Anne of Avonlea. Stand and Deliver. Sister Act 2. Freedom Writers. These are only a few of the great teacher movies that have inspired both educators and non-educators alike. Regardless of one’s profession, there is a universal something that draws us to these stories of a fish-out-of-water hero/heroine who swoops in, overcomes (nearly) every obstacle, and successfully changes the lives of the students in their care.
As educators, we yearn to make a difference. We dream of attaining the happy, romantic endings we see in those movies.
Unfortunately, the reality for many (especially new) teachers ends up feeling more like a bad dream — one in which they are stuck in the chaos of those first-day scenes without any hope or guarantee of a happy ending.
There are students standing on desks, throwing things at each other, and chasing each other around the room (yep, I’ve actually been there). The little rascals won’t be quiet for more than five seconds at a time (been there too). And by the time you’re even able to start the lesson, you find that half of your teaching time is already over.
It’s beyond frustrating! This is not supposed to happen! You didn’t enter the teaching profession for this!
Overcoming the challenges of classroom management
As you may have realized, each of the above examples is an issue of classroom management. In survey after survey, classroom management is consistently listed as the number-one challenge faced by new teachers. Whether these teachers are new to the profession itself, new to the environment, or returning from a momentary leave, they commonly rank classroom management as one of the most difficult skills to master.
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Why is classroom management so difficult for new teachers?
Various studies, such as one performed in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Education, have found that:
20–50 percent of new teachers quit within their first five years of teaching — often due to struggles related to classroom management.
With numbers such as these, it’s only reasonable to ask: why?
Some sources have blamed the institutions responsible for training the teachers. They say there aren’t enough classroom management classes being taught. While it may be true that many programs do not offer enough relevant courses, I am hesitant about attributing the problem to institutions. The university I attended did offer a course in classroom management, and I still struggled with it.
To truly get perspective on why new teachers struggle with classroom management, I suggest we step back and look at the broader picture of what a new teacher is experiencing in those first weeks of school.
First, it is no secret that starting any new job is stressful and requires a significant period of adjustment. There are new people to interact with, new processes and procedure to learn.
Just for fun, let’s look at some of the tasks and expectations a new teacher is faced with before students ever show up for class. There are:
- New teachers entering an institution with a significant number of rules, processes, and procedures.
- Handbooks to read and sign, forms to fill out and submit.
- Classrooms to decorate.
- Plenty of lessons to plan.
- Seating charts to arrange.
- Materials and supplies to inventory and gather.
- Many other things that must be planned:
- How students should enter the room.
- Where they should put their belongings.
- Where and how they will turn in their work.
- How they will receive any additional materials.
- How they will return those materials.
- When and how often they can get out of their seats.
- What the process is for sharpening their pencils.
- What the process is for getting a kleenex.
- What the process is for getting a drink.
- What the process is for going to the bathroom.
- What the process is for lining up and exiting the room.
- Systems of discipline that must be predetermined. Are there rewards? Consequences? Both?
Overwhelming, right? And then the students arrive, and even the most well-thought-out plans are quickly put to the test. Most new teachers enter the classroom directly from some kind of teacher training program. They have never been the sole authority in the classroom before and have never had the full weight of that responsibility placed upon their shoulders.
As a new teacher, you’ll find it sobering and intimidating when you realize that you are it — the sole authority responsible for the well-being and education of these students. While they are in your classroom, you are expected to be constantly aware of their movements and interactions, effectively teach them a well-planned lesson, and accurately assess how well they are each engaging in and comprehending the lesson. In addition to these challenges, you soon realize that students are not robots who will respond immediately and graciously to your every wish and command. Instead, they soon put you to the test to see if you will actually follow through on your system of discipline.
So, why do new teachers struggle so much with classroom management? I suggest the following reasons:
- Adjustment. New teachers are adjusting to a new job and have an overwhelming number of new tasks to consider. Combine all of these responsibilities with an unpredictable classroom environment, and it soon becomes very stressful.
- Lack of practical experience. Generally, new teachers haven’t had the opportunity to really practice how to simultaneously manage and teach a diverse group of learners. In an interview with Ross Brenneman in 2016, Roxanna Elden, the author of See Me After Class, suggested that “[t]here’s just a certain amount of teaching that… you have to learn through trial and error…”
- Lack of confidence. Can you really blame new teachers? Every situation is new. How do they know they have what it takes?
- A limited number of ideas to draw from. New teachers are still building their portfolios of possibilities and teaching methods. Even if they did collect some handy tips during training, being on the field tends to change your idea of what is helpful and what will actually work.
- Excessive leniency. Many new teachers believe that establishing relationships with students means being their “friend.” This can make them hesitant to follow through on negative consequences for fear of being perceived as “mean.”
Classroom management strategies to improve your day-to-day
Classroom management is a skill — and fortunately, like almost any other skill, it can be learned and improved upon. So, if you feel like you are off to a bad start and are failing in classroom management, be encouraged. Your situation can (and likely will) improve. Your abilities can grow.
In alphabetical order, here are some things you can do to regain control of your classroom.
Accept that you are the authority.
Before your students will believe that you are in charge, you must believe it. Even if you are completely new and have no idea what you are doing, you are in charge. You are able to handle this classroom. Students will see and respond to your confidence in this area (even if you have to begin by faking it).
Be consistent in your follow-through.
Whatever system you have established, even if you don’t feel like it is a good one, must be consistent. Students will sense when you aren’t following through on your principles and will push the limits for as long as they know they can get away with it.
Browse the Internet. Ask other teachers for ideas. Find out where they get their ideas. Find out what the options are and create a wide pool to choose from.
Determine which methods best fit you and your situation.
There are great ideas, and then there are not-so-great ideas. As a teacher, you’ll have to figure out what works best for your classroom. For example, does it seem like your students are acting up because they’re bored? In that case, consider adding surprise games to your classroom and other activities to liven up the mood. In any case, just remember: teaching is a constant experiment. Not every idea will work.
Execute your methods by teaching them, reteaching them, and having students practice them.
Any expectation and procedure in the classroom need to be taught. If you find that students aren’t following procedures one month into the school year, or if you have decided to change any of your procedures, stop and spend some time reteaching them. Ryan McCarty, a coach with Achievement Network, says you should “[n]ever assume students know how to do something you haven’t taught them, no matter how small.”
Find a quality mentor you can trust and are comfortable with.
Some schools set up a mentor system to help new teachers. Regardless of whether you have a great mentor, it is always good to surround yourself with others you can talk to and be encouraged by. All teachers have to be taught.
Go for the basics.
Don’t try to be too complicated or elaborate in your first year. If there is any way you can simplify your lessons, tasks, or procedures, do it. Then, as you begin easing into your new role, find ways to go beyond your comfort zone while still maintaining the discipline and procedures you put into practice.
Teach. Experiment. Overcome.
Although the Hollywood teacher movies can set up unrealistic expectations, they are accurate in their portrayal of the importance of the profession. Teaching is noble, rewarding work. And it’s hard. So give yourself some grace. Forgive yourself if you feel you have failed, and be a model of perseverance for your students by keeping at it. You’ve got this!