If you search “classroom management” on Pinterest, I promise you will find hundreds upon hundreds of resources and blog posts on how to improve the management of your classroom culture. In fact, that might be how you came across this blog post. To me, this screams to the fact that this is something that many of us out there struggle with. And let’s face it: sometimes getting through a lesson without losing your composure because you have a first-grader in the corner licking a Boomwhacker (even when you aren’t even using any instruments) is all you can do to survive a particularly unruly class. But for me, classroom management all comes down to the culture of my classroom.
In college, I had a methods professor who would always talk about the fact that we as teachers set the culture of our classrooms. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I would come to embody those words. While I doubt any of the information I will be sharing today will be utterly mind-blowing, or cause you to completely rethink your classroom management structure, I think it can be important for us to take some time to look through the culture of our own classrooms through the lens of our students.
1. Set Clear Expectations: I know, I know- this is one of those things that you hear people say allllll the time! But that doesn’t change the fact that this is where you can start to get yourself in trouble. How can we expect our students to live up to our expectations if we don’t make sure that they know what we expect of them? This year, I took the first three or four lessons to make sure that I had my expectations solidly explained and understood by my students. Now this doesn’t mean that I only worked on expectations for the first month or so of school! What it does mean is that I was incredibly conscious and purposeful about the activities that I selected.
It is much easier to have students experience your expectations, rather than simply repeating these expectations over and over again until you are blue in the face. Especially at the elementary level, I choose games and activities that allow for students to engage in self-regulation from day one! I have found that this has allowed me to reinforce my expectations instead of just repeating them, or referring to posted rules on my wall.
So what are the expectations that I have for my students? It doesn’t matter if I am working with kindergartners or sixth graders, I expect all of my students to be safe, responsible, and respectful.
I once got into a debate in college with a general education major when working together to brainstorm classroom rules as part of a seminar activity. He argued that my rules were not specific enough, and allowed students to get away with too much. I, on the other hand, thought the exact opposite! I believe that my expectations allow anything that hasn’t been explicitly stated to be absorbed into one of my three expectations, and eliminates that possibility of students being able to argue that their actions and behavior had not broken a more specific ‘rule.’ To this day I believe that having expectations set up like I stated above requires students to think more critically about their own behavior, and make necessary adjustments!
2. Be Consistent: It doesn’t matter if you have the most inclusive, all-encompassing, amazing expectations for your students if you aren’t consistent in your upholding of these standards. My students know that I have high expectations of them in everything they do, and that I am not one to let these expectations go by the wayside when things get rough.
I want to be very clear, I am not advocating for a one-size-fits-all classroom management model. To the contrary, I believe that redirections and responses to student behavior should be as appropriate to each student as possible. But this doesn’t mean that you have to let your expectations slide. Even with students that need a little extra support or redirection, we need to be consistent in making our expectations known, and how these expectations may lead to both positive and negative consequences.
What I am striving for in my classroom is for students to know that there will be a certain level of accountability for their actions. I want all of my students to know that my high expectations come from a place of love rather than a place of “being in charge.” I am fairly explicit with notion, particularly when redirecting students or discussing needed changes in behavior.
3. Let Them Know You Care: This brings me to what I believe is the most important part of establishing a positive classroom culture: making sure students know that you care for them on a individual basis. The often-repeated saying of “they won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” pops into my mind as I write this, and I can’t think of a more eloquent way to describe this. Students, especially those experiencing any variety of hardships, need to know that they matter to you.
Sometimes this is hard, especially when we as music teachers see hundreds of students each week for an increasingly limited amount of time. However, I firmly believe that not only is this in the best interest of your students, it will also pay out dividends for you as well. If students know you care, they are less-likely to want to disappoint you. They will work harder and longer and strive to make you proud, all saving you time spent on classroom management. Now I’m not saying to pretend to care so you have a smoother class. That would just be stupid. Let’s think of this as more of an added benefit rather than a reason to improve your student-teacher relationships.
Take a few seconds and think back to your favorite teachers from when you were in school. Why did you think of them? Why have they stayed with you all these years? Was it because they knew a lot about the subject they taught? Or was your admiration of them more centered on the relationships they fostered? I am willing to take a wager that the majority of the teachers you remember as your favorites had a good relationship with you, even though they still might have been incredibly knowledgable teachers.
Classroom culture is something that is incredibly important. What makes it difficult is that its something that we as educators need to be increasingly purposeful and aware of in how we plan, implement, and nurture the culture in our classrooms. It’s also hard to change, and can take time to create the kinds of lasting and meaningful changes to create an improved culture within our classrooms. But I promise you that it is worth it.
I urge you to answer these questions on your own, thinking about your current classroom culture: How do you foster community in your classroom? What strategies and methods have you used for classroom management? What has worked? What didn’t? What is something that you would like to try in your classrooms to foster positive relationships? Use the answers you have come up with to inform your next steps moving forward to foster a more inclusive, inviting, and positive classroom culture.
Like a lot of educators fresh out of college, especially those that graduate in the middle of the school year, my first job post-graduation was as a substitute. By the end of my first student teaching placement in March 2017, I was ready to have my own classroom. But life had other plans.
Due to health reasons, I had to split my student teaching placements over two school years. Because of this, I finished my final student teaching placement (thus completing my degree) in October. This is when I was informed that I would have to wait until my registrar deferred degrees in December to be able to serve as a substitute teacher. Needless to say, I was pretty upset. I was itching to get into the classroom (and to make some money doing it), and it seemed like I kept hitting one obstacle after the other.
