By Karyn Miller
“What if my students won’t listen to me? What if they won’t follow my rules?”
These and other classroom management concerns are often a source of anxiety for new teachers. In fact, roughly 50% of teachers recently surveyed worldwide report that they do not feel well prepared to tackle issues of student behavior and management as novice teachers (OECD, 2019). Whether you are a new teacher, or someone who has been in the classroom for years, the reality is that creating an environment for learning is hard work.
Classroom management strategies, such as establishing rules and procedures or identifying appropriate consequences, are necessary for a new teacher’s toolkit. However, efforts to be a good classroom manager may lead to tunnel vision. Research suggests that, when describing their classrooms, new teachers focus on student (mis)behavior and disciplinary efforts, whereas expert teachers focus on student learning (Wolff et al., 2015). To stay focused on the ultimate prize—student success—effective teachers cannot simply be classroom managers. They must be classroom leaders who deliberately create an environment conducive to teaching and learning. Try the following four practices to build a positive learning environment and lead your students to success:
Set goals. Establish a vision for yourself and your students at the beginning of the school year. A vision points to a desired outcome: Open your students’ eyes to a future they may not be able to see or imagine for themselves. Visions are inspirational; goals are measurable. Break your vision into three or four achievable year-end goals, tell students how you will measure whether the goals are met, and share a roadmap to getting there. Plan to measure success along the way, not just at the end. Depending on your style and preference, involve students in all or parts of the process.
Invest in your students. Leaders are defined by the presence of followers. How will you get your students to buy in and join you on the journey? Build relationships and establish a culture of care (Noddings, 2005). Greet students by name at the door to your classroom every single time they enter. Send positive notes or phone calls home. Follow up on personal issues your students are facing. Take 10 seconds to acknowledge when a student does a kind deed. Pay attention to their individual needs. Be relentless in the pursuit of your goals and theirs. If students trust that you care for them individually and collectively, what matters to you will matter to them.
Model excellence. Students pay attention to every move you make and are quick to identify contradictions between what you say and what you do. Rather than constantly telling students how to speak and act in your class, show them through your own consistent example. Consistency is not easy and requires self-awareness and self-control, which are important social–emotional skills that you implicitly teach as you model excellence in this area. Take time at the end of the day to reflect on your own state of mind, how you responded to the day’s challenges, and areas for personal growth and improvement. Classroom leaders are not afraid to ask themselves, “are my words and actions consistent with my expectations for my students?” When the answer is “no,” make a change. Students will notice.
Prove yourself capable. Students will follow when you prove that you are capable and worthy of being followed. The three practices described above will build and begin to demonstrate your capability. As you become more confident you can increase your involvement in broader school improvement efforts. Show your students your leadership skills outside of the classroom, and get them involved, too. If you have built strong relationships with your students, your success outside of the classroom will be theirs as well.
Achieving an effectively run, positive classroom environment that fosters student learning does not have to be a chore, source of anxiety, or never-ending frustration. Rather, through leveraging these leadership practices, you can create an environment that teems with high expectations and excellence. As you follow your vision’s roadmap, celebrate with your students as you meet each one of your goals, big and small.
Dr. Miller is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas A&M University–Commerce. She teaches practice and research methods courses at the undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral levels. Dr. Miller is engaged in research related to school culture, parental and community engagement, teacher preparation and identity, education policy, and gender in education and research. Dr. Miller was formerly an eighth-grade public school teacher in the South Bronx.
Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.
OECD. (2019). A teacher’s guide to TALIS 2018 (Vol. 1). https://www.oecd.org/education/talis/TALIS-Teachers-Guide-to-TALIS-2018-Vol-I_ENG.pdf
Wolff, C. E., van den Bogert, N., Jarodzka, H., & Boshuizen, H. P. (2015). Keeping an eye on learning: Differences between expert and novice teachers’ representations of classroom management events. Journal of Teacher Education, 66(1), 68–85.