The most valuable lesson that I learned from all of my classroom management strategies last year was that none of them are as important as what a teacher does on the first day of school. This did not come as a surprise to me. As a first year teacher, I was told countless times by numerous, experienced teachers, principals, and trusted family members, that the first day of school is the most critical time for establishing effective Classroom Management. There is even a very popular book written with the title, First Days of School, by Harry Wong. While I took this advice seriously, it rings more true to me now than ever. Now that I have had a year to reflect on my effectiveness at managing the behavior of two fourth-grade classes, I can see how my classroom management plan was rather vague, at best. I am not disappointed in myself for a lack of effort or for not taking the message and topic seriously enough. On the contrary, I took all of this information very seriously and did everything possible to put a classroom management plan in place for the first day of school. Now, I can see, only one thing was lacking: experience. The reason that virtually all first-year teachers struggle to manage behavior effectively is that there is no substitute for experience. There is nothing wrong with the advice I got as a first year teacher. I simply lacked the experienced vision to design an effective classroom management plan.
My First Day of School
Prior to the first day of school, I was not familiar with the environment of my own work-place. Consequently, I learned the every-day routines, procedures, and transitions right along with my students for the first-time. It is impossible to have a plan in place for the unknown. Most of the advice we new teachers receive doesn’t come in the form of such specific details. As a first-year teacher, I had no idea what questions to even ask of my school and principal. I remember the work and detail I put into classroom management prior to my first day of school. I put together a blueprint for how kids were expected to behave in the hallways, classroom and at lunch. I put together a behavior plan with a golden rule at the very top of the chart that said, Serve God. I explained to the students that serving God is the most important thing we can do each and every day and by following this rule we could do no wrong. Obeying the golden rule includes a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts. Some of the don’ts include, talking while teacher is talking, talking while another student is talking, blurting-out answers. Some of the do’s are, raising your hand to be called-on, silence in the hallways, addressing the principal and priest politely, and appropriately, and treating other classmates with respect. I also made it clear that when I raise my hand with five fingers, there needs to be complete silence in the room. While we practiced implementing our golden rule on the first days and week of school, I soon learned that my classroom behavior plan was not nearly specific enough about addressing specific events, situations and circumstances of the typical school day. I came to realize that my own initial expectations fell well short of reality. The biggest mistake I made, however, was how I allowed kids to enter the room on the very first day of school. Later, as I watched videos of other effective teachers on the first day of school, I began to see a very amusing, if not fitting, analogy: A teachers is like the conductor of an orchestra.
Good Behavior is Orchestrated
Successful classroom behavior is orchestrated, not improvised. The teacher is like the conductor of a large symphony. The students are the orchestra members and the school-year is the musical score to be played. The conductor must know every note of the score inside and out. Furthermore, an effective conductor knows exactly what his expectations are from each of his orchestra members. Imagine a conductor who has never looked at the score and lets the orchestra members stumble into their seats and start playing before they’ve been told what and how to play the piece. It is funny to imagine the results. The loud trumpeter in the back of the room is blurting out notes before his turn. The obnoxious clarinetist consistently screeches out notes in the wrong key. A quiet flute solo is interrupted by a rambunctious string section. A lost oboe player doesn’t know what page everyone is on. The snare drummer is disorderly banging away trying to prove he is louder than everyone else. Some are laughing at the noises coming out of the tuba and the shy piccolo player is asking why she never gets a chance to play. The conductor, meanwhile, is pounding on his podium, pulling his hair-out, screaming at the top of his lungs, and demanding that everyone play the right notes at the right time. That conductor is me in my first year as a teacher. Like a conductor who was not familiar with his score, I was not familiar with the daily school routine. From the moment the kids enter the classroom until the final bell rings, there are so many situations and events that require a teacher to become a director of acceptable behavior. The experienced teacher is intimately familiar with each and every one of these situations, so much, that many of the routines become second nature to them. While an experienced teacher at a new school does have to learn new routines, they already know what questions to ask of their school. As a new teacher at a new school, I wasn’t even aware of the most common situations where behavior needs to be orchestrated and taught. As the school year progressed, I bemoaned the fact that my kids took so long to get ready in the morning, took forever to line-up for specials and lunch, and didn’t do as they were told when they were told, etc., etc.. As my frustrations mounted, I began observing the behavior routine of other experienced teachers. One particular, real-life example that left an indelible mark on me was a YouTube video of a ninth grade teacher conducting his first day of class.
