' if they came in quietly, completed their morning work without talking, and listened to the morning announcements. This was unanimously agreed upon, but we charted the protocol of chat time together — work must be completed before you could participate and all talking was with six-inch voices. Chat time was a success. Because they all were actively involved, they felt that their voice was important. Consequently, they held themselves accountable for their behavior, and I didn't have any problems with the class getting out of control."
—Linda Biondi, Robbinsville, New Jersey
"One of the biggest challenges was not only meeting the educational needs of students, but also the physical and emotional needs. My strategy was and still is not to get overwhelmed by the 'extra' stuff and focus on making a difference in the lives of children. Take time to get to know them. Ask them to write letters to you about what is going on in their lives at school or outside of school. Ask them to tell you how they learn best, what characteristics they like in a teacher, and what their favorite subject is and isn't. I recently polled my 6th grade students and asked them what advice they would give to a new teacher. We came up with the Top Ten Survival Strategies for New Teachers. Here's what my middle school students think a good teacher should do:
- Drop the lowest grade and let the students correct assignments.
- If a student forgets something, then the teacher shouldn't make you sit out for recess or sign a reprimand log.
- Be funny. Corny is fine. Jokes are great!
- If you are unsure about the content you are teaching, do the homework also so you are able to understand it and explain it.
- Be creative and have fun ideas.
- Work together as a team.
- Take the kids to recess every day unless it is raining or blistery cold.
- Don't pile on the homework. Kids hate homework!
- Make sure all students understand what you are teaching before you give a test.
- Stay as calm as you can. Some grades are rowdier than others."
—Vanessa Tipton, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
"After the honeymoon period ended, the kids' true personalities started to come through, and I thought I needed to be more firm and less friendly, and push myself to really enforce the rules. Once that failed a bit, I took time to reflect on what I wanted my room to look and sound like if someone were to do an informal observation. So I lowered my voice, drew in the kids' attention with intrigue, and modeled/demonstrated for them what would earn praise and possible rewards. This still works for me today, not rewarding with substantive prizes, just good recognition for their efforts and talents, and a willingness to hold back from raising my voice when it would be so easy to scream."
—Leanne Marquez, Hawthorne, California