21 Years Of “Management” Lessons and Imperfection

I was in the middle of the room and really feeling like I was driving home a good point. The lesson had gone as I had hoped. Students were engrossed in the reading of the poem. It helped that it was a powerful piece by Shane Koyczan and that we were reading it and listening to it with a purpose. The purpose was to not only experience the powerfully written piece and how it was performed by the poet, but it was to focus on his argument. What was he trying to say?

Koyczan’s performance ended and the vibe of the class was a bit uneasy. I understood since the poem hits upon a variety of issues that these brilliant teenagers face every single day. It had been a couple of years since I taught this poem, but I thought it would be a good piece to teach them that argument comes in all forms, even poetry. And, that you have to cut through the pathos of the argument in order to see the actual facts behind the argument.

But, there was some uneasiness. I knew it. I knew I had to be delicate. So, I defaulted to my “go to” of turn and talk, giving them a few minutes to debrief on the poem and its argument. In truth, they–the majority of the class–needed to hit the reset button after hearing such an emotional piece. I heard some talking about the poem, what they were going to get to eat, and even some Fortnite stories. After a few minutes, I started to prod.

What’s his argument? How does he lay it out? How does he support it? What’s the counterclaim? 

They did a good job of answering. But, they just were off a bit on this day. The week prior, we had an intense, intelligent debate when we watched a Trevor Noah piece about protests. But, today, this subject matter wasn’t hitting them in a way that I anticipated. I decided I needed to talk them through it a bit. I did and got on a roll. Most were with me, but there was a group of really good, spectacular kids talking while I was. They weren’t loud or even being disrespectful. Sometimes it happens. I mean, hey, even teachers do that at most faculty meetings. But, for some reason, it got to me.

I didn’t yell. Thankfully, age and experience has removed that inclination. But, I paused. I stared. I took a break. I went into the hallway quickly to cool off. When I came back in, the class was quiet.

I lost them for the day. 

Even though we went on with the lesson, my actions of basically giving up lost them. Instead of finding a way to engage them better or finding a way to make them feel more comfortable, my emotions got the best of me. Because I wasn’t prepared for anything other than a specific reaction, I was the one who was thrown off. I’m supposed to be the one who guides the class through that sort of stuff. But, on this day, I didn’t. 

I’d like to say that this was a story from years ago. But, that would be a lie; it was this past week.

In year 21. 

And, these are spectacular kids I am dealing with. Yet, my classroom management—man, I really hate that term—really sabotaged what should have been a powerful lesson. My years of experience was only good for one thing in this case: I didn’t yell or embarrass a kid. That’s certainly something positive, but I’ve carried that class session with me since.

Two periods before that one, I was faced with a different management scenario. I had planned to have two classes in a computer lab—my class along with another whose teacher is on maternity leave—to do a similar lesson about analyzing argument. They would be watching the protest video piece. I thought I had everything covered. As I seated 60 students into the big computer lab, I pushed play on the video.

No sound.

I didn’t panic because usually tech issues are simple. Perhaps the previous user muted the sound. Maybe there was a loose wire. Or, maybe we had to do some real computer tech stuff…turn it off and turn it back on.

Nothing worked. Our excellent computer lab tech person sprung into action, calling our tech guys who came up within seconds. They were on it. But, I had 60 kids waiting for me to show this video that I had gotten them excited about seeing.

The Smart Board needed a little more of a complex fix. So, I brought all 60 kids into the other lab. While setting up, a young man made a harmless joke about how some of my class was sitting on the floor. I was mad because I thought he was taking a shot at one of my students. I sat down next to him as the lab was in chaos and asked him why he was “being mean and taking shots at younger kids”. Thankfully, I didn’t yell, but this wasn’t my finest interaction. Here was a kid who had just been moved twice within 10 minutes and made a comment that nobody heard but me. Yet, I addressed it with him in a quiet, but not-so-nice tone. Because things were chaotic, I handled things differently than I would have normally.

The lesson went well and both classes seemed to get something out of it. Students spoke respectfully to each other about the controversial topic of protesting and we almost managed to finish the point about cutting through the pathos of it all and really seeing how the argument was made. As successful as that lesson was, that young man didn’t say a word. 

And, that was all my fault.

I guess the first reason in telling you these two stories is really to admit that every teacher, even one who prides himself on getting along with kids and really likes his job, has these types of days. As much as this bad day has and will continue to bother me despite having typical, great days since, I have to admit that these days happen. Even when interacting with the amazing kids that I am fortunate enough to hang out with every day, there will be days when I don’t react perfectly. There will be days when I don’t have control of the class in the manner I need them to be. There will be days when I don’t navigate a lesson perfectly because I didn’t anticipate a reaction or tone from the group. Those days do happen, even with a person with two decades of experience.

And, that leads me to the second reason  for telling those two interactions. One of the most neglected parts of teacher training is classroom management (ugh, there’s that phrase again.). Preparatory programs may hand you a textbook that talks about it and may give suggestions like reward systems, behavioral charts, and other carrots, but none of that matters—or really works—until you are in a room with kids. What worked one year, may not work the next year or the year after. And, what worked one day, may not work the next day. That even goes to what worked one period, may not work the next.

