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You're in Control! Right?

Even if you've had a bumpy start, you can still tackle discipline problems

Found in: Advice & Support

Any new job can test the nerves and teaching is no exception. The uneasiness Laura Mathurin felt as the first day of the 2006–07 school year drew closer was pointed, but not unusual. She was confident in her years of training, keen grasp of the content, and commitment to teaching. But she also recognized that her well-thought-out lesson plans could still quickly unravel at the hands of a few unruly students.

"I felt this great anxiety," she recalls. "I was otherwise well-prepared, but not knowing how my kids would treat me made me nervous."

She still had the scars from a rough student-teaching stint at a high school. Disrespect from students coupled with an overwhelming sense of helplessness had Mathurin second-guessing her ability. When it came time to choose her teaching assignment, she opted for a middle school, but her prior hazing made her wonder what these younger students had in store for her.

"Everything can go wrong if you're not prepared for this challenge," she says. "Students love to test your boundaries."

So how do you walk the line between being an authority figure and a helping hand? What do you do about the incessant whispering and snickering in the back of the classroom? Then there's the proverbial class clown, bent on disruption and the ridicule of his classmates and you. What to do about him and all the others who seem to make a mockery of classroom rules?

Teaching takes patience, practice, mentoring, and, yes, a few hard knocks along the way. Classroom management skills in particular only jell after a few years on the job, but the good news is that there are steps newer teachers can take to keep classroom management issues in check. Student discipline not only can be, but must be addressed—it's an important first step to winning the respect of students, building self-confidence, and thriving as a classroom teacher.

Same Old Challenges, New Intensity

"Kids have always misbehaved in class," says Janet Steward, "but young teachers entering the profession now face a slew of problems and trends that have only intensified over the years." Steward, a 25-year teaching veteran in Vermont, cites, among others, stricter academic standards, more abrasive cultural influences, and entrenched family problems.

As a result, says Steward, classroom management is a greater challenge today than it was when she started out.

Not helping matters is the lack of courses in most teacher education programs to help prospective educators develop the necessary skills to manage problems in the classroom. In addition, many school administrators, preoccupied with testing, testing, and more testing, haven't exactly gone the distance in establishing support networks for new teachers.

"Teacher prep hasn't focused on classroom management because years ago it really wasn't needed," Steward explains. "Now a new teacher can't learn it quickly enough."

Ann Swenson, a second-year teacher at Oviatt Elementary School in Norfolk, Iowa, would have welcomed such a program. She was hoping the administration would provide her with the necessary assistance to manage her classroom of unruly and rowdy students. A lot of new teachers, Swenson says, are left alone.

"I was at a loss during my first year," she recalls, "I really didn't know what to do and the administration didn't know how to help me. Many new teachers are hung out to dry."

So is the answer to brace yourself, keep your head down, take the hits, and lick your wounds over the summer? Not at all. It helps to have a thick skin, but there are options for a new teacher to keep those "dark days" as the exception rather than the rule.

For Laura Mathurin, it helped to establish rules in the first week on the job, by repeating over and over classroom procedures that required students to respect each other and the teacher.

Laura Mathurin firmly established rules and boundaries and entered her second year with greater confidence. Photo: Charles Votaw

"For a new teacher, the classroom can be a room of many little power struggles," Mathurin says. "Students are always pushing the boundaries." She says that establishing a clear voice of authority helped her students take her more seriously.

Establishing such clear boundaries is a key part of a green teacher's development of what Jim Burke calls an "adult professional persona." "New teachers must have a voice of greater presence, a different tone to help create a little distance between you and your students," says Burke, a California educator and author.

Students also have to know that you will honor their boundaries, says Mathurin, who won't, for example, yell at students and avoids reprimanding them in front of the class.

"Any confrontation with a student has to be taken outside the classroom," explains Mathurin. "You can't let the student know they are in control of the situation. Control the action yourself and the incident will be contained to that one student."

Overall, the number of confrontations with her students dropped significantly between Mathurin's first and second years of teaching.

Relationships, Relationships

Building a network of relationships—with students, parents, and your peers—says Janet Steward, can lay the groundwork for successful classroom management strategy.

"The teaching profession is a wonderful job," says Steward, "but, for a new teacher especially, it can also be very lonely." While some schools have sizeable ranks of rookie educators, newer teachers at smaller schools may find themselves a little more isolated.

Steward urges any new teacher to seek out mentoring relationships with more experienced colleagues, who can be invaluable sources of guidance, friendship, and support. Most states already have some form of mentoring program but only a handful have actually put aside significant money for this purpose. Still, seeking out a mentoring relationship, even a very casual one, can provide significant rewards for newer educators.

Erin Wiggins, a young teacher in Franklin County, Kentucky, had a mentor with more than 30 years of experience guide her through her first years in the classroom.

"It's great to be around experience," says Wiggins. "As a teacher you want to have your own style, but they've been doing it a while and they have advice that actually works, so listen."

New teachers should also take the time to open up lines of communication with parents. Economic and social pressures in many parts of the country have disrupted many families from partnering with teachers and schools to address the behavioral problems of their children.

Ultimately, however, successful classroom management depends upon the teacher's relationships with students. After her first year teaching, Ann Swenson decided to get to know each and every one of her students, a time-consuming and difficult task that she believes will pay enormous dividends over time.

"Asking about their lives, their families, and friends can help build trust and familiarity that will foster a more respectful and manageable classroom…and a more stable learning environment," explains Swenson.

Every classroom is home to many different types of personalities (you'll get to know some of them on the following page), and it will be necessary to tailor your approach to the class.

"Kids behave and learn differently," Swenson says. "Your classroom is full of different behaviors and each requires a different response. It's difficult, but get to know all your students to develop those individual relationships. It will be well worth any new teacher's time."

Illustration: Joel Castillo

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