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.
Leah Cleary is a secondary social studies and English teacher in Newnan, Georgia, where she lives with her husband and 9-year-old son. She invites you to check out her blog and her TpT store.
*Photo credit: Ledbury Public School – Imagining My Sustainable City via photopin (license)
Bekki Sayler says
Even as a Homeschooler with 16 years experience I know the value of being prepared! I love all of your wisdom!
a better way to homeschool
Dawn Rauto says
concise and a lifesaver!
The Sassy Teacher says
Wonderful!!! I am reflecting on this past year and I needed a lot of this insight! So glad that I have this to help me plan better!
Mrs. Teacher says
I absolutely agree. I have been teaching 10 years and take pride in my own management skills. This is an accurate and well-written list that I will pass on. In fact, I may post a link in my own blog, if that is ok with you!
Mrs. Reeves says
Well written. Thank you. I am going to pass this along because it is spot on!
Kimberly Price says
I agree with your list. Structure is always my focus.
Jacqueline McPherson says
Thank you. My students are in groups of four as well. I can't wait to try the colored dots for responsibilities.
Pamela Ingram says
Starting year 19. Nail on the head. Be flexible but be consistent.
Melissa Termine says
Great advice! I tell people that subbing gives you the best experience (better than student teaching). You need to know how to have control!
Absolutely !!! My thoughts exactly. Career-switcher and have taught K-12 as a Substitute for 2.5 years. Heading into my own classroom this year! Excited! But a bit nervous at the same time.
Abisola Bankole says
Love love this piece, without a effective classroom management nothing get done. I appreaciate ur thoughts.
I just retired from thirty-five years of effective teaching, and you are right on my dear! I would like to add that one should always smile and greet their students at the door…I shake their hand. I, also, tell them goodbye and wish them a pleasant rest of the day…sometimes I sing, "Happy Trails!" My only regret is not writing down every hysterical moment in the classroom…I could write a great book…if only I could remember it all! Happy teaching, it is a wonderful and fulfilling profession! Carry on with your fine self…you've got the steps down!!
Aisha Dixon says
Hi Leah I am from the Newnan, GA area! I use to live in Newnan. Do you teach in Newnan? I found this article really helpful. I had a very similar experience as you. I took over a class at the middle of the year as a first year teacher at an inner city school as well and had the same experience. It was rough and all about survival, but I learned a lot.
I'm a student teacher now, in my 3rd term of grad school and this is one of my main goals. Thanks for the tips. All duly noted!
You are so correct! I teach kindergarten and have been told I run a well-oiled machine. All those characteristics are in place, I’m proud to say. My students know what to expect, that I love and care about them, but they are held accountable for their behavior and work. We are very successful and we even have fun doing it!
Mark Eichenlaub says
I totally agree. Great post and great work! Nice job. I just interview Michael from smartclassroommanagement and he said a lot of the same things here:
Be crystal clear on rules and consequences, practice routines, detach emotionally from it and keep parents in the loop but not in a way you are asking them to help and discipline the child at home.
Thank you so much for writing this! I am starting a new position as an elementary school teacher next fall. I had heard the saying “Don’t smile until Christmas” and many of my teacher friends have endorsed that sentiment, but it just didn’t seem right to me. You want the kids to gauge you as nice and inviting, and this definitely reassured me on how to approach the first year of teaching!
Mary Triplett says
Thank you. I’m a substitute or guest teacher and I’ve been in this position for 8 years now. I work in middle and high schools. When I first started I had 1 day in a classroom- and before class started I had to stop a “cat fight” which was in the hallway just outside my door. It’s not typical for a woman teacher to stop a fight but blood was flowing and therefore something had to be done. I took the girl, the main fighter, who was on the floor, didn’t let go until the deputy, the dean and the security vice principal took over. Dusted myself off and went back to teach class. They asked me if I was ok, and my answer was yes, just had to dust off a 30 year old file cabinet, now I have class to teach. Later that day, the dean asked me what I meant by 30 year old,file cabinet. I laughed- told him he was Air Force, I was an Army military police officer. That set the stage for me in the high school- tough lady, do as you are suppose to, and don’t mess around in the classroom. It also gave my sons a bit of grief because they were attending the same school at that time. Students soon came to also realize, that I could laugh, that I would always have my door open to them, that we could relax in the class but above all I gave them the same respect, if not more so, that they did me, that I required them to do their work or see the dean (their choice). Over the last 8 years I’ve gained the respect of both students, teachers, admin, and staff. I’ve had students take control for me and assist me since I’m now disabled. And many both in and out of class have called me Mom.
Israel Martin Diaz Suarez says
No matter how great your class is, if you don’t have a effective classroom management it won’t have the same impact. This article is a great help.
Suzanne Oldham says
Thank you for the wonderful information! I have just completed my second year of part-time teaching in visual art. I have used similar group tasks in my classroom. I wonder how you manage the consequences if the students don’t do their jobs in their groups?
Leah Cleary says
It really depends on the situation/ circumstances, but as far as group work goes, if someone isn’t doing their part, letting it slide is unfair to their group and sends a bad message to the other students.
If it’s refusal to complete their daily task (as in on the poster), I would definitely treat that seriously. That is outright defiance, or it could be a dislike of collaborative work–either way, you cannot let it go on because of the message it sends to the other students. I would begin by having a conversation with the student and escalate it from there (parent phone call etc.). If they still refuse, then the natural consequence is that they have lost the privilege of working in a group.
Losing the privilege means they sit in a desk apart from the tables. They complete assignments on their own. They do alternate reviews (rather than games). But if this happens, be careful not to make it extra work for yourself. If you have a textbook and workbooks–use them. Be creative about gathering individual-based resources that get the information across in a quiet, simple, alternate matter. I have gathered things over the years so that I don’t have to extra work when this happens (and it inevitably does).
Always begin this process by giving the student an out. That is, the student should know from the beginning that there is a chance to make amends and return to the group. Perhaps make a contract for the student to sign–“If you are on task and complete all of your assignments and do a good job on them for a week, then you will have the opportunity to return to your group as long as you agree to cooperate in completing your tasks.
This may be exactly what the student wants, and that’s okay. You have other students to think about, and you cannot allow students who refuse to fully participate collaboratively reap the benefits of collaboration. Then you have someone sliding by on their group’s hard work, and that’s not fair to anybody.
This video explains how I handle it when an entire class gets out of hand, but you can modify the process for individual students: http://bit.ly/2rWsZKr
I hope this helps!
Hi Leah! I need your help. I’m a Spanish teacher who teaches 21 different classes. My 8th grade is very difficult. They are the only class that drives me nuts. I have one child in particular who loves to act up and then the behavior of the class dominoes when he starts. I don’t know what to do. I’m thinking about doing a behavior clipchart for them. What type of consequences do you suggest? What do you think I can do to award those students who always behave?
Bunny Hess says
Thank you so much for these tips. At the age of 65, I am a preschool teacher for the first time after being an aide for 16! I am having a bit of trouble with my children wanting to talk constantly and over each other also trying to fill up all the time so that they are not playing excessively although I know they are supposed to play a lot at this age, in order to learn. But thanks again!
Tanya Marshall says
These tips were great! And building solid relationships is a must for effective classroom management.