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!