Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.
Good teaching is built upon the foundations of effective classroom management. Most teachers recognise this, and I believe that’s why my 2015 book, The Quick Guide to Classroom Management, became an award-winning bestseller within a very short timeframe. We know that order must be maintained in the classroom for deep learning to take place, but how do we maintain that order in a way that is not confrontational, or stifling, for our students?
Thankfully, we have the wise words and fresh perspective of a great expert to guide us today. I’ve invited Mitch Metzger from Destination TEFL, Bangkok, to share his top tips for using proactive and reactive classroom management strategies with our students.
This blog post has been beautifully illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati
Let’s face it, classroom management is the hardest part about teaching abroad.
Managing a classroom in ANY country is an immense challenge. It requires emotional intelligence and a deep understanding of human behavior. It involves aspects of psychology, educational pedagogy, and even philosophy.
Managing a classroom abroad means doing all of this on TOP of the fact that your students don’t speak your language!
But there are simple mindset and habit changes you can make that will immediately improve your ability to manage a classroom abroad. Mastery may take years, but applying what you learn in this post can have you managing like a pro in a matter of weeks.
ESL classroom management is a challenge, but it’s also an incredible opportunity. An opportunity to improve your EQ. An opportunity to become an expert at body language and non-verbal communication. An opportunity to learn transferable professional, personal, and leadership skills that will change your life even once you move on from the classroom.
Studies have also shown that these skills in teachers have a direct and significant impact on student achievement. At the end of the day, it’s all about our students.
Working to change their lives is what truly changes our lives.
So grab a notepad and pen (or, let’s be real, your phone), and let’s dive into some strategies that will put you on the path to classroom management mastery!
What is Classroom Management, actually?
Before we get into the secret sauce, it’s essential to first understand what we’re actually talking about when we say “classroom management”.
Because it’s not what most people think it is.
For many people, those words elicit memories of teachers yelling, sending kids out of the room, and otherwise strictly enforcing a set of rules “because I said so”.
Think about it, how did most of your teachers enforce classroom rules when you were growing up? Yeah, ours too…
Unfortunately, monkey see monkey do and we’re just really smart monkeys. Many of us, myself included early on in my career, fall back on the same disciplinary tactics of our teachers.
But that’s not what classroom management is supposed to be. At least, not great classroom management!
Great classroom management is about getting the most out of your students. Creating a safe space where they can make mistakes and try again. Developing deep bonds and trust with your students. Helping them to create a better vision for their own futures.
Most of all, it means being a true role model. We can’t expect students to do as we say and not as we do. After all, did we when we were young?
So how can we change the paradigm of classroom management? Good question, probably a bit too big to be solved in a single blog post (I smell a series). However, there is one simple shift that can make an immense difference.
Simple, but not necessarily easy.
Proactive vs. Reactive Classroom Management
Understanding (and actually creating habits around) proactive versus reactive classroom management strategies seems like a small change. However, it will forever change the way you manage your classroom, especially while teaching English abroad.
The difference is in the fundamental approach you take to potential issues in your classroom.
Reactive strategies involve solving problems that have already occurred. Disciplining “bad” behavior, what most people think of when they hear classroom management, falls into this category.
Proactive strategies are about anticipating potential problems and putting systems in place to prevent them from happening in the first place.
I like to say reactive strategies are putting out the fire. Proactive strategies are not putting a candle near the drapes.
After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
This is all nice in theory, but what do these different approaches look like in practice? What are some concrete strategies you can actually use in the classroom?
Reactive Classroom Management
Let’s start with reactive management behaviors. Now this isn’t necessarily “what not to do” (though some of these definitely fall into this category). Problems will inevitably arise in the classroom, and sometimes you’ll need to ‘react’.
However, these should be more of a last resort. Only leaning on these strategies, or using the wrong reactive strategies, is where problems can arise.
So, let’s look at various reactive strategies and see which might be effective and which should be left behind.
Reactive strategies to avoid
Some habits you’ll want to be careful to NOT get into include:
- Yelling at students
- Using shame as a discipline strategy (easier to fall into than it sounds)
- Removing students from the classroom
- Getting emotional or visibly frustrated
- Not checking your biases
One thing we always train our teachers to take special note of is this: You can’t expect immediate compliance.
The truth is, respect and trust have to be earned. It doesn’t matter if the people you’re leading are 50 years old or five, you have to do the work to earn their buy-in.
Too many teachers expect their students to immediately listen to everything they say and get distraught or upset when that doesn’t happen.
But students are people too, and we don’t particularly like taking orders from people we barely know and trust. Right?
Effective reactive strategies
Like we said, problems in the classroom are inevitable. Occasionally you’re going to have to put out some fires (hopefully not literally), so it helps to have a good extinguisher.
