All of us from time to time have difficulties with the disciplining of our students and the management of our classrooms. After all, we spend a lot of time with our students—much more than parents spend with them Monday through Friday!—so it is natural there are good days and bad days. If you find that the bad days are beginning to become an uncomfortable pattern, then it may be worthwhile to consider the following advice taken from veteran teachers over the years:
1) Over-plan your classes. Far better to have too much to do than too little! If you end class early or take “time off”, you’re telling students that the subject matter is only as important as you define it to be, rather than communicating to them that the curriculum is important in its own right and that class time is valuable. You want your classroom, subconsciously in students’ minds, to be a temple to the curriculum, not a place to visit with friends. Over the long haul of a school year, that subconscious perception matters a great deal!
2) Establish a sacrosanct routine for the beginning of your class. One clever foreign language teacher I know writes a journal question on the board every day before class. Students come in, read the question, take out their journals and begin to write. Over the course of the next few minutes as kids settle, the class has become quiet, writing. The teacher then asks them to put away their journals and pray the Our Father or Hail Mary in Spanish. After prayer, they review their homework. All this takes about 10 minutes, and the teacher has to give out very few directions. In my classes, the bell rings and I immediately ask if there are any “special intentions” for prayer. After prayer, I immediately ask question #1 on the quiz (students know to have their paper out and ready to go by then). If teachers delay starting class on time, they will be trying to put out small brush fires the rest of class, and if each beginning is different from day to day, the teacher will find himself becoming hoarse giving directions and answering the same questions repeatedly.
3) Watch the transitions. Whenever the class changes gears (and it should change gears several times in a class period) there is a chance that kids will lose focus and the class will lose momentum. For example, when doing group work, give out directions BEFORE students move their desks around and ask if there are any questions.
4) Establish routine procedures for recurring tasks. The less you have to say, the better. Rather, let the routine speak for you. If testing or quizzing requires desks to be moved, ask students to do this before class starts each day, into the same formation. How do students turn in their homework? What are the rules for talking in class? Where is the homework assignment given (it should usually be written at the same place on the board each day). How are quizzes and work returned?
5) Vary it up. Are students active or passive? Even the best students find it difficult to passively take notes for an entire period. Vary it up every 20 minutes or so. Note-taking is fine, as a PART of the lesson. Cooperative learning should be part of your weekly routine. There should be frequent quizzes, an occasional skit, a short blip from a movie, perhaps a friendly competition or debate every once in a while. New teachers often spend too much of their time preparing for the material and not enough for the delivery.
6) Establish physical proximity—It helps to head off a brewing disruption if the teacher eases over to the trouble spot in the middle of discussions, or lectures, or group work. Most of the time, the teacher need not say anything. Move around the classroom, and be aware, at least subconsciously, that each of the students in the class is with you. Don’t remain rooted behind a desk or podium.
7) Establish a practiced non-verbal warning. When a childhood friend was “pushing it” with his father, his father began to fiddle ceremoniously with his belt, which told my friend he was close to getting a spanking with that belt. That usually worked! One teacher I know has an index card, which he uses to write down names for time after school, that he always wears in this front shirt pocket. When a student begins to get noisy, he begins to take out the index card, which usually has the desired effect. For some teachers, it’s just a look that tells kids, “that was your last chance”. Whatever it is, cultivate it.
8) Act, don’t threaten to act—Look at the following sentence you might hear in a classroom: “If you keep talking, I am going to…” Never say that! If you warn students over and over about what you’re going to do, they will take that as their cue to do whatever you’re telling them not to do until you REALLY mean it. If you have to keep “shushing” kids, then the first ten times you do it doesn’t matter. Speak directly, and if kids don’t respond, act.
9) Discipline sooner than later. If a kid is talking in a class just before a morning break, you’ve given him the “look”, he continues to talk, have the student stay after class to pick up the room before leaving. If before lunch, holding them for 5 minutes may do the trick. Fifteen minutes after school the next day is the standard minor penalty at the high school.
10) Discipline without anger. A former principal of mine once said, referring to freshman, that they were like “puppy dogs needing housebreaking”. One can be angry at a puppy dog, but it is wasted energy—being angry won’t affect his behavior the next time! Puppy dogs need training, and to the extent we mete out consequences dispassionately and consistently, we can train them.
11) Keep it simple. Let’s face it, teaching is an incredibly complex task, and there’s no need to make it more complicated. Here are my recommendations:
a. Pick, in your mind, one day/week you will spend with kids after school for minor disciplinary measures for the cases you cannot hold them immediately.
b. When students begin to act up in class, give them a warning, non-verbally if possible.
c. If students continue, give that student “time”. If it’s just before a break or lunch, give that time at the end of class (you can talk to them while they erase your boards, vacuum rugs, take paper out of desks). If it’s not before a break, give them “15 minutes” time on your designated day.
d. Write down the students name and a brief note to yourself why that student is doing time (talking, chewing gum, etc.)
e. Follow-up! Nothing destroys the credibility of a teacher faster than assigning time after school and having the student miss it with no consequences. Word spreads among the students quickly. If a kid misses time, talk to the kid the next day, doubling the time. If the student misses time again, call their parents, and add on to the doubled time. How consistently you do these things will determine the effectiveness of your discipline.
11) Know the procedures for the “big stuff”. Fortunately, 99% of the discipline issues we have in Catholic schools aren’t about the “big” stuff. They’re about being late for class, uniform issues, talking too much in class. Some behavior, however, warrants an immediate referral to the administration:
a. For cursing at a teacher or another student or other crude, overtly rude behavior
b. For refusing to be quiet such that the class is being repeatedly disrupted. This assumes the teacher has already (that day, not some day in the past) given the child a non-verbal or verbal warning and given that student time, but the talking continues. An office referral should never be the first recourse unless these steps are followed.
c. In the case of a fight, send a student to get the principal or another nearby adult to assist. Don’t leave the fight yourself, and do what you can to break it up. An adult witness is going to be important in the resolution of the matter when the principal investigates. Again, fights in our school are rare.
12) Remember that disciplining students is part of our ministry as Catholic school teachers. Don’t allow yourself an attitude that brands kids as “horrible” or “evil” or “terrible”. Some kids need more of our attention than others, but those are precisely the kids who one day will be the most grateful for the education they received. This retelling of a familiar parable brings the point home:
“And so it happened that a young man asked Jesus, “Good Lord, what must I do to become a more professional Catholic teacher?
Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? You know the guidelines: Vary your classes, give frequent assessments, turn student’s work back on time.”
The young man beamed: “I have done these things since I was hired”.
Jesus, eying him, said: “There is one thing further you must do. Take the child who is most troublesome to you, and treat him like your only son.
At this the young man walked away sad, for he was a busy man.