5 Things about stress-free classroom management

I was asked by one of my student-teachers a few years ago about classroom management. Actually, I don’t remember her exact wording, but it might have been something like, “how do you discipline the naughty students?”, or “how do you control the bad kids?” or something like that. The question baffled me at first, for two reasons. 1. I don’t have ‘naughty or bad students’. 2. I don’t need to ‘discipline’ students, so I didn’t know how to do these things, nor how to answer that question. Of course, I then wondered why I couldn’t answer the question, and why I don’t have classroom problems. I just don’t have those issues.  It took me a few minutes to figure out what the real question is; a few weeks to figure out a rough answer; and a few months to understand the details. The answer is a lot more detailed than what a blog post can offer, but really, it’s a mindset on the teacher’s side, a philosophy, so below is probably customisable, adaptable, and interpretable for you personally. Use what suits you best, and put on hold the other things that doesn’t sit well for you, at least for now. However, read this, and incrementally start to employ these winning strategies for a stress free relationship with your classes.

1. Realise we are all merely humans.

What this really means is that your class, your lessons, your subject are not the most important things in life. The basic needs of any human is food, water, shelter, human contact, social needs. Everything else is just artificial 21st century add-ons that primitive humans survived without. There are people starving, struggling to survive under slavery, people living in horrid, unimaginable conditions all over the world right now. The people you have in front of you are usually fortunate, but you don’t know what is really happening in their own lives. Instead being out in the world enjoying life, they’ve put themselves in a position in front of you. They’ve given their minds and bodies to you, and they trust that you’re not going to waste their time, or make their lives a misery.

You, the teacher, might have been lucky to grow up in a privileged middle-class upbringing, in a relatively safe, stable family and country. Not everyone has enjoyed such a nice start on life. Some of our students might need to do things that an ordinary child should never have to do (like help care for a terminally ill and dying close relative, or do all the domestic chores), or see things that no child should see (think of the worst and most tragic events or scenarios). Consequently, I like to make my classroom as much of an escape and refuge as possible.

Art museum in Europe. CC Adrianna Calvo 2014, https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-art-museum-europe-21264/

Art museum in Europe. CC Adrianna Calvo 2014, https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-art-museum-europe-21264/

In philosophy, they talk of what the purpose of art is. Really, why do we spent sometimes hundreds of hours trying to make a vase and decorate it; a thing that its primary purpose is to transport and store liquids. Instead of using it for its primary purpose, we  just put it on display, just to look at; just to enjoy its prettiness. Why? Just so we can escape the horrors of everyday living. Life is hard and terrible. I don’t want to make life even more hard and terrible for my students. Consequently, I try to make the classroom experience fulfilling, joyful, light, deep, meaningful, engaging, whatever positive adjective that adds value to your students. Make your class a distraction from reality, let them forget for a while the sheer horror of living daily life.

A book that was really important for me was Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom. That turned my world upside down and straightened me out. Still today, I thank the two adult students I had who really pushed this book onto me. Also, listen to The Philosophy Bites and the Philosopher’s Zone podcasts. The range of topics there are deeply fulfilling for your own psyche and outlook on life.

2. Don’t judge; no grudges. Ever!

When I get a new class, ALL students enter the room with no reputation, no historical baggage, and all with a fresh start. They look at you with wide eyes, and they are hoping that this year will be a good year, finally, hopefully. I don’t want to ruin that. All students have the chance to impress me, or sabotage their own efforts. Those who seem “lively” I give them friendly reminders that they need to listen, or get back to work.

A teacher and student laughing. Creative Commons licensed image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/departmentofed/9609016298/sizes/l/

A teacher and student laughing. Creative Commons licensed image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/departmentofed/9609016298/sizes/l/

For any students who cause problems for me, I politely, and always with the same manner of respect I would display to my neighbour, a stranger on the subway, my boss, that kind of respect, I ask them to stop it, and help their partner do the task at hand. Reminding them of their social responsibilities is powerful. Some students have attention deficit disorder, some don’t know the correct manner of behaving in the situation now, some have Asperger’s, some simply have a hearing deficit and got bored, there are a myriad of reasons why they cannot behave in the cookie-cutter manner some teachers might expect or hope for. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s not their fault they have turned out the way they are. So if during a teacher-centered moment they cause an interruption quickly finish your spiel, then get the class engaged on some autonomous or pair-work activity. Now it’s your chance to engage with that ‘disruptive’ student. This part is really, really, super important: In your nicest, most sincere, unjudgemental, manner you can, simply ask the student who disrupted, “Are you ok?”, “Do you understand what to do?” “Can I help you in any way?”