Some effective strategies include:
- Practicing patience and empathy, even in stressful situations
- Having a word or action that refocuses attention on you (e.g., clapping patterns, short phrases, etc.)
- Keeping other students busy with a task while addressing issues
- Having a calming space in the classroom students can go to when feeling overwhelmed.
- This is NOT a timeout. It should be a comfortable space (seating, plants, maybe even a little fountain) students want to go to, you just have to train them on when they can be there.
- Listening to both sides of every story
- Explaining why rules are being enforced
- Teaching calming breathing techniques
Adding these strategies to your teacher tool belt will help you solve problems whenever they occur.
Proactive Classroom Management
Now time for the real secret sauce! Proactive classroom management strategies will completely change your classroom when done right.
So let’s learn how to do them right!
Here are 3 simple strategies to prevent problems from arising in the first place.
#1 – Be completely prepared for EVERY class
Let’s be real, it can be tough to prepare 20+ engaging classes per week. As a teacher, it’s easy to slide into a bad habit of not fully preparing for every class.
Whether this is just teaching straight out of the book, or over-relying on worksheets from the internet, underprepared classes are the top culprit for why students misbehave in the first place. We know that young learners (and hell, even people our age) have short attention spans. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that if students aren’t engaged consistently throughout the lesson they’ll lose focus, and this inevitably leads to classroom behavior issues.
So put in the groundwork and prep your lessons.
Work to make them physically and intellectually engaging. Challenge your students. Find ways to make the material relevant to their lives. And most importantly, have all of your lessons fully resourced and ready to go.
Another pro tip here is to work on your transitions. Any ‘gap’ in the lesson is an opportunity for students to potentially misbehave, so filling those gaps ensures students don’t veer off track.
This tip isn’t really fun, because it requires a bit more work on your part. But a bit more work in the preparation will pay off immensely in the form of better lessons, stronger relationships with your students, and better mental health. After all, nothing is more taxing than an ‘out of control’ classroom.
#2 – Get to know your students
This seems like a given, but you’d be shocked (and appalled) at the number of ESL teachers who don’t even bother to learn all of their students’ names.
In their defense (kind of), I’ve had jobs where I have taught hundreds of students. It can be tough to learn that many names, let alone get to know them all.
Yet too many teachers lean on that excuse as a reason not to really get to know their students at all. They spend all of their time in the ‘teachers’ lounge’, or only interact with their students for the 55 minutes of English class each day.
The truth is, though, there is NO better classroom management strategy than strong bonds with your students. If they trust you, if they respect you, if they like you, they will listen to you.
So what can you actually do to bond with your students?
- Get a class roster, make name cards, or employ other strategies to learn their names
- ASK them about their interests, and talk about yours
- Eat lunch with them or play with them at recess from time to time
- Come to school a bit early, or do your grading at school and leave a bit late
- This doesn’t have to be too much, maybe 15 minutes. But you can get a lot of informal facetime with your students in those quiet little moments before or after school.
- Learn a bit of their language (and practice where they can see you!)
If you follow these simple tips you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can get to know your students!
#3 – Let the students make the rules
I know, it sounds crazy. But hear us out…
Letting your students make the rules can be a powerful technique when it comes to actually enforcing the rules. Think about it: aren’t you more likely to follow rules you come up with yourself?
People naturally don’t like being told what to do, so if you give the students the power to decide what rules are fair then they’re much more likely to follow through.
It also makes it way easier for you to enforce the rules. Instead of saying “do this because I said so” you get to fall back on “Hey, these aren’t even my rules. YOU came up with these!”. Trust me, the latter is far superior.
Now, you’ll have to steer the conversation a bit to make sure some essential rules are hit. But this can be as easy as one or two leading questions. “Is it a good idea to talk if the teacher is talking?”
In the ESL classroom, you may also need the help of a co-teacher that speaks the students’ native language. It doesn’t take a really high level of English to make some of these rules, but if your students are at a lower level it’ll be good to have someone there to help formulate their thoughts if they don’t have the vocab for it.
The final proactive management tip
To wrap things up, I want to leave you with one more proactive tip.
Take care of YOURSELF!
Yes, proper self-care and work life balance is absolutely essential for classroom management. If you’re overwhelmed or burnt out, it will inevitably impact your students. Energy is contagious, and as the leader you are the conduit for the classes’ energy. This makes it important to learn to control your own energy.
So meditate, journal, go for walks, do yoga, eat healthy, travel on the weekends, pursue hobbies that interest you. Set up good, sustainable systems for work life balance. Grow in areas you feel are important for your life. The best teachers by FAR are happy teachers (not an opinion, studies show this to be true), so be sure to do things that make you happy.
If you do that, then teaching itself will become one of those things!
Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati
A calming corner, sometimes referred to as a mindfulness corner, is a special space in your classroom where students can go when they need to manage their emotions. Calming corners are becoming more and more popular as they help students implement emotional and social learning skills.