Classroom Management: Day One
The video demonstration below gives a very clear-cut example of how an effective teacher manages his classroom on the first day of school. Mr. Hester knows exactly what his expectations are from his students and conducts his class accordingly. From the second they walk in the door, they are greeted, and told what to do.
From watching the video, I get the sense that Mr. Hester is the kind of teacher who will never have to raise his voice the entire school year. I remember when my principal told me that she believed highly effective teachers never had to yell at their class. Contrast this with a new teacher who has yet to gain a clear understanding of expectations and routines.
Establishing Control of the Classroom on the First Day
New teachers: Don’t be fooled by the calm, polite and cooperative demeanor from fourth grade kids on the first day of school. Kids, are understandably shy and a little nervous on the first day. Never again will I mistake this first-day-of-school-honeymoon for a well-behaved class. I’m embarrassed now to admit that I was a little too proud of myself after my first day. I remember thinking how the kids respected me and keeping them well behaved throughout the year would not be a concern. Boy, was I wrong. I was warned by several other teachers about the honeymoon period in the classroom, but I didn’t take it too seriously. How could I? I was just happy to make it through my first couple of days. As I now know, that temporary, calm, and docile period in the classroom is the best time and place to build the foundation of an effective classroom management program. This year, from the moment the students first walk in the door, they will get a warm introduction from me and told precisely what to do and what is expected of them while waiting for the opening school bell. This is the time to take control of the classroom. Even though the classroom is likely to already be quiet from the opening day jitters, this is a prime opportunity to establish a precedence for absolute silence when it is expected, while demonstrating them that their teacher is in full control of the classroom. Failure to begin the school year this way will result in kids walking in the room on their own terms and time, gabbing, giggling, pushing and shoving and often not in their seats and ready to work when the bell rings. Silence in the classroom while getting ready for the opening bell, will be my first policy taught on the first day of school. The remainder of that first day and week will include the policies that address the events and routines of each school day – those same routines that I overlooked as a new teacher.
Classroom Behavior Policies are Born from Bad Habits
One of the bigger advantages a new teacher has over a rookie is a familiarity of common behavior habits of students. I’ll never forget how many times my experienced, school-teaching sisters seemed like prophets during my first school year. They would frequently tell me some of the common habits of school children throughout the year before I experienced them for myself. Here are some of the annoying habits of kids that I was warned about which all came true: Tapping me on my back to get my attention, blurting out my name before raising their hands, forgetting pencils, forgetting to put names on papers, not having a book ready, not listening to instructions, and the list goes on. Yet, hearing about these habits and actually experiencing them first-hand are two different things. The latter motivates change. Change requires action and action results in classroom management policies to address the bad habits. There are literally dozens of habits that can hinder the effective management of a classroom. It would be way too restrictive, if not impossible to create a rule or policy for every single undesirable behavior. All teachers have their own style and teaching strategies. It takes experience to know which of these bad habits a teacher finds most annoying and/or detrimental to their own management of the classroom. From my own experience, the most destructive behavior problem of students is talking when they are not supposed to be talking. This is why that first day of school and proper entrance into the classroom is so important. A teacher must have the ability to get the class silent when he/she needs them to be silent. Yet, that is only one issue which requires policy and practice.
Practicing Good Behavior
The rest of my first day this year will be based on practicing specific routines to address the behavior that affected me most last year: When to talk, when not to talk, how to participate in a discussion, how and when to line-up for specials, lunch, and recess, how to behave in the hallways, and how to behave in Church. One thing that really annoyed me as the school year went on was the way kids handed in their papers. Nobody ever took the time to make sure the name was right-side up, some kids weren’t paying attention and turned the papers in out of order, and some kids didn’t turn their paper in at all. I was so annoyed at how a seemingly simple task took so much time. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I never told these kids what I expected and practiced doing it!
How important is that first day of school?
When I look back to my analogy of the frustrated conductor pounding his fists on the podium, it reminds me of how I would have looked in front of an impartial observer. If I saw a conductor acting this way, I would not have much confidence that he knew how to conduct beautiful music. I would think he was frustrated because he was unprepared and failed to tell his musicians what and how to play the piece. While the conductor may not have taken the time to learn the entire score, he knew enough to dislike what he was hearing. Isn’t the same thing true of a new teacher? While I didn’t foresee all of the events throughout a school day that would require a proactive behavior plan, it became obvious to me when those situations arose and demanded it. This year, I will once again be at a new school, but I will not be a new teacher. I fully intend to take a good look at the score and learn how I want it played before I begin conducting the class. At the very least, I will be conducting instead of reacting. Let the music begin, but not until I raise my baton.