Freedom and Responsibility: Classroom Management That Works!

For years I've been trying to put into words my philosophy of classroom management. It isn't an easy task. Rather, it isn't easy to do when the person asking for my classroom management plan expects me to respond with a litany of posted rules and their corresponding punishments, a description of my portable behavior-tracking checklists, or a list of rewards for students who are observed "being good". Behavior-monitor clips, stop signs, traffic lights, silent lunch, missed recess, isolation, writing lines, earning/losing tickets--you name it, teachers have tried it. Anything to get Johnny to do what he's freakin' supposed to do! (WHY isn't there a "pulling your hair out" emoji?!? Oh, well. Insert that non-existent emoji here.) But for reasons I'm only just now beginning to understand, I've never been one of those teachers. What can I say? I'm a rebel. #shockandawe Now, before I delve any further into this topic, allow me to say that I've seen all of the above and more be implemented by fellow teachers, and I'm not knocking such strategies (notice that I do not include yelling, sarcasm, or any other such tactic as these should not be a go-to in any teacher's repertoire). Educating other people's children is a daunting challenge in the extreme, and every teacher has to do what works for him/her and his or her students. What I AM saying is that (IMHO) there IS an alternative.

Anyone who's spent time in a classroom for more than sixty seconds knows that a teacher's classroom management makes or breaks a class. Whether good, bad, or somewhere in-between, it's the game-changer in regards to what is accomplished during the school year, and how. And while good classroom management is important in and of itself, the public school system's current testing obsession has made it even more paramount. The pressure to perform under increasingly tight schedules means that there is not one moment of instructional time to lose. #gottacrackthosewhips (Not really, but you know what I mean.) Whatever the motivation, good classroom management is a must. To learn more about what I do in my classroom, read on.

Several months ago I stumbled across the following quote by General George Patton: "Accept responsibility, so that you may feel the excitement of freedom." I literally stopped in my tracks when I heard this. "That's it!" I said to myself (yes, out loud; don't hate). Straight-jacket behavior notwithstanding, I was over-the-moon elated at my discovery of this oh-so-perfect description of what I try every year to help my students understand. Everything--and I mean everything--in the classroom comes down to this one defining truth: If you want to feel the excitement of freedom, you have to take responsibility...for your actions, your words, your work, your relationships, your successes, your failures, EVERYTHING.

You see, every year I welcome my new crop of kiddos by telling them that they have entered a very strange classroom--a  classroom where they will experience freedom the likes of which they've likely never known in any other class. This immediately piques their interest, and I can almost see the visions of non-stop fun and games dancing in their little heads. #yougottalovekids Over the following weeks and months, I help my pupils develop a more accurate understanding of the word freedom. I teach them that in this classroom, THEY are in charge of their OWN behavior. I won't be walking around, I tell them, with a checklist, monitoring their good and bad decisions, placing a checkmark, X, or dash to indicate their right or wrong choices. I won't be handing out candy when they have a "good day," sending them to the office when they have a "bad day," or maintaining a complicated system of tickets. Instead, I explain to them with mounting enthusiasm, we'll be working as a team to learn how to act, speak, learn, befriend, succeed, and fail responsibly! And the payoff for all that hard work of learning to control self? Freedom! Amazing, glorious, fabulous FREEDOM!

This is a startlingly new concept for my students, and while they love the idea right from the start, they're not exactly sure what I mean. To illustrate the kind of freedom to which I'm referring (running unfettered in circles around a chaotic classroom NOT being an option), I give them the analogy of how things work for my colleagues and me during a staff meeting. "Do you think I have to raise my hand to ask permission to get another pencil when my lead breaks?" I ask them. "Or plead with the principal to let me go to the restroom? Do you imagine that I will get in trouble for standing up after sitting for a long period of time?" (Side note: I've been told by umpteen thousand people that I missed my true calling of being an actress, so when I broach this subject with my classes, I play up the "staff meeting" in a big way, pantomiming each situation described.) "Do you think I raise one hand while the other cups my nose to signal that I need a tissue?" Naturally, these unlikely possibilities elicit lots of giggling and expressions of disbelief. "Of course not, Mrs. Pinkerton!" they're quick to say. But when I ask them why, the only response they can come up with is "Because you're an adult." "Ahhhhh..." I say to them. And there it is. The reason they can't be successful in a classroom without an adult's monitoring their every move. They're kids, and that makes them incapable of practicing self-control. #wrong

It's this kind of flawed thinking that's led us to where we are today, with our intricate positive-reinforcement programs and reward systems and our "punishments" that don't fit the "crimes". We've replaced "doing what's right because it's right" with "doing what's right while the teacher is watching, so I can get a toy from the class treasure box".              