That’s why the phrase “classroom management” is completely misleading and inaccurate. It isn’t about management. Class behavior and class tone all come down to establishing your relationship with kids and staying consistent, even when their behavior varies. When they see you as a steady presence and, more importantly, as someone who actually cares about them, behavior issues or time off task are minimized. Caring about them allows you to take the temperature of the class; you can gauge whether or not anxiety is high. You can gauge whether or not you have hooked them into your lesson. You can gauge whether or not you have to change gears.

None of that is management. It is all about caring enough to have a relationship, accept kids for who they are, and respecting them for their moods and reactions. Just like I am not perfect in how I react, they will not be, especially at an age when they have a lot of stuff going on. Expecting perfection each and every day is unrealistic. It not only saddles kids with something that cannot be achieved, it puts the teacher into a mindset that all kids must react in the same manner every single time.

So, how does one establish a positive classroom culture that allows for both the good and not so good days?

Sadly, there isn’t a fix or a program. If you were looking for a magic fix, this isn’t the article.

Each teacher must find his/her own way and establish a unique connection with each class. Whether you like having the noisiest classes in the hallway like I do or like having more reserved, orderly classes, kids will adapt and, more importantly, thrive if they know you care.

Caring doesn’t mean coddling or allowing unwanted behaviors to impact lessons. Caring means allowing students to maintain their dignity and voice in the classroom while talking them through what you want. Sure, there are extreme cases where a student may need to be removed for a while, but those should be rare. If a student is really acting up in a class, there is always a reason why. Whether it is something going on in their life or if it is something the teacher is doing–or not doing–in the lesson, there is a reason for the behavior. If you want to establish a relationship with the student, you must find out why. The easiest way to find out is to simply ask. You may not get the answer you are looking for right away, but if you keep coming back and keep showing that you care, almost every student will engage.

If you take that extra time to talk, the need to write referrals or involve administration will greatly decrease. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a referral or sent a student out of the room. I say that knowing that I am not alone in that. So many colleagues have that quality; they talk to kids. They respect kids.

So, what have I learned over the past 21 years in regard to classroom relationships?

I’ve learned that it is important to admit when you are wrong. Some look at that as losing the authority presence in the front of the room. There’s two things with that. First, authority and respect are two separate things. I choose to want to develop a relationship of mutual respect, not authority. Second, I don’t want to be the guy in front of the room; I want to be alongside kids, talking with them, teaching them, learning from them, and knowing them as a person. So, admitting when I handle something wrong is vital.

That young man that I sort of cracked on in the computer lab? That incident from second period stuck with me all day. So, seventh period I called him to my office. He came in looking nervous. Once I asked him to sit, I began to speak.

“I just want you to know that I am sorry for what I said. I know you’re a good guy and I know that it was me who took things the wrong way. You didn’t deserve my attitude and I hope it didn’t ruin your day. It certainly won’t happen again.”

The student just stared at me, very much surprised that I called him down to admit that I was wrong.

“It’s ok. I shouldn’t have said that and I can see why you…”, he replied before I cut him off.

“No, this was completely on me. You did nothing wrong. I handled it wrong. Just because I was probably a bit frazzled about moving labs twice doesn’t give me an excuse to treat anyone with a quick reaction and not like I care. You didn’t deserve it. Nobody does. I’ll do better.”

We chatted for another couple of seconds before he got up, shook my hand, and said thank you. The next day in class, he answered questions and was engaged. Now, that’s not to say everything is magically better, but I will earn back that kid’s trust. I’m hoping my honesty was a big step in the right direction.

I’ve learned that the more tense the situation, the less you should yell. In my younger days I did have a good yell. Even coaching baseball, I had a good yell. It didn’t come out often, but that’s what I thought discipline was. But, honestly, looking back, it didn’t make problems go away. It didn’t help kids trust the process of the class. All it did was temporarily stop learning and create gaps in relationships.

Being calm in a classroom or talking through issues with students isn’t a sign of weakness. It is the ultimate sign of security and belief in what you do. Most teachers yell or kick kids out because of insecurity.  We are insecure that if we don’t crack down immediately, we will lose the class forever. Or, that if we don’t crack down, our authority will be gone. 

Even though I handled that situation wrong with my class this week, yelling never entered my mind. It would’ve damaged all credibility I have. If I tell students that I am in it with them no matter what and then I yell at the first time they aren’t showing ideal behavior, why would they ever believe anything I say?

I’ve learned that most behavior issues or a lack of focus in class isn’t the students’ fault and that it all has to do with my lack of preparation and anticipation. I’ve taught in a wide variety of environments. They range from AP classes to ENL classes, to Alternative Ed classes, and everything in between. When I think back to times when classes got out of control, I can honestly say that it came down to me not being as prepared as I could have been. Like a coach, it is the teacher’s responsibility to prepare for all types of scenarios. There has to be a plan A, a plan B, and, most definitely a Plan C,D, and E. 

