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Getting back on track: 11 Essential strategies for teachers who struggle with classroom management

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

I have a confession to make. Classroom management is my weakest area as a teacher. As a fairly laid-back individual with a very progressive set of educational values, I just don't have the personality type for it. That said, I've been teaching middle school science for 13 years and there's no way I would have survived that long without a few strategies to keep 25+ students under control. This is a brief rundown of my classroom management struggles and realizations over the years.

empty classroom messy desks poor classroom management

It'll get better, right?

When I entered this profession, I knew I didn't have an authoritative personality, but I assumed, somewhat naively, that I would develop one after a few years in the classroom. As you've probably guessed, that didn't happen.

For some teachers, keeping kids in their desks and on task probably comes naturally, but it didn't for me, and it still doesn't today even after more than a decade in the classroom. I realized very quickly, however, that learning suffers when classroom management is poor, so I had to find a way to deal with this if I was going to survive teaching.

Time for a new strategy

Below is a list of classroom management strategies - some that worked for me and some that didn't - including a brief account of my struggles and accomplishments with each. Maybe you'll find something here that will help you with your own classroom management. And so, without further ado, here are my...

Things to try when you suck at classroom management:

1. Establish consistent rules and consequences

Everyone knows this is a key aspect of good classroom management, but it's still not easy to implement. First of all, every teacher (and school) has their own set of rules and their own concept of what is acceptable. As a new teacher, you don't even know what your own standards are, so I found this very difficult at first.

classroom rules written on the chalkboard

There were also times when my rules and values differed considerably from those of the school, and the kids knew it (I'm looking at you, hat policy!). Students are oblivious to many things, but they somehow have a superpower when it comes to sensing dissent! I tried many different rule systems in my first few years of teaching - some that worked and many that didn't - but I felt like it was impossible to change strategies part-way through the school year once we'd established a routine and so a lot of the time I ended up waiting until the following year to try anything new. To make things even more complicated, I found that the same set of rules worked differently with each class of students, so add that to the mix. After a few years, I did eventually come up with a set of rules that I was happy to implement from day one, but man, it was a hell of a lot of trial and error to get here. Some of my rules include:

  • Don't ask to go to the bathroom in the first or last 5 minutes of the class. (there are exceptions to this - I'm not a monster!)

  • Don't interrupt me or anyone else.

  • Don't touch my whiteboard markers.

  • If I write it down, you should probably write it down too.

  • There's a time and a place for swearing, and it's whenever you drop something valuable or hurt yourself.

  • Don't touch anyone or anything that isn't yours.

  • Bring everything you might need for class, every time.

  • You can sleep for 5 minutes. Then I'm waking you up (loudly!).

  • No re-tests.

  • Late assignments get a zero*. If there's a good reason why you can't get it in on time, talk to me.

  • If you're confused about something, ask! If you don't want to ask in front of everyone, email me. *depends on school policy, unfortunately

2. Get your students involved

It took me far too long to try this out, but once I did the differences were immediately noticeable.

students voting and working together to solve problems

First of all, get your students to help determine the class rules, and, just as importantly, the consequences for breaking those rules. Of course, kids will always look for ways to exploit the system, but you can always just give them options to choose from instead of giving them complete rule-making freedom. You'll find that if students help make the rules, they'll be more likely to follow them, and if you're lucky, they'll even enforce them for you! I also recommend putting students in charge of various tasks that need to get done. Got a kid who sits next to the curtains or lights? That's their job for the year. Kid who can't stay in their seat? Handout and collection duty. Kid that won't shut up? Announcements. You get the picture. Some students really love the jobs you assign them, weird as that may sound. Others will reluctantly perform them. Rarely will any of my students refuse a polite request to help out, though. Through the years I've given kids more and more say in how our class operates. They now decide on many of the assignments we do, who they will work with, and when those assignments will be due. Of course, all of these decisions have their challenges, and this takes a lot more time than it would if I just went full dictator mode, but I think the extra effort is worth it in exchange for the buy-in from students.

