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.
Bryson Tarbet is the music educator and blogger behind That Music Teacher.