I’ll never forget my first teaching job. It was at a troubled urban school. I was a 23 year-old grad student with absolutely no teaching experience and absolutely no teaching certificate. I replaced a teacher, who had been fired for incompetence, in the second semester of the school year.
At the end of that first semester in the classroom, the principal confided in me the reason she had hired me. She claimed that experienced teachers had applied for the position, but that she had given it to me because when asked for one word that described me, I responded, “Tenacity.”
When she told me that, I immediately wished I had said, “Flightiness…I’m incredibly flighty.” Or, “Laid back…whatever.” But I didn’t have the foresight, and I had to go and label myself “tenacious.”
That was perhaps the single most brutal semester of my working life. But I survived, and in hindsight, I’m really glad that I went through it. I think student teaching is an invaluable experience, and I would never recommend that prospective teachers forgo it, but I learned so many lessons in that one semester that have carried me through 13 years (and counting) in the classroom. I had to–it was “sink or swim,” “do or die.” It felt like I was fighting for my life every day.
Years later, when I had my own student teacher, she asked me, “What makes an effective teacher?” And because of that harrowing first teaching job experience, I think the most important characteristic of an effective teacher is solid classroom management. Without that, nothing gets done.
But “solid classroom management” is a very broad statement. When pressed, I was able to narrow it down to five characteristics. I have observed these characteristics in truly remarkable teachers, and I continue to observe them to this day in colleagues that I would argue surpass the effective marker and have entered the realm of remarkable.
The Five Characteristics of an Effective Classroom Manager (According to Me)
Effective classroom managers plan from bell to bell a series of engaging lessons. But they are also flexible. They don’t sweat when students finish early or the projector stops working. They are ready to roll with plan B. Stations, broad vocabulary activities, task cards…they have ’em ready!
My current department head has a knack for using a variety of activities in the classroom. I don’t think he spends longer than 15 minutes on any one thing, and he never has any down time. When students walk into class, they pick up all of their materials for the day right away, so there is no wasted time. A typical class for him may be a 5 minute bellringer, followed by a quick review, followed by a geography game on the iPads, a 10 minute visually-engaging lecture, a short film clip, a quick review….You get the idea.
He uses a stopwatch, his class is always moving, and he seldom has behavior issues.
Effective classroom managers see the humor in everyday situations and just don’t take the punches every teacher encounters so seriously.
During my first harrowing days in the classroom, teachers were still offering the advice, “Don’t let them see you smile until after Christmas.” That used to work, but it is bad advice with today’s students.
I remember my first classroom observation. My mentor from the university said, “You look so serious all the time. Try smiling.” Once I did that, I actually started building relationships with the students. And really, how can you lead with whom someone you don’t have a relationship? Kids just don’t blindly follow you because you’re an adult anymore.
I’m not saying you should wink and smile at bad behavior–you should never do that. But if students see that you enjoy your job, they appreciate it. Laugh when you can, and keep a journal of funny things that happen in the classroom.
Effective classroom managers expect good behavior and follow through with consequences equitably when it is not displayed.
This is a tough one for me, and this goes back to having a sense of humor. I’m a sucker for funny, and if a student is being disruptive, and it happens to be funny, well… That’s why I know I have to have a behavior plan in place. Some teachers have the same one year after year, and that’s great. Mine is always based on the personality of the class.
My expectations don’t change, but the ways I implement warnings do. I’ve had classes that all I have to do is tell them what I expect and they comply, but that is oh so rare. Some classes need a quiet area–a place to send students to cool down and reflect. Tangible warning cards handed to students work better with others…1=a cease and desist, 2=a phone call home, 3=removal from the classroom. It just depends on the class.
Effective classroom managers structure their classrooms so that students know what to expect–that’s reassuring to them. They also structure the class in such a way that each student has specific responsibilities.
Students like to know that the first five minutes of a class will be bellwork or that vocabulary quizzes will be every Friday. All of the most effective classroom managers I’ve ever observed have a basic outline around which they frame all of their classes.
But great advice I got early on was to assign each student responsibilities each day. Whole class responsibilities involve putting “minutes” of the class into the absentee notebook, handing out materials, keeping the time for activities….I draw names out of a deck of index cards that students fill out on the first day of school for these responsibilities.
My students sit at tables in groups of four. When I first moved to this structure, I realized that students were not taking care of materials on their tables and they were leaving a mess everyday. This changed when I began to assign each group member a specific task. These tasks rotate weekly. The students know what their responsibility entails because I hang a poster in my classroom that describes each job. You can get the poster for free here, in color and in black and white.
Here it is!
Excellent teaching doesn’t matter without effective classroom management. It takes time–it takes trial and error, but these are the characteristics that I’ve been able to pinpoint in some of the most effective classroom managers that I’ve had the privilege to work with and observe.
What did I miss? Leave a comment, and let me know what else makes an effective classroom manager.
*Photo credit: Ledbury Public School – Imagining My Sustainable City via photopin (license)