Number one for English language teachers

Debate: Classroom management

Type: Article

Adrian Tennant examines a number of areas often lumped together under the umbrella term 'Classroom Management' and suggests an approach to dealing with these issues and problems.

Introduction | Looking at the issues | Dealing with the issues | Why is this important? | From Macro to Micro and back again | Who should be responsible for managing the classroom? | Sharing

Introduction

Earlier this week a colleague asked me how he could manage his class. At first I was a bit lost as to what to say so I asked him exactly what he meant by managing his class. His reply left me pondering a whole series of questions and reminded me of the number of times I've been asked to do workshops on the theme of classroom management.

Briefly, some of the problems he had were: discipline; motivation (or lack of); a wide range of knowledge; covering all the material and getting the students to complete the tasks set.

Looking at the issues

When it comes to classroom management issues I think part of the problem is the way we approach them. To start with they are often seen as problems. This initial negativity creates an issue in itself. Rather than being seen as part and parcel of the teaching process, they are seen as being weaknesses and things that shouldn't happen to a 'good' teacher. In reality they are often things that most, if not all, teachers have had to deal with throughout their teaching career.

So, how should we view the issues?

To start with, we should understand that we're not alone in facing these issues and we may well find that our colleagues can help. Having problems with our classes isn't something we should be ashamed of, but something we should share in order to find a solution (and I was glad that my colleague felt comfortable enough to do this with me).

Secondly, we need to see these as issues that can be solved. Challenges that will, in the end, make us teachers who are better equipped to help our students.

So, how do we deal with the issues?

The starting point is to explore the issues. I've found that asking myself a series of questions can help. These are the questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • How does it affect the class?
  • What are the underlying reasons for the problem?
  • What do I do about these at the moment?
  • Are any of the things I do effective?
  • Why (not)?

Once I've gone through these questions I have a clearer picture about what the issue is, what might be causing it and how I am currently trying to deal with it.

Why is this important?

It's vital to have a clearer picture of what the problem (or issue) is. Often the main problem is a lack of understanding. We know we have a problem and we've categorized it in broad terms, i.e. under the heading of discipline or mixed abilities. But categorizing the problem doesn't actually help us deal with it (at least not unless we go further, or deeper).

Asking ourselves what the effects are on the class - how the problem manifests itself - will help us understand why it's a problem (why it annoys us or causes us distress). It will also help us later on when we try to find solutions.

The next step is to explore the underlying reasons. If someone is misbehaving and it disrupts the class (other students can't concentrate, the teacher gets angry, we don't cover all of the material etc.) we know what the problem is and what the consequences are, but we are no closer to a solution. If we know why they are misbehaving (the class is too easy, they are bored, they have problems at home etc.), then we are in a better position to actually do something that will lead to a change.

Finally, it's useful to look at what we are currently doing. Clearly, if what we were doing was working then we wouldn't still have the problem. In most cases we start to fret about the problem because we've been unable to come up with a solution (this is when the issue has shifted to become a problem).

From Macro to Micro and back again

Often the first thing we do when faced with a problem is to try and categorize it in broad terms (and this is how most literature seems to deal with classroom management isues). However, as we've already seen, this is not particularly helpful. What we need to do is dissect the problem and try to find out exactly why it's happening. Once we've gone to this micro level we will almost certainly find that there is more than one contributing factor or reason. This might at first appear unhelpful, but in reality we are more likely to be able to address these small issues than the overall problem. By tackling each of the underlying causes we will eventually solve the original issue (or at least make it less of a problem).

For example, one of the problems my colleague had was to do with discipline. He had a student who was being disruptive and he was finding him difficult to deal with. I asked him what this student was doing. It turned out that she was constantly taking out her mobile phone and texting while the other students were working. The teacher had tried to remove the phone and this had led to an argument. Then, rather than playing with her phone, the student had started reading a newspaper and was still being disruptive.

So, we knew what the issue was, we knew what the effect on the class was and we knew what action had been taken so far (and what effect that had had). But what hadn't been explored were the causes (the underlying reasons) behind this behaviour. In the end it turned out that the student was bored. She found the topics uninteresting as she didn't know much about the topics in the coursebook, and she found the tasks too difficult. By pairing her up with a stronger student who was willing to help, and by discussing the topic beforehand it was possible to help the student.

Who should be responsible for managing the classroom?

Although the teacher should take overall responsibility, quite often students can deal with problems themselves. It is important that we make students aware of how their behaviour affects other people around them and that we create an atmosphere in the classroom that encourages open discussion. Obviously, there are some problems (and underlying reasons) that are private and we need to be sensitive to these. However, creating an environment in which people feel they have a say and where views can be aired can only be a good thing. Treating your students as intelligent people and encouraging them to be responsible for their own learning, and to be aware of each other, helps to reduce the onus on the teacher.

Sharing

A problem shared is a problem halved, or so the saying goes.

  • Have you had any classroom management issues?
  • How did you deal with them?
  • Do you currently have any classroom management issues you would like to share?
  • Do you have any useful suggestions or tips?

If you would like to share your thoughts on this hot topic, please have your say in the onestopenglish Forum.

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