All I Really Need to Know About Classroom Management I Learned Teaching In a Maximum-Security Correctional Facility

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The front doors of the middle school flew open and a body came careening outside onto the sidewalks.  We couldn’t hear anything, but everyone in my classroom had front row seats to the show that was about to unfold before us.  She – the runner and mother of one of my students –  made it about ten steps before another person, in uniform, came shooting out of the front doors in hot pursuit.

If you think any teaching was taking place at this point, then you are sadly mistaken.  Nothing I could say or do was more interesting than watching the foot race between the two parties.  The chase was brief.  The mother was drunk and already rather unsteady on her feet, so it wasn’t difficult to catch her and subdue her.

Mercifully, her son wasn’t in my class during that period, so he wasn’t subjected to the double indignity of having to watch his own mother be tackled and the ridicule of his peers.  I, however, was responsible for managing a classroom that suddenly went wild with excitement.

Textbook Classroom Management, or Not

Classroom management.  It seemed so easy in the textbooks I’d read when learning to be a teacher.  During my studies, I hadn’t given too much thought to classroom management.  What was so difficult about asking someone to please stop talking or have a seat when directed to do so?  Certainly we had discussed reward systems to provide incentives for good behavior, and even the possibility of punitive measures when absolutely necessary.  But how difficult could it really be?

Standing before a classroom of 8th graders, I winced at the sounds of the classroom next door.  They were watching the same show.  And now the Social Studies teacher and I were tasked with getting things back on track.  Back in order.  He would refocus their energies toward the Civil War and I would channel my own charges toward Chaucer.

Only I wasn’t going to rein in my students and regain control of the class using the methods found in the how-to-be-a-teacher textbooks.

Reality is often a touch messier than what is portrayed, or even hoped for, in many books.  So what is a teacher to do?

It’s All About the Show

The first thing to remember is that teaching is a performance.  This in one of the most important lessons to learn when considering classroom management.  When I first started teaching I made the mistake of thinking that students would behave most of the time.  I was not prepared for a classroom full of students who barely behaved even some of the time.  This was frustrating…and I let my frustration show.  This leads to another important point. Sharks are reportedly capable of smelling one part blood in a million parts of water.  Students are equally capable of smelling fear and frustration on the part of teachers.

No matter what happens in the classroom you must act as if everything is part of the normal classroom proceedings, including watching a parent get handcuffed.  If you look worried about losing control of a situation, then it only takes a few not-so-gentle souls to read you and pull the classroom proceedings into the gutter.  If, however, you can maintain your cool, then you will not only better be able to manage crises, but you might also impress your students.

One time there was a fracas in my classroom.  One student had a chair raised over his head and was about to use it to batter another student.  I intervened.  The three of us – chair, student, and myself – ended up on the floor.  After a brief wrestling match, and a punch to my nose, I escorted the student outside of my classroom and radioed for help.  Somehow, I managed to do so in a calm voice.  It was my calm voice that impressed staff members and my students.

I was not calm.  My heart was pounding and adrenalin was coursing through my veins.  However, I strove to at least give off the appearance of being in control of my emotions.  As soon as the unruly student was trundled off to detention, I was ready to get back to class.  Because there were a few drops of blood on my nose I was directed to go to the nurse to get checked out.  Shortly thereafter, I was back in the classroom and apologized to my students for the delay.

They were abuzz with talk of my martial arts mastery.  There was no martial arts mastery on my part.  There was only a confused tussle, a punch to the snout, and two wide-eyed participants in a crazed bout.  The only thing that I managed to do was keep my voice calm, cool, and collected.  This reaped huge dividends.  Students talked about it for days.  Word spread, and there was relative calm for a brief time.

Pay Attention

If teaching is a performance, then it is imperative that you – the writer, director, producer, and lead actor in the classroom production – pay attention to your audience.  If students are bored, then there is the increased likelihood that someone is going to act out.  There is no lesson plan that is so important that you must push through the pain.  If I see nodding heads, or hear the grumblings of trouble in certain quarters of the classroom, then it is time to change to a different activity.  As a teacher/performer you must be able to read your audience and act and react accordingly.

It’s Only You

The last, and most important lesson, to learn about classroom management is that it is only you up on stage.  Don’t count on, or expect, help from anyone else.  The sooner you learn to handle everything that happens in your classroom, the sooner you will see success.  Granted, there are some situations that might necessitate assistance, however, the lead actor in a role should be confident and self-assured.  If you look to someone else to help you maintain order in the classroom, then your students will look to that person too.  And not you.

In Conclusion

During my student teaching, my mentor teacher had serious concerns about my ability to maintain order in a classroom.  Her concerns were valid.  I vividly recall one painful episode when I blew my top and started yelling at a class of freshman.  They weren’t being particularly bad.  They were merely acting like 9th graders – complaining.  And I didn’t know how to handle it.  Over time I have honed my classroom management skills.  There are still days when my patience is tried, sometimes to the limit, but my students will never know it.  All they will ever hear are the carefully prepared lines of an actor playing his favorite role.


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J.D. Lavelle
J.D. Lavelle is a full-time special education teacher.  In addition to his time in the public schools, he has also worked as an institutional teacher in a maximum-security juvenile correctional facility.  While “on the inside”, he taught both Language Arts and a GED preparation class.  He learned to work with the most difficult of students under very trying conditions.  Mr. Lavelle is also the author of Something to Teach – a tale of his exploits teaching inside of prison walls.  Additional information about the author and book can be found at https://somethingtoteach.com.

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J.D. Lavelle By J.D. Lavelle

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