The ideal calming corner should offer a wide variety of sensory tools. Some children benefit from reading books where characters resolve a conflict, while others prefer cuddling stuffed animals or playing with fidget toys. From breathing techniques and stretching guides to bubble wrap and coloring books, there are nearly endless options out there to help the kids in your class understand that their feelings are valid. Get inspired to create your own calming corner with the suggestions outlined in today’s blog post.
Strategy #1: Design the space carefully
- Think about where exactly the calming corner should be. Perhaps a location at the back of the room will work well so that the children who go there do not feel as though everyone is looking at them. Perhaps a location to the side of the main class is useful, so that the teacher can easily supervise the students in both the calming corner and the main class effectively at the same time. The space should be well-lit (natural light is best) and comfortable. There will be some types of classroom in which a calming corner might not be feasible (e.g. a Design Technology workshop, or a Science laboratory), so in those cases a designated classroom where the students can be sent to, or perhaps a calming corner in the school library, might work best.
- Choose comfortable furniture. As a bare minimum you will need a place where students can sit comfortably, and the size of this furniture will greatly depend on how much space you have. Bean bags can work well, and a small desk or table, or perhaps a lap-tray, can be useful if you want your students to complete some kind of reflection sheet (more on this later).
- Include sensory tools. There are many to choose from, but the most popular include stress balls, Sensory Stixx (which are a type of fidget toy), fidget spinners, cuddly toys and old-style handheld games like gel mazes, pinball games and other push-button manual toys. I wouldn’t recommend modern computer games as these days they tend to be designed to get players addicted and can cause more aggression feelings, rather than encouraging relaxation. However, I do believe there’s something to be said for having a retro-computer (not internet connected) such as an Atari ST or BBC Microcomputer with old-style games loaded onto the system, for students to enjoy playing. These systems can be picked up relatively cheaply on sites such as eBay, and the games tend to be simpler and more kid-focussed than modern multiplayer, online games, such as Fortnite.
Strategy #2: Include self-reflection tools and activities
Children who wish to go to a calming corner should be encouraged to reflect upon their emotions and thoughts. This is really good for building self-awareness, which is desperately needed in today’s world.
There are a number of well-established self-reflection tools out there already, and I personally would recommend the following:
- Learning journals: A simple notebook for students to write down their individual thoughts and feelings can be a great way for them to see the progress they have made over time. I would recommend giving each student a personal notebook, which could be kept by the student in their bag at all times, or by the teacher. In addition, an online journal via Google Docs or Slides could also work well, and students who go to the calming corner could spend time adding their thoughts and feelings to the journal. I’ve written at length about how I use learning journals to help students prepare for exams before, but the same principles can definitely be applied to situations in which students are reflecting on their feelings and thoughts.
- This great blog post by Martyn Kenneth goes through some useful acronyms that guide students through a self-reflection process. You may also wish to use his free pdf Reflective Journal for Students, and keep copies of this in your classroom’s calming corner.
- Get your classroom calming students to create a ‘Me Tree’ – a very effective and fun self-analysis tool. Follow the steps outlined here.
Strategy #3: Teach students about the Classroom Calming Corner
The Mindfulness in Schools Project is still a relatively new national initiative in the UK, and the majority of schools internationally are still novices when it comes to getting students to reflect meaningfully on their thoughts and emotions. For this reason, many of the children in our care are simply not used to carrying out detailed introspections, and will need training in order to do so.
Encourage students to visit the classroom calming corner regularly at first – perhaps on a rotational basis, and use the self-reflection tools outlined to get students to reflect on their learning, thoughts and (later) emotions. Once this habit has been established, and any taboo/stigma has been removed, allow students the freedom to choose when they wish to go to the classroom calming corner. Of course, this will take vigilance on the part of the teacher as we don’t want 20 students going to the corner when a challenging task is given in-class, for example. A good way to overcome this might be to set a limit on how many students can be in the corner at one time, and schedule times in your lessons when students can have a menu of activities to choose from – one of which being ‘reflection time’ in the classroom calming corner.
Recommended further reading
- How to Create a Calm Down Corner in 5 Easy Steps. The Art of Education University [Online]. Available at https://theartofeducation.edu/2019/01/21/how-to-create-a-calm-down-corner-in-5-easy-steps/
- Some Useful Self-Reflection Tools for Students and Teachers. Richard James Rogers’ blog for teachers [Online]. Available at https://richardjamesrogers.com/2021/01/31/some-useful-self-reflection-tools-for-students-and-teachers/
- Create a Me Tree – a Self-Reflection Activity. Action for Healthy Kids [Online]. Available at https://www.actionforhealthykids.org/activity/create-a-me-tree-a-self-reflection-activity/
- The Mindfulness in Schools Project [Online]. Available at https://mindfulnessinschools.org/