Why is that super important? It shows many things including, 1. You’re not like the old grammar-school teachers who will discipline him / her. 2. You’re open to understanding them. 3. You’re giving them an opportunity to get help, and opportunity to succeed in your class. 4. They haven’t sabotaged their own potential in your class. 5. You don’t hold grudges, and this behaviour today got your attention, but in a good way. 6. They know you’re willing to help. 7. You respect all people. Everyone wants both dignity and respect; these are fundamental to our social existence, and you have no intention to battle them, to work with them instead. Really, this makes a huge difference.

3. Offer help

I try to keep my teacher-centered moments as brief as possible, and give students their time to engage with the content autonomously. This gives them the chance to explore things at their own speed, to the depth they need, and some self control. This time is important for me to walk around and see what’s up with different students. I can offer them help if need be, I can see who’s struggling, and gives me talk time with them, too. The ‘problem students’, I try to make my best buddies. I ask them, “how are you doing?”, “Do you need help?”, “Do you understand what to do?”, “Are you ok today? You seem a little sleepy / distracted.” among others. Sometimes they will ask for help, and this is important, so that you can start to learn what problems they face. May be you explain things too quick, or you leave out some essential details that only students who can see the big picture get, or they just need to hear it once more. Take the time to patiently help the student will make you one of their favourite teachers. Even if they don’t ask for help, just offering it makes you a star.

Photo CC from ZeLIG School, at https://flic.kr/p/7UUFEK

Photo CC from ZeLIG School, at https://flic.kr/p/7UUFEK

4. Use proximity

Patrol around the room, and stand near potential trouble spots. During student work time I always walk around to see who’s getting it right, who needs help, or a nudge in the right direction. Also, for students who seem distracted, I stop and stand near them. I don’t necessarily look at them, but they know I’m right there, and now’s not the time to mess around, because I’m right there. I usually don’t need to say anything, and so this avoids confrontations. Even during my brief teacher-centered moments, I might move and stand right by a potential offender, and so noting their behaviour, and continue my explanation. The class will notice their behaviour, and so everyone knows that you know, just you choose to get on with the task. So the potential problem student usually shuts down that behaviour themselves.

5. Know their names

Knowing the name of the most helpful and ‘lively’ students will make everyone’s lives easier. Sometimes all you have to do is say their names in a manner that is respectful, but stern (somehow it always sounds comical to my class). During explanations I will say, “Thank you, now this part is important, you need this”, then explain and demonstrate.

Coffee Talk. CC Anna Levinzon 2008, https://flic.kr/p/4wAz5r

Coffee Talk. CC Anna Levinzon 2008, https://flic.kr/p/4wAz5r

Bonus. Build your own reputation

Students will talk, and your former students will tell the newer ones about you. It will take a few years to cultivate a reputation so students can know what to expect from you. They will say things like, “Andrew’s cool, we had a Secret Santa party with a game of charades”, or “He failed a girl in his Oral Communication class, but she didn’t really try anyway”, or “He once gave us two weeks to design our own topic, learn about it, and then present it. He did nothing but stand there watching us, but he said that he really liked the work we did”. These stories included fun things, warnings, and cool personal opportunities. There will be more stories about me out there in the student population, and I hope at least 90% of them are good or work in my favour.

Clean slates for students

I cannot emphasise enough how important it is not to stereotype, make assumptions of, or pidgeon-hole people, especially students. I go as far as not needing to know what faculty my EFL students are from, so that I avoid making assumptions about them as a group. There are teachers who say things like “Engineering students always hate talking”, or “Law students are so dumb”, but these are horrible assumptions to make of a whole group of individuals. Of course, if you have these expectations, the group will respond to you in this way. Consequently, I’ve found it so, so, so much better to allow students to create their own reputations, afresh, with you.

This story on Edutopia is about exactly that; no stereotyping, assumption-making, or pidgeon-holing of students.

The story on Edutopia is about organising class seating alphabetically, so to be egalitarian, and allow students to escape their past reputations. Additionally, I always have students either randomly mixing, semi-randomly mixing, and at times choosing their own partners.

HackNY Spring 2013 Student Hackathon. CC Matylda Czarnecka 2013. https://flic.kr/p/edufZT

HackNY Spring 2013 Student Hackathon. CC Matylda Czarnecka 2013. https://flic.kr/p/edufZT

If a student appears to be a potential “handful”, he or she becomes my best friend. This creates a positive rapport with them, and the class. Sometimes I’ll move that “handful” to the front to be close to my desk (though I’m actually rarely at my desk, it’s just symbolism). It’s less stress for everyone, and the “handful student” will gradually want to show you their best side, and, in time, won’t want to let you down.

