Managing the Classroom Like a Champion

Today is what I affectionately refer to each year as “Teachmas Eve.” We’ve made it through the faculty meetings and the first week or so of adjusting back to a semi-normal sleep and work schedule, and tomorrow we begin teaching in earnest. So with summer coming to a hard close, it seems like a good time to reflect on some summer reading and set a goal for the coming year.

Considering all that I did this summer (moving, etc.), I’m fairly pleased with the amount I was able to read. I read a few things on a whim (like Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power–the biography of George H.W. Bush–which I recommend), and I was also able to mark off a few books that had been on the “To Read” list for years. One of those was Teach Like a Champion. (I know: It’s so 2010!) I had been meaning to read it for quite some time, but for one reason or another I never got around to reading it.

I don’t agree with everything Doug Lemov writes. Philosophically, for instance, I favor a more student-centered classroom than he does. That said, I am slowly becoming less ideological in my views on teaching. I still hold strong beliefs, but I’ve tried–especially in the last few years–to seek ideas from across the spectrum, and while I wouldn’t do everything Lemov advocates, that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t do any of it. I believe that all education is contextual, and the contexts in which he and I work are different in many ways. That said, students are still students, and some things probably are more science than art.

Over and over again while reading Teach Like a Champion, I found myself thinking, “Wow–that’s a great idea.” In fact, one of the biggest flaws I see with the book is that Lemov presents “49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College” (his subtitle). There are many great ideas in this book, but for any one teacher to try and implement them all would be nearly impossible. Even thinking about it would be overwhelming.

Even so, when I finished reading the book, I decided that I would try to incorporate some of Lemov’s ideas into my practice this year. I initially thought I would choose a technique from several different chapters, but the more I looked over his list again, the more I decided to focus on one area: classroom management.

I began my teaching career at an all-girls school, and I taught mostly juniors and seniors. The students were, almost without exception, engaged and motivated. They weren’t all academic superstars, but they cared and they wanted to please their teachers. If a student was talking in class or was underachieving, I usually just talked to them and the behavior improved. I loved teaching there, but one of the downsides is that I never really developed strong classroom management skills. I never really had to. When I moved to my next school, which was co-ed (but majority boys) and where I taught primarily 9th graders, this shortcoming hit me right between the eyes. My lack of classroom management skills shone through immediately. I learned on the fly and definitely got better, but it’s still an area that I would call a weakness.

So, with this in mind, I’ve chosen four techniques on classroom management from Teach Like a Champion:

Technique 36: 100 Percent

“There’s one acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100 percent. Less, and your authority is subjection to interpretation, situation, and motivation.” (p. 168)

On the face of it, this would seem to be one of Lemov’s more authoritarian techniques–one that I would not likely embrace. And, in fact, that pretty much sums up my initial reaction to reading this. First of all, I think it’s a bit ridiculous to expect that 100 percent of students will obey the teacher’s every command, and I don’t think that’s generally the end of the world. We want creative types and divergent thinkers in our classrooms, just as in our world. That said, students should never be allowed to think that they can willfully ignore a teacher’s direction, and I appreciate Lemov’s approach to “100 percent compliance” (particularly using the least invasive form of intervention–a menu of possible responses to any challenge).

Technique 37: What to Do

“Some portion of student noncompliance–a larger portion than many teachers ever suppose–is caused not by defiance but by incompetence: by students’ misunderstanding a direction, not knowing how to follow it, or tuning out in a moment of benign distraction. . . . What to Do starts, logically, with telling your students what to do–that is, with not telling them what not to do.” (p. 177-178)

For me, this is critical. Patience is not my forte, and I know that I am quick to assume that a student is willfully disregarding my instructions. This technique serves as both a reminder that I should be explicit in my expectations and instructions, as well as a reminder to ascertain the cause of the noncompliance. I definitely zone out at times; perhaps this is true of a student as well? (Of course it is, but too often we teachers imagine that what we’re saying has such import that no student could possibly get distracted.) By taking a moment to determine if the cause is incompetence or defiance, we can respond more appropriate–defusing some situations and escalating the ones that need to be escalated.

Technique 38: Strong Voice

“When you get loud and talk fast, you show that you are nervous, scared, out of control. You make visible all the anxieties and send a message to students that they can control you and your emotions.” (p. 187)

Again, because I lacked classroom management skills, I remember how, in my early days of teaching 9th graders, I would raise my voice to talk over students, and I would (at times) engage in a tense back-and-forth with the more outspoken members of the class. Strong Voice reminds me not to do that. When the classroom is loud; get quiet. Don’t allow yourself to be interrupted. Choose your words carefully and judiciously.

Technique 41: Threshold

“The first minute, when students cross the threshold into the classroom, you must remind them of the expectations. It’s the critical time to establish rapport, set the tone, and reinforce the first steps in a routine that makes excellence habitual.” (p. 197)

I’m not sure why this isn’t the first technique in the chapter, if not the book. When I read this, I thought, “Of course. Why don’t I take advantage of the time before class starts to welcome students, to make them feel welcome, and yes, to address any issues that need to be addressed. Why wait until the period begins to address a student who is wearing his headphones? Classroom cultures must be carefully cultivated and then defended vigorously. This will be a challenge for me this year as I don’t have a classroom of my own (I’ll be moving from room to room just as the students will), but I hope to make this part of my practice–to find a routine that works for me in which I can use that pre-class time to build and defend the classroom culture.

There are other techniques that I’d like to incorporate as well (Do Now, Cold Call, Pepper, Take a Stand, etc.) and I probably will do so here and there. But my focus, at least for the next few months, will be on using these techniques to improve my classroom management skills. I’ll try to write periodic reflections on how that is going.



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