Probably the largest problem that a new aspiring teacher has upon beginning his or her career is classroom management. While most students come into the classroom and have decent behavior, it only takes a handful of children to make a new teacher’s day a living nightmare. Days spin into weeks, weeks to months, and before the new teacher knows it, a feeling of disillusionment will ensue. Is this what I went to college for? They did not inform me in all of those expensive textbooks that Johnny would continuously call out, Maria would stare vacantly into space, Roy would be secretly trying to listen to his MP3 player…and Robert would actually give me the middle finger!
Yes, good reader, all of these and more have happened to me on occasion. Some former students’ actions should not even be worth mentioning in a web-based article, because it can get far worse than being flicked off by a child 20 years your junior. Therefore, starting the school year, it is imperative that students, as well as parents, receive a well-intentioned reality check. There is nothing necessarily wrong in having students sit a little uneasy the first day or two of your class as you rattle off the rules and consequences of your classroom. But first and foremost, I seat students in a row-by-row, alphabetical format. (I have been told by other, more nurturing teachers that I am very “old-school” here and I need to stop living in the 50’s. These are the same teachers who end up having major discipline issues by early October.) I keep my face fairly neutral and serious, my voice low and calm. This does not necessarily mean hostile, as some might infer. At the risk of sounding slightly sexist, it helps to have a masculine voice since children are more often disciplined by a father figure than a mother figure.
Next, comes the key phrase that I honestly believe sets the groundwork for my entire year. I have students take out a clean sheet of paper, and with their newly sharpened pencils, write one key sentence that will be the very top of the rules, materials, and consequences page. It will stay with them in the beginning of the notebook for the rest of the year. Well, OK…In theory. Everybody knows that students between the ages of 11 and 15 can never keep that well organized for a 9 month period of time. And who am I kidding? I cannot even locate an all-important DVD warranty certificate that came with a player I purchased two weeks ago. But I digress. By the end of the first marking quarter, the lesson this sentence sets forth is so embedded in memory, the paper it was scribbled upon is no longer needed.
OK class, please write this sentence on the top: “Mr. Kreusch is not a baby sitter.” I inform my new students that discipline is never a real issue with me and students who have a tendency to continuously defy rules and procedures do not last long in my classroom anyway, much less the school. I tell them that I charge parents by the hour for any unnecessary baby-sitting services and I will call them to let them know this if it is necessary. Believe it or not, in a middle school setting, most students take this sentence quite seriously. I continue by informing them that what they were able to get away with in elementary school will not take place in a middle school setting. Having stepped foot into a middle school represents an important transition from childhood to approaching adulthood. Indeed, a teacher may still expect to get the middle finger now and again later on in the year, but setting the stage as a new teacher early in the year will guarantee a smoother path.
Only after a groundwork is set can a new teacher (and even a wily veteran like myself) relax their stance in a classroom. Smiles and feelings of absolute joy at the miracle of teaching new students will become far more commonplace. The college textbooks were correct on one certain aspect: consistent consequences are key. Do not give one student a warning while another one gets sent to in-school suspension for the same infraction. A new teacher will lose all of his or her credibility early in the year with that one mistake. And in middle school, a pool of sharks can smell fear. Never let them see you sweat! Send repeat offenders who insist on defying your rules or procedures to another classroom and make parent contact early and often. Besides, baby-sitting costs extra.