Last week, I found myself questioning my middle school classroom management practices. Let me set the scene for you. It was 8th period and school was going to be out for the summer in a week. So to say the kids are hyped up is an understatement. My Honors students were working on a PBL (project based learning) in the library (my school home away from home) that we had been chipping away at for weeks. The students were designing a museum exhibit -- complete with a summary of a historic event of their choice, photos, works cited, a paragraph connecting the event to a historic theme and an "about the historian" section with biographical information. Now were in the final push to create exhibits. Some students were frantically typing, others with gluing different items onto their tri-folds. Construction paper was strewn across the library. The librarians and I were fielding questions (Do you like this font? How do I print? Is my thesis statement okay? Do I need more pictures? Can you proofread this?), while at the same time unjamming printers and helping cut paper with the paper cutter. It was chaos, but most of them were learning and in fact some of them were doing the best work and deep thinking that I had seen them do all year. But that's where the key stumbling block comes in - most were deeply engaged -- but twenty percent were not.
These twenty percent were doing the work in fits and starts. They were more interested in socializing than surrendering completely to doing the work. They seemed unfazed by the looming deadline - and actually I knew that focused or not -- they would come through, completing it at home if they did not complete it in class. But they were loud, and every time I got them back on track another would be off track. It was like a giant game of whack-a-mole and to make matters worse I was in a fishtank. Teachers in their off period were coming in to make copies and I just knew that they were focused on the 20 percent (who wouldn't be -- eyes are attracted to moving, loud objects -- rather than the quiet kid deep in thought). I cringed inside at how the whole thing looked. Of course, I wanted every last one of them on task, but it wasn't happening. And I couldn't decide if it was my fault, if it was their fault, or if it even mattered? If I had them sitting quietly in the classroom, I would look like I was in control - I would be in control. Control feels comfortable; control can look very good to outsiders. But control isn't always how or where learning happens. I pondered these questions (talked with a few colleagues) and then after hours of mulling things over I walked away with some more clearly defined thoughts about classroom management.
Different Settings, Different Expectations
I comforted myself with this thought after chatting with one of our administrators. If my students are taking a test they are quiet. If they are reading, they focus for the ten minutes that I ask them to focus before a discussion. My classroom isn't always chaotic. It was chaotic in this moment on this day because I loosened things up to allow them to work independently and collaboratively. Along those lines, different spaces, different expectations. When you give middle school students the thumbs up to talk and to spread out in a larger space, some chaos will ensue. So maybe classroom management is about knowing when things need to be quiet and calm and when it's okay for them to be loud and a frenzy activity. One isn't right and one isn't wrong - it has to be based on goals in that particular moment.
Don't let Resistors Distract you from the Real Work
I loved being able to work one on one with students in this activity over multiple days. That said, when I was giving one student my attention I was reticent to break my focus with them to get kids who were off track back on track. In that moment, the work with that individual learner who was asking for guidance and help was more important to me than focusing on the handful of students who were resisting full engagement in the work. This is actually something I learned from working with the amazing and talented Cris Tovani. We watched her classes once on video and it was clear that while some students were off track in the background she refused to give up her focus on the kid she was working with. If letting some kids stray off track so that someone who really needs my focus is engaged in a teachable moment, I will make that trade.
Silence the Critics (especially the ones in your own head)
I think as teachers (even seasoned teachers) we always fear being judged (okay, maybe it's just me). I know that I am a good, quality teacher. I know that my students are lucky to have me guiding their journey. And yet, I still let voices get in my head about my teaching practice. I know that some teachers think my class is too fun. I know they say I am too easy, too relaxed, not rigorous enough (because I don't assign hours of homework or lengthy readings and projects outside of school and I let kids enjoy flexible seating). And you know what, I let those few thinkers cloud my view of my own teaching and then assign them to others who might observe me. I have to acknowledge those made-up critical comments (the ones in my head) and then let them go because they don't serve me and they certainly don't serve my students. I know that every day my kids are learning, stretching. I know that teaching and learning isn't a perfect science, it's messy and if someone doesn't get that about learning then I am not sure their critiques are worth my time - especially if they are made up by me. That said, if anyone wants to ask, I am always willing to talk, to reflect, to question. But judgement (made up or real) leads to nowhere without dialogue.
100 Percent Engagement is Like Chasing a Unicorn
There is a lot of talk of engagement -- it's the holy grail of teaching. Good teachers are always searching, striving for those moments when every student is engaged. And I think it happens sometimes, but its rare and it's fleeting (and maybe the kid you think is engaged is really day dreaming or worrying about the test in their next class). But I think we tend as teachers to measure ourselves by this goal of 100 percent. I am not sure it is realistic or fair. I look around at faculty meetings and I don't see 100 percent engagement. I look at classes that are quiet and know in my heart that quiet and calm doesn't = engagement. And that's just me saying that I can chase the unicorn, I should, but when I don't find it that doesn't mean that I am not doing my job. Sometimes 80 percent is a win.
Classroom Management is the Wrong Word
Management sounds like we are running a business; that we are looking for efficiencies, that kids are cogs in a machine and that the teacher is the boss. I wish it was more readily called something else, like Classroom Conductor. I am the leader of my classroom's culture -- but everyone has a role to play. It's almost like I am a conductor and they are the orchestra. I need to put in place a lot of structures daily to make learning happen given a variety of variables:
I am happy to report that the next day went better. I changed a few things -- had a few one on one talks -- and I think just maybe we got to 90 percent engagement. But I am still chasing that unicorn. I'll let you know when I find her.
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