3. Act like a boss

This is the fake it 'til you make it strategy. I know some teachers who can go from 0 to 100 in two seconds and then return to their gentle, friendly selves as though nothing even happened. That's impressive acting, but it doesn't work for me. Even when I'm mad kids are always asking me why I'm still smiling. I just find it hard to take things seriously, okay!?

angry teacher getting serious with students at the front of the class

It didn't help that when I started teaching I was only a few years older than my oldest high school students. They would tell me that I was more like a big brother to them than a teacher, which was a compliment in terms of the relationships I had built but a negative when it came to getting things done. I'm also known for dressing pretty casually, so one year I tried wearing a shirt and tie every day to see if it would make any difference in my classes. Nope!

4. Zero downtime

Keep kids busy and they won't have time to goof off. This actually works, but it also requires a ridiculous amount of planning time from you, the teacher, meaning burnout is all but guaranteed. They say boredom breeds creativity anyway, so maybe a little downtime is good for kids. They certainly don't need adults micro-managing their lives, especially in high school when they're supposed to be developing some self-management skills. I only used this strategy with my most difficult classes, but who has time to plan activities for every minute of the day, five days a week? Not me, that's for sure!

kids busy doing science experiments using a microscope

5. Embrace the chaos

Every teacher needs to figure out what level of insanity they are comfortable with. For me, I'm fine with kids moving around the room and chatting quietly, but we do project work almost exclusively in science so that's acceptable. When I taught math, I needed students to be in their seats listening or solving problems on their own, so the same level of freedom didn't work. You'll have to decide for yourself how much noise, mess, and movement you can reasonably handle and also where you draw the line so that you can communicate this to your students clearly.

messy school supplies classroom chaos

I think it's worth pointing out here that other teachers WILL judge you for the noise your students produce and the general state of your classroom. As long as you aren't disturbing another class, however, my personal feeling on it is that you should ignore said teachers and keep doing what feels right to you.

6. Work on that seating plan

Changing the seating plan is a simple thing to do and one of the fastest ways to make a big change in the classroom dynamic. It's far from straightforward, however. In fact, it may start to feel like one of those unsolvable math problems, and while you'll probably never reach the optimal solution, you can always do better. Sometimes the change itself is helpful.

perfect desk seating arrangement

I've tried arranging desks individually, in pairs, in groups of four, in a semi-circle, in rows, in a 'U' shape, and most recently into a big square so that everyone is facing the center of the room. All of these have advantages and disadvantages and it's hard to give any specific advice here without knowing your students and the way your class operates. Think about how often students will work together and how often they will work alone. Think about where you need students to look on a regular basis. Think about how easily you can monitor behaviour, and of course, think about who should sit next to whom and who definitely shouldn't.

7. Create a positive learning environment

I don't know about you, but the schools I went to looked a bit like prisons, with long brick hallways devoid of colour and drab classrooms filled with 60s-era furnishings and carpets. Today's schools are heavy on tech and full of light and colour, but even if you don't teach at one of these modern facilities, you can still do a lot to encourage learning in your classroom. This includes everything from managing the layout (see seating plans above) and the content on your walls to the background noise and lighting levels. I wrote a whole article on how most classrooms are too loud to optimize learning. Even the colour of your room matters!

teacher and student using technology in science class

Some teachers really go to town on those bulletin boards, which I think is a nice way to show off your personality and make students feel welcome in your room. I'm definitely not the kind of teacher who is going to change the displays for each season and unit, but if you are, more power to you! Interior decorating is another one of my teacher weaknesses, but I at least make an effort to fill my walls with student work and interesting posters - anything that will make my classroom feel more like a place of creative exploration and less like a sterile, soul-sucking factory.

