If you're a first year teacher, there's nothing that will prepare you for the classroom management struggles you'll experience. During my student teaching, I felt confident that I knew what I was doing. It never crossed my mind that a big piece of that was because my cooperating teacher had pre-established routines and relationships that I was able to tap into.
My first year of teaching was not what I expected. It felt like nothing I did made a difference, I was in a constant power struggle with the kids, and it sucked the fun out of my lessons for both parties.
In my second year, I switched school districts and I'll never forget day one: a boy threw a fit in the hallway. That's how badly he did not want to go to music class. In that moment, something clicked and all my previous experiences suddenly made sense.
The key to great classroom management is time. In this blog post, I'm going to break down my top tips for classroom management and how time is the most important factor connecting them all.
My top tips for classroom management:
Connecting with your students takes time.
When that little boy refused to enter my music class, the first thing I did was meet him in the hallway. I didn't know him. He didn't know me. All he knew was that last year, he had a bad experience in music class and he did NOT want to give me a chance. So I had to be the one to take that first step.
I got on his level (which didn't take much - I'm only 5ft tall) and asked his name. I introduced myself and asked him a few other questions. Nothing meaningful, just some small talk. I could see the gears turning in his head - wondering why I wasn't angry or calling the office. Finally, I told him that he had to come into my room with the rest of his classmates but that I had a job for him if he was up for the task. I told him it was my first day of school too so I wanted him to listen carefully to my lesson and at the end of class, tell me what went well or what I could improve. He agreed and sat at the back of the room.
He ended up being one of the nicest critics I've ever met! But it wasn't an overnight fix. That interaction got him in the door - literally - but for him to start participating, learning, and growing, I had to show him that I cared consistently.
Real, meaningful connections with your students won't happen in a day. This is especially true for elementary music teachers because we only see the students 1-2 times per week, if that. But we also get our students for more than one year, unlike homeroom teachers. The longer you stay at a school, the easier this part will become because you'll have the same students year after year, minus the incoming youngest grade level and any new students.
Be clear about your expectations.
From day one, you need to be clear with your students about what your expectations are and hold firm. Say what you mean and mean what you say! Don't give out empty threats or promise something you can't follow through on.
Now, if you realize that some of your expectations are unrealistic or unfair, be honest with your students and adjust the expectations. It's important for children to see that adults learn and grow too!
Practice, practice, practice.
When it comes to lesson plans and getting things done, your students need to practice those expectations to get them right. If you expect students to come in and sit in their assigned seats right away, practice that. What does it look like? What doesn't it look like? When a class comes in and doesn't meet expectations, remind them and have them try again.
At the start of each school year, I'd spend several lesson plans practicing an expectation before I felt comfortable changing things up. Towards the end of the year, I might do songs, stories, and circle games all in the same 25 minute music class. But if I tried that right away, it would be a disaster! Instead, we practice circle games so they get a handle on the expectations before moving on to another task or activity. Once you've been teaching for a while, you'll need to do this less often.
Listen to understand.
There's a big difference between listening to reply and listening to understand. It's important to hear them out (even when they try to fudge the truth!) and get to the bottom of the behavior.
I've found that the easiest way to do this is by asking questions.
Why do you feel that way?
What do you think could solve that problem?
How can I help?
What is the expectation?
Where can we find that answer?
As hard as it is, always approach interactions with a calm demeanor, especially if the student is worked up. Sometimes, your students won't know the answers to the questions you ask but it's important to get them thinking. Because the next time they encounter the same problem, they'll start to ask themselves: How can I fix this? What can I try? How am I feeling?
All of it starts with you!
Make time for them.
Teachers don't have a lot of free time, so when you do have those down moments, try to use it to learn more about your students. If the teacher is running late, find some simple icebreaker games you can play in line. (Raise your hand if...) When you see a student in the hallway, greet them by name and ask how their day is. No matter how small, those efforts build up over time.
There's no doubt about it - classroom management is hard. But the more you make meaningful connections with your students, the easier it will get. Hang in there!