Levels of Classroom Management

I was looking over my stockpile of draft blog posts when I rediscovered this one and thought I would finish it.

I have been thinking more about approaches to classroom management this past month because I have been working with a student teacher from OISE/UT.  In trying to help my student teacher understand the subtleties of classroom management I was telling him how I have come to understand that there are three levels of managing student behaviour in a classroom setting, and that I have progressed through each of the three levels over my years in this profession.

Level 0 – No management

This is not really a level at all, but it’s where I began in my first year.  The basic mistake that I made is having the assumption that if you simply treat students nicely, then they will do the same for you.  The problem is, students and teachers don’t always have the same definition of “nicely.”  At the time, my definition of “nicely” was “please sit quietly and take down all the notes without talking to each other.”  I didn’t yet understood how to engage a teenage brain for 75 minutes.  Looking back I think that my students must have been pretty bored, so it is no surprise that they felt the need to be disruptive – their brains needed to!

Of course, students have some inherent ability to behave due to their socialization, so my classroom was not complete mayhem.  Some good learning occurred, but it was not a great “learning environment”; equipment got broken often because there were no firm expectations on students; I was usually exhausted because I was always putting out fires and reacting to small behavioural interruptions.

Level 1 – Compliance

I didn’t take long at Level 0 before I realized that if I was going to keep students in line, I was going to have to demand it.  This was the stage when I created a list of classroom rules and referred to it often.  I started requiring students to be absolutely quite during lessons.  I started to rely on consequences more readily – calling home, detentions, lectures, and sending students out of class.

I don’t want you to get the picture that I was a strict disciplinarian because I really wasn’t.  Discipline is not in my nature, so it was very foreign for me to give students detentions or send them to stand in the hallway, but I did it because I thought I had to.  This stage was also pretty exhausting for two reasons:  First, I always felt like I was giving lectures, calling home and using my personal time to supervise detentions; Second, I had to present myself as a bit of a “tough teacher” in order to demand respect.  As I have said, this is not my personal character at all, so it was very tiring for me.

Level 2 – Tone (agreement)

Level 2 is where my classroom management really started to go in new directions that had positive results and that fit with my personality.  I call this level “Tone” because I really started to hone in on the atmosphere in my classroom as mechanism for moderating student behaviour.  I remember the first time I delivered instructions in a new way.  I communicated my expectations about student behaviour before starting a lab … then I stood there silently looking at the students, holding their attention for a few long seconds (though it felt like 5 minutes).  I was not upset, or demonstrating frustration – Instead, I was holding their attention so as to communicate just how important my expectations were.  In that class, they internalized my high expectations for their behaviour and I realized just how much of an impact my tone would have on student behaviour.

The tone or atmosphere of the classroom moderates student behaviour.  It makes students accountable to the teacher and to each other, not because students believe they will get in trouble for misbehaviour, but because students internalize the sense that poor behaviour is unacceptable.  If you are a new teacher, you may have a hard time understanding what I am saying here (I am struggling to explain it), but if you seek out a role model teacher at your school, you will feel the difference in their classes and the ways that they interact with their students.

I think that this level of classroom management can also be called “agreement” because it involves getting students to “buy in” to the expectations of the learning environment.

Level 3 – Community (engagement, empowerment)

Building “community” is the highest level of classroom management that I have achieved so far, and it became a major part of my approach to teaching only 2 years ago.  I realized then, that having a positive tone of high expectations might dissuade some students from using disruptive behaviour to “take away” from classroom learning, but it did not inherently encourage students to use positive behaviour to “give back” to the classroom learning.