After some discussions with the teachers at the elementary school I student taught at, I decided to apply to be a substitute educational assistant for the district. I’ll be perfectly honest: on paper it looked like a huge waste of my time. The pay was low, there was a much lower demand for these type of substitutes, so there were many days that I went without a job. But once I started working these jobs, I began to change my tune.
To my surprise, I instantly fell in love with the work I was doing. The majority of my jobs were in Multiple-Handicapped or Autism units. When I first accepted jobs in these units I was anxious about what I was getting myself into. However, once I got into the units I instantly fell in love with the kids and the role I was playing in their education. I began to see levels of patience and compassion from me that I had never seen before. To say that I surprised myself is an understatement. I began taking longer term assignments in these units, and added skills and techniques to work with these students into my ‘toolbox.’
Once I (finally) had my degree officially issued, I began working as a substitute teacher and branching out into a few neighboring districts. Being a music teacher I really didn’t have any experience teaching in a general classroom and to be perfectly honest: I didn’t really know how they worked. After working as a substitute teacher in the general classroom for a couple of weeks, I really began to get the hang of it. Once again, I fell in love with it. I loved working with the same group of kids all day, and I adored working with small groups during rotations.
At first, I was worried with how much I loved working outside of the music classroom. I began to doubt if choosing music education was the right choice when I went into college. I looked into adding endorsements to my license, and how much it would take to become a general classroom teacher. As time went on, I realized I loved teaching. It didn’t matter what I was teaching, I fell in love with teaching students something new. I enjoyed being a part of the educational experience. It took me a while, but I believe I now see how these experiences I have gained can be translated into the music classroom.
My experiences as both a substitute teacher and educational assistant have changed the way I view myself as an educator. Furthermore, once I left the music classroom, I learned more about what my role as an elementary music teacher was. I had gained perspective. I no longer felt as if I was isolated in “Music Land,” but saw that I was a point of consistency as students change teachers, classes, and grades during their time in elementary school. Taking a step away from the music classroom had allowed me to see how it can be used as a support of the general classroom, while still being able to stand on its own in content, standards, and importance.
Like many music teachers out there, I have many students that walk through my door that have experienced more trauma than any child should ever have to experience. These Adverse Childhood Experiences alter the way our students are able to learn, both on physical and emotional levels.
As I have mentioned previously, I spent my first year out of college outside of the music classroom. I had the wonderful experience to be able to work with students on IEP’s and 504’s as a part of the intervention team at my school. This allowed me to become much more familiar with sensory and emotional differences in my students. When I transitioned into having my own music classroom, I wanted to make sure that I used my experiences to make sure that I set up my classroom to allow for all students to be successful.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to make our classroom accessible to students who have experienced trauma in their lives. This is merely the tip of the iceberg, so-to-speak, of how to make sure that we are setting up all students up for success.
1. Meet Students Where They Are:
I really hope that this is not a novel idea for most of us, as I would argue this is one of the foundations of good teaching. However, this is so important that I had to include this at the top of my list.
Our students all have diverse needs. They all have unique life experiences that shape their proficiency in specific emotional and academic skills. As educators, we must meet our students at the level that they are at in order to allow them to show growth, regardless of the concept or skill. We must meet the needs of our students before we are going to be able to see academic growth.
2. Identify Student Needs:
Ok, we’ve acknowledged that our students have different needs. Now comes the important part: what are the specific needs our your students?
I’m going to be honest: this is not easy, especially as music teachers. We see so many students that it can be hard to identify the needs of each and every one of our students. It would be crazy to ask one person to figure out the diverse and specific needs of hundreds of students. Thankfully you don’t have to do this alone.
It can be incredibly helpful to work with the homeroom teachers and Intervention Specialists in order to help identify the needs in environments that are not the music classroom. This information can often be directly related to their needs in the music classroom. Once we have identified what our students needs are, we can start to apply interventions to (hopefully) meet the needs of that student.
3. Apply Interventions to Meet Student Needs
There are so many ways to apply interventions to help student meet their needs. The best thing is that there are so many supports that we can implement incredibly easily. When used purposefully and appropriately, these supports and interventions can allow students the help they need to be successful. Some supports that I use in my classroom include a variety of fidgets (with a variety of textures and tactile feedback), breaks for students, and rewards.
I use fidgets very carefully because there is often a fine line between when a fidget is helping a student and when it is causing further distractions. I set up clear expectations for students that use my fidgets (use them appropriately, they are there to help you focus, etc.) and hold students to those expectations.
I have some students that really struggle with staying 100% focused on music for the entire music class. Sometimes they physically cannot go all of the way through without being able to take a break. A break doesn’t need to be anything crazy, sometimes it could be as simple as allowing a student to go get a drink in the hallway and come right back. Some students may need a longer break. I have one student that physically needs a little bit longer of a break, so their homeroom teacher will come down and walk with him for a little bit before returning him to class.
4. Increase Attention to Self-Regulation
The last tip I wanted to share today was how I think about self-regulation in the music classroom. I have found that putting a focus on practicing self-regulation (especially at the beginning of the year) pays dividends when it comes to classroom management and student behavior. Additionally, I think that this increased focus allows all students to be able to increase their ability to make emotionally-sound decisions, which ideally helps students in all facets of life.
I firmly believe that the music classroom is for so much more than teaching musical concepts and skills. Music is something that allows students to express emotions that they otherwise may not know how to put into words. Don’t get me wrong, this is not something that is easy. It can take a lot of time to put these systems into place, but I would argue that this is necessary. We owe it to our students to put in the work to set them up for success in and out of the music classroom.