What I want for my students--what I think we all want for our students--is for them to be mature, responsible human beings who take pride in being in control of themselves. Teaching them how to act, how to be responsible for themselves, how to care about what they say and do...these are definite steps in the right direction. So that's what I do. Over the course of the school year (especially the first two weeks of school), we discuss, role-play, model, discuss, role-play, model, etc. exactly how to...get needed supplies during instruction, stand when tired of sitting, give feedback to peer work, go to the restroom without asking, look at the speaker, choose a different seat, form a line, prefer other classes in the hallway, stay silent when passing other classrooms--you get the idea. And in addition to teaching them how, I teach them why. Why do most teachers require students to raise their hands and ask for a pencil? Simple. Because most kids get their own pencils by scraping their chairs back, taking the long way to the supplies, jumping over the floor pillows, thumping their classmates as they pass, and taking twenty minutes to decide if this is the pencil of their dreams...or is it that one? 😜 Why do most teachers require students to stay seated in their desks at all times? Because most kids who stand up when tired of sitting decide that during instruction is the appropriate time to practice the latest dance moves. (FYI--During these whole-group discussions, I act out both of these scenarios before choosing a student to do the same, and my kiddos almost lose it. What child doesn't want to see his/her teacher whip and nae-nae? #crowdpleaser)

Here's the thing--kids aren't morons; they can handle the truth. In fact, they appreciate it. And in all the years that I've been trying to help my little peeps experience freedom by accepting responsibility, I've never once had a student complain that they'd rather be given a prize from the treasure box than have the freedom to go to the restroom without asking. #wellillbedarned

Now, you might be wondering how this kind of classroom management works when it is INEVITABLE that one or more children will choose not to act responsibly. You're not alone; there's nothing more frustrating to me than going the extra thousand miles for my students and being repaid with behavior opposite to everything I've taught them. But instead of flipping out and assigning random "punishments" in the heat of the moment, I try to apply basic logic to any such lack of self-control. If a student is being rude to a classmate while playing a game, that student is firmly, kindly, privately asked to return to his seat as the game is no longer an option for him that day. I won't yell, argue, or discuss the situation further at that moment unless time permits (it very rarely does). If more communication is needed, I will meet with the student at the end of the day. Otherwise, my kiddos learn from Day 1: if they choose to act irresponsibly, they will suffer the logical consequence of that choice. End of story. As for the student who consistently, regularly, weekly makes wrong choices across the board, she is sending me the following message: "I cannot be in charge of my own behavior right now, so I need the teacher to do it." And that is when I will pull out my handy-dandy list of specific offenses and their corresponding punishments (i.e., "rudeness" = $50 out of her classroom job paycheck, "hitting" = $100 out of her classroom job paycheck, and so on), as well as revoke all the classroom "freedoms" she's enjoyed to that point (getting supplies without asking, standing when tired, etc.). Such consequences are applied privately and only to that student AND only until she shows me that she can, indeed, be in charge of herself once again. These situations almost always resolve themselves quickly as the student realizes all the freedom she's lost as a result of her not accepting responsibility.

To recap, here are some things to remember when managing a classroom of kids:
1) Teach them how to act, and teach them why. Kids appreciate truth and can handle more responsibility than the current U.S. culture suggests.
2) Assume nothing. Even students in their fifth year of school need to be taught your expectations for behaving responsibly. Every teacher is different, and every child comes from a different home environment.
3) Use logic in assigning consequences for misbehavior. If Johnny can't get his own supplies without distracting his classmates, he isn't allowed to get his own supplies. If Michelle refuses to play by the rules of the math board game, she isn't allowed to play that day. Bam.
4) Teach, model, repeat. I can't say this enough.  

I'm not a master at classroom management by any stretch of the imagination. I'm just a teacher who cares a lot about her students and wants to show them that self-control is within their grasp, as is the excitement of freedom that comes with it. General Patton probably never expected his words to become the class motto of a Mississippi fifth-grade math and science class, but I don't think he'd object to it. He was a bit of a rebel himself. 😜



No comments

Back to Top