Creating a classroom community takes time, but it is time worth investing.  At the beginning of each semester, I allocate a significant amount of time to community building activities and teaching students to interact with each other in positive and fulfilling ways.  Each year, the activities change, but they generally emphasize the following points:

  • Everyone must know everyone else’s name (students will be working with everyone at some point in the semester)
  • Creating a sense of belonging (every person has something to contribute and is a valued member of our community)
  • Developing a set of norms that facilitate learning (My three questions are:  What do you need from me to help you be successful?  What do you need from each other to help you be successful?  What do I need from you to help you be successful?)
  • Teaching students the value of cooperative group learning

At the level of classroom community, every behaviour can be measured by its ability to contribute to the classroom community, or take away from it.  At this level, students will mostly manage themselves.  When intervention from the teacher is required, simply asking the student to reflect on how their behaviour is affecting the community as a whole is often enough to bring them back into the sphere of learning and sharing.

If you are trying to get a better sense of how I build community in my class, you may be interested to see My Intro Day Presentation, or look at A New Approach to Classroom Expectations that I tried this year.

If I have learned anything about classroom management, it is that managing student behaviour is a personal journey.  The levels I have outlined above are the levels that I progressed through and they represent approaches to classroom management that resonate with my personality and teaching style.  I also know that my journey is not complete.  I hope that in a few more years, I will be able to tell you about Level 4-6 as I discover what they are.

Photo Credit:




A New Approach to Classroom Expectations

Every year I discuss classroom expectations with my students.  Each year, this conversation looks somewhat different, but it generally involves asking students for input.  I have heard some teachers say that “developing classroom expectations with students allows them to feel some ownership of the rules, and they are more likely to follow them.”  I don’t really believe that.  In my experience, students know all the right answers, which is why every list of classroom expectations I have ever seen looks pretty much the same.

I feel that asking students for input on the classroom expectations is really a token gesture – it looks like a nice thing to do, but it’s not really a useful way to have a lasting impression on student behaviour.  The important part of generating a list of classroom expectations with your students in not what they come up with on the list, but how they come up with the list.  It is the process of generating a list of expectations that helps to establish the tone of the classroom.  Do you ask students to work collaboratively?  Do you encourage students to be creative in the presentation of their ideas?  Do students feel it is safe to contribute?  Does each student have a voice?

This year I tried something new.  First, I asked students to write down 5 expectations that all people (including the teacher) should always uphold while in the classroom in order to make it a better place to be.  Next, I asked students to form small groups and consolidate their lists.  Finally, we generated a list as a class by including only the expectations that showed up in more than one group.  This all took 20 minutes.  So far … so good … and pretty boring!

The next stage was to assign certain expectations to each group (it worked out to be at least two each.)  The groups were asked, “what does the expectation look like?  how will we know we are doing it?” – this generated some good discussion in the groups.  I then asked students to come up with a “picture” that we will take with a digital camera to remind us what the expectation looks like.

IMG_0217 modI had to give the students an example:  “If the expectation was, come to class prepared, we could take a picture of a student holding all of the necessary materials – pencils, paper, etc.”  The students immediately started talking in their groups about how they would capture their assigned expectations.  What would they do?  Who would they involve?  Did they need props?  Should they do multiple images?  All of this great discussion came out!  Most important to me, the students were collaborating on a task that was not clearly defined.  They needed to be creative; they needed to be problem solvers; they needed to communicate and compromise.  All of this interaction is what builds community in the classroom, not this list of expectations!

Finally, we took 10 minutes or so to set up each of the photographs, and captured the pictures with my digital camera.  My students really seemed to enjoy the activity and I feel that they left the class that day with a greater sense how to work effectively together, and a stronger image in their minds of the classroom expectations we generated.

That night, I went home and uploaded the pictures to Animoto, found some music licensed for use with Creative Commons and put together a short slide show to watch in class.  I have shown the video at the beginning of class for a few days.  The students think that it’s pretty cool because it is their photos in the video and the video is much more engaging than a list on the wall.  From now on, I will only need to show the video if I feel that the class needs a gentle reminder.

For your viewing pleasure, I have embedded a modified version of our classroom expectations video.  In order to protect the identities of my students, I have put cartoons over their faces.  In general, I tried not to change the wording of the expectations that the students came up with.  I wanted them to feel that this video came from them and not from me.  Also, because each photo was part of a larger conversation we had in class, the image probably communicates more to my students than it might to you.  Enjoy!