That class I didn’t yell at last week? I was so sure that they would all react a certain way that I just wasn’t’ prepared for a reaction of deflecting. I should have been, but I wasn’t. It took me stepping out of the room to figure that out. Instead, I should’ve been ready.  I wasn’t because I had only decided that I was going to teach that poem that morning instead of one article I had prepared. It was the right call as the poem, as well as the skills developed, were vital. But, the change didn’t allow me enough time to prepare for different reactions. Even though I had taught that poem in the past, I didn’t prepare as much as I should have for this group. That’s on me, not them.

I’ve learned that not everything is a big deal. As I mentioned before, expecting perfection every single time sets kids up for failure and puts us in a negative mindset. Sometimes a student, a group of students, or a class will say or do something that is inappropriate. How you react to it the first time or two most likely determines the level of engagement from students for the year. When I first taught alternative education, the person I took over for gave me a bit of advice. He said that I should lay down the law and be never give an inch. Kids were in PM School for a reason.

So, I sort of listened, at least on day one. I was only about 10 years into my career, but I knew that I was more “pro-kid” than most. But, I thought I would lay down the law on the first night of classes. I told them about how there would be “no tolerance” for misbehavior, language, or not turning in work. I can still remember the glazed looks on their faces. But, that wasn’t me at all. My natural inclination to talk to students came out. If a kid cursed or didn’t hand in an assignment on time, I’d find time during the breaks between sessions and talk to him/her. By doing that, all of those negatives became less. As a result, we began to form a bond. So much so that about two months into the year, a young man said, “Armida, at first we thought you were an a***ole, but you turned out to be ok. You’re, like, one of us.”

I remember laughing at that, but taking really taking it to heart. Those kids–the ones who were kicked out of our regular program–were doing great work in our room. I didn’t let a slip of the tongue or a bad moment ruin that. Because of that, they bought in. Little things didn’t get in the way of the big picture of them learning and us forming a relationship.

I’m not alone in this. A few weeks ago, I visited our alternative education building. Our department’s youngest teacher is the one who teaches in that building. Her instincts are spot on with this. I came in and saw her sitting right in the middle of kids, talking with them through the lesson. Off to the side, one kid had his head down, not engaged. Afterwards, she explained to me that she knew the kid had a bad night and that they had already talked. Most teachers would’ve “demanded respect” and told the kid to either keep his head up or get out. Instead, she had a private talk, came up with a plan, and left the kid his dignity. That’s a kid who will now do anything for his teacher. Not every behavior has to be a big deal, even if it isn’t an ideal behavior.

I’ve learned that you must treat each day as if the previous one didn’t exist. This is especially important if that previous day was a terrible day for you and the class. If a class didn’t behave well, react well, or was simply hard to keep on track, bringing it up the next day does no good. Instead, it is our job to better prepare ourselves and to show everyone that each day begins with a blank slate. Kids, even high school kids, are still learning how to cope with every day life. They are not going to be perfect. Holding their moments of imperfection against them the next day is not only a waste of time, but it is damaging. When teachers often wonder why students have given up on a class, the problem is often caused by the teacher constantly reminding the student about the “bad” things he/she did.

The class that didn’t react how I anticipated? The next day, I walked in, better prepared, and interacted with them as I usually did. The result was a good week of classes in which everyone was engaged. Had I taken time away from the class to address the previous session, I would’ve harped on something minor, set a negative tone for the class, and most likely damage our relationship. Instead, we moved forward, I did a better job of facilitating, and they produced some great results. They are now confident that I won’t focus on their minor mistakes and won’t continually throw them in their faces. 

I’ve learned that everything previously stated comes down to one mindset. It comes down to the idea that I believe that I need to earn their respect while I automatically give mine. If I walk into class each day with that mindset, most behavior, attitude, and learning issues are minimized. Students, no matter the level or situation, all want to feel that the person in front of the room cares enough to respect them, cares enough to forgive them, and cares enough to move on when those less than perfect moments happen. If a teacher can do that, the respect it garners from students is not only great, but, more importantly, genuine.

It also has the side benefit of giving you enough credibility so that when you don’t react perfectly all the time, students know that it was just a bad day and that it isn’t who you are. They move on, instead of holding your actions against you. 

So, if you were expecting a sort of a “how to” when it comes to classroom management, I am sorry to disappoint. There are no quick fixes. There are not systems that cure things because students don’t need to be cured or managed. That’s why this area of the job is the messiest. It’s messy because in order to do it right, you have to be willing to accept bad days from kids, be willing to talk with kids about those bad days, be willing to be honest with kids, and always be willing to give more opportunities for students to show their growth. 

It’s not about management at all. It is only about being willing to commit to a relationship built on respect, honesty, and a willingness to be all in no matter what. Doing that is hard, and there will be bad days. But, when you commit to it, not only does good stuff happen in the classroom, you form a connection with a kid that makes a difference in his/her life. And, it will make a difference in your life too.