The Difference between Controlling and Managing a Classroom

Sara Hall is a First Year Teaching Fellow at Eastway Middle School in Charlotte, NC

This is a battle I wasn’t even aware was being waged in my classroom.  The worst part is that I was waging war on myself.  Let me paint you a picture:

It's homework time.  I have 20+ students in various stages of getting out their homework.  I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to reinforce procedures that I am just positive will help ensure homework time runs smoothly.  So, you can imagine my surprise when I only see about 5 students doing what I ask. And the rest of the class, well:

  • Two or Three students are out of their seats
  •  Most of the class is talking
  • A paper ball flies across the classroom
  • I literally have a student lying on the floor
Fast forward 2-3 minutes (7-8 on bad days) and for the most part, homework time is running smoothly. There’s just one problem.  Everyone seems to have their hands raised, and no work is getting done.  As I begin walking around the room, the questions are the same: Can I get a pencil? Can I ask her for help on this math problem?  I don’t have any paper, do you?  I stop and survey the room for a moment with the following thoughts in my head:
  • Why aren’t these kids just following the procedures I have in place?
  • It shouldn’t take this long for everyone to get settled.
  • How can I help students on homework, if I have to monitor when and if someone can get a pencil or throws away trash?

I wish I could say the answers came to me immediately.  However, it took two entire weeks of homework time just like this.  Then, it hit me.  I am not managing my classroom.  I am micro-managing.

I had procedures in place.  However, I wasn’t giving my students the freedom to manage themselves.  Instead of letting them walk across the room to get paper if they needed it, I was making them wait until I gave them permission.  Well, when a student doesn’t have the necessary material to complete an assignment, then their focus will naturally turn elsewhere.  Instead of working diligently, they are now distracting their neighbor, reading a magazine, playing on their phone, etc.

The short answer: I needed a concrete idea in my head about what it should look like when students are successful.  I quickly realized that the more effort I spent managing (reinforcing) procedures instead of controlling (micro – managing) student actions, the less time I spent getting students back on task.

What advice do you have for first year teachers?