In any case, my point is to give all students an in-prejudiced classroom experience. Let them create and maintain a new reputation. Finally, treat all with respect and dignity.

Classroom management for new teachers

There’s many blog posts I want to write for teachers, especially beginning teachers, however, whenever I get a good idea, I forget it. These ideas come to me in the midst of class, and then I’m distracted by a student asking a question, a student doing something goofy, a student laughing at something, or a student falling off their chair, and I soon forget it. So, here I am forcing myself to write something useful, though not candid.

A problem I had been asked about before by beginning teachers was what to do with rowdy high school classes and how to discipline them. One instinct is to yell at the students, and one student-teacher suggested punishing students, which in my experience both are counter-productive. In any case, I think the answer will be mostly the same, whether it be for kindergarten students, or university students: Respect and routine. Let me explain.

Students in Classrooms at UIS. CC Jeremy Wilburn, 2010. https://flic.kr/p/9gW8c9

Students in Classrooms at UIS. CC Jeremy Wilburn, 2010. https://flic.kr/p/9gW8c9


All people think of themselves as valuable. It’s only natural as we are ego-centric beings, and we look after our own best interests. This also extends to regular social settings. All people want to be respected, all people want their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and contributions to be thought of as valuable to the group. Additionally, you don’t know the histories of all your students. The truth is, most students want to be accepted by their peers, and to do so people want to mimic their peers as close as possible, but without being a clone. Consequently, to you, facing the student group, actual variations between students can be well camouflaged, so it’s easy to think that they all have very much the same histories and backgrounds. In fact it’s not true. Some will come from happy and content homes, whilst others will come from homes where they might be ignored, badly treated, or have issues with a severely handicapped sibling or an abusive family member. All these things impact on the identity each person presents to the world. This identity is usually one that they are comfortable showing for whatever reason. So, even if a child is loud and obnoxious in class, they might in fact be offsetting something awful at home. Consequently, why should you make their time in your class additionally difficult for them. Why not use your class time as a kind of respite for them, let the person see what normality looks like, so that they might learn how to enjoy life. I should stress, that some students are just personality clashes with you, and are not “trouble makers” because they have difficult backgrounds. You really don’t know, so don’t be presumptive, and I think you don’t need to ask them either. So how do you manage those? Respect and allow each person their dignity.

So, how to show respect and not be a push-over? Well, in your first classes you need to lay down the law, and have a facial expression of a prison guard for the first month or so. You’ll quickly spot the “trouble makers”, and you’d quickly move them to the front of the room, and in time, make them your best friends. You’ll find techniques that fit your personality on how to effectively make these students your “best friends”.  Give them little jobs or tasks that help you; offer them your trust. I find that this even works with that one ADHD you might possibly have in thirty students. In time, they’ll learn to appreciate you, and look forward to your classes.

Student iPad School. CC Brad Flickinger 2012. https://flic.kr/p/b9wnTe

Student iPad School. CC Brad Flickinger 2012. https://flic.kr/p/b9wnTe


This is the easiest thing to do. Basically have a set lesson plan for each class, and that way your students will know what they are doing, why they are doing it (even if it’s implicitly, “because we do it every week”), and importantly, how to do it. If you’re always doing really different things every class, then the students will have no idea what you want from them now, and it takes a lot of mental effort to try and understand what this foreign teacher is on about now. So, a routine could be:

  1. Small talk (in pairs)
  2. Check homework
  3. Introduce new grammar target
  4. Do grammar practice
  5. Then speaking activities
  6. etc…

This looks pretty simple, and you just substitute in whatever homework answers you need to. Then demo the grammar target (CELTA style), then have students do whatever grammar activities are available. Then some speaking activities that relate to the grammar target. Make sure everything is interconnected, so it seems like there is also flow and that each activity seems implicitly dependent on the previous, so it seems that there is a need to do each step.

The final advantage, and perhaps most important to beginning teachers, is it makes lesson planning really quick and simple. However, each year I tweak my lesson plan and add, change, or adjust something, so that it is constantly evolving, just to be sure that I don’t become a dinosaur, but also to ensure students receive the most efficient instruction possible. Also, through the process of refinement, you gain more confidence in what you’re doing, and it requires less mental effort on you, so you can concentrate on the smaller important things about your teaching practice.