Sometimes the difference between a good/functioning classroom and a dysfunctional one is a small one. My criteria for a healthy class is fairly simple: (1) students need to be able to connect with the material, (2) students should feel encouragement from coming to class, (3) there needs to be minimal distractions so you can keep the class in order. Teaching is often a balancing act between encouraging participation and discouraging idle talk and disruptions.
Every class will present its own brand of challenges: there will be students who really want to impress you, and other students who will view your class as a social hour. There will be good days, and there will be bad days. A good teacher will need to roll with it, and most of all stay humble enough to keep learning new tools.
So, here are some tools that I have learned:
- Use non-verbal communication effectively. One of my favorite tools to quiet a disruption is to simply stop talking and look at people who are being disruptive. It takes a few moments, but it can be very effective. Also be aware of your students body language – they will tell you without speaking if you are going too fast or too slow with lessons… or if there is something distracting them.
- Use humor. Humor can be a fantastic tool! It will engage students and make them allies in your classroom. I will say, that you can’t be funny all the time… but humor can defuse situations when students might be feeling discouraged.
- Rein in over-participators. Some students will try to dominate classroom discussions… be a bit cautious of these students because they will sometimes make students less willing to participate, or sometimes even make them feel stupid. Call on a variety of students to keep them all engaged.
- Establish rules for participation. Some very simple rules of participation can keep your class from getting out of control. Simple rules like raising a hand for questions or comments, or asking students to quiet their personal conversations until they aren’t audible to the class are reasonable. Also, if you let your students decide on these rules, they will frequently enforce the rules themselves.
- BE PATIENT. Patience isn’t just a virtue, it is a necessity. Sometimes students will have a hard time grasping material, and this is frustrating for both you and them. The best thing you can do is take your time with these students… otherwise they will get into a negative cycle of “I should understand this…” and feeling bad that they can’t keep up. It is no fun when students “should” all over themselves.
- You will need to establish discipline at times. There isn’t a fun way to to this, but there are ways to keep disruptions from escalating.
- Don’t judge. Nothing will turn a student against you faster than if they feel you are judging them. Try: “Is there something I can help you with?” rather than “Why can’t you respect your classmates?”
- Use the language of choice. If you give a student an option, they will be much more likely to act rationally and respectfully. Students who feel like they don’t have any options will often act out of spite, rather than community.
- Talk with students privately. Calling out students on their behavior in public can sometimes backfire in an escalation of disruption and resentment. Instead, talk to the student quietly and privately. First off, see if you can get them to express their needs. Let them know of your concerns for them personally, and for the class. Only at the end, ask them to change their behavior.
- Don’t be too heavy handed too quickly. Sometimes decisive action is called for, but delivering an ultimatum to any student will change the atmosphere in the classroom quickly. It is much better to give a student a warning, and to let the student know the possible consequences of their actions rather than “my way or the highway.” The goal is to give ownership of the outcomes to the student.
- When the time comes, act. Don’t opt out of disciplining a student if they continue to act out in class. Hold the student to the consequences of their actions. You are doing a disservice to the entire class if you don’t.
- Have a plan for your class. If you don’t, your student’s will.
One final piece of advice: give yourself a break. Some days you won’t be at your best, and you won’t be on top of everything. That is okay – you don’t need to take it personally, and you don’t need to feel bad about being human. Provided you don’t light anything on fire, you won’t do irreparable damage to your class just from having an off day. Remember that you need to take care of yourself too.
Now: go forth and educate more evil geniuses.