8. Outsource your classroom management

This only works if you've got a tough group of admins (or even just one) who don't mind backing you up. Instead of dealing with behaviour issues yourself, just send any problem students to the vice-principal, department head, or anyone else who can do what you can't. I use this more for academic issues than for behaviour problems, but I've definitely done both over the years. Obviously, this creates more work for someone else though, so it's better if you can deal with it yourself.

stern serious principal ready to discipline students

Another way to make this work is to team up with another teacher, even if it's just for one unit or assessment. I'm a big believer in team teaching and doing interdisciplinary units, so find yourself another educator who is willing to collaborate and take advantage of each other's strengths. Sometimes just having two adults in the room can make a world of difference, even if neither of you are classroom management wizards. You'll also get to observe how another teacher deals with issues and maybe put a few of those techniques in your back pocket to try out later.

9. Turn on the humour

I lean hard on the jokes in my class and rarely miss an opportunity to poke fun at things. Sometimes sarcasm is the only thing that gets me through a day, even if it goes way over my students' heads. I keep it positive, however, and try not to direct any of my humour at students unless I know they're the type that enjoys a bit of back-and-forth banter. Most of the time I'm making fun of the course content or the curriculum, which everyone seems to appreciate.

funny silly teacher throwing a paper airplane

If you make your class a fun place to be, even kids who hate your subject will be happy to show up and participate. Of course, entertaining students isn't really your job, and it can be hard to get serious when you need to, but it's nothing an occasional heart-to-heart can't fix. Speaking of which...

10. Have a heart-to-heart

When persistent problems just won't seem to go away, I find that one of the best strategies is to gather everyone together and talk about it seriously. This is not something I did early in my teaching career as it took some time for me to feel comfortable with it, but I'm glad it's in my toolkit now.

teacher and students having a heart-to-heart talk together

Be brutally honest and really open up to your students about how you're feeling as a result of their behaviour. Despite what I said above, this is not the time to be funny. Discuss the situation using terms like "we" and "our class" to emphasize that this is a problem that everyone needs to work together to solve.

Take as much time as you need to in order to ensure that the message is getting through, even if it means your lesson plans go out the window. Ask for student perspectives on the issue and solicit feedback before discussing solutions. Then decide on a path forward together.

11. Build those relationships

No matter how bad your classroom management skills are, kids generally won't misbehave if they like you. They will like you if they can see that you care about them. How can you show that you care about them? Simple. Talk to them, and not about school-related matters. Cars, movies, sports, relationships - whatever. Most kids are just dying to unload their random thoughts on someone, so if you provide a non-judgmental ear, they will reward you with their trust and undying loyalty. Not a bad deal, really, although you'll wish you could exchange your ever-expanding knowledge of the latest K-pop sensations with literally anything else.

happy teacher and students with a good classroom relationship

Building student relationships has been my go-to classroom management strategy for many years now, and while it's not 100% foolproof, it's about as close as you can get, and the best part is it works for any teacher who can spare the time to get to know their students. In particular, I find this strategy effective for dealing with loud, argumentative, or anxious students who like to talk. Just get them started and they'll tell you way more than you wanted to know. Be careful not to overshare yourself, and remember that you're not the counsellor so take it easy on the advice, too. Just try to be a good listener. I have occasionally had difficulty building a good rapport with very quiet students since they're not particularly interested in talking. In those cases, I try to engage the student in non-verbal ways, either through written reflections, artistic expression, or academic means. Find out what they like and what they care about (hint: it's probably not your subject). This hasn't always been successful, however, so just note that you can't reach everyone. The good news is that shy, quiet students are unlikely to create classroom management problems, so you've got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Final thoughts

Well, there you have it. If you're anything like me and you sometimes struggle to keep your students in line, I hope you found a nugget or two of wisdom in the above article to help get you through the school year. It's tough being the only adult in the room, but I think you can see that there are a lot of ways to create a productive learning environment that don't require a fundamental shift in your personality. Good luck out there!

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