First Rule of Teaching: Control the Class!

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I once heard of a veteran teacher who didn’t have appropriate control of their class. A student complained to me that many students in the room were speaking to one another while the teacher was attempting to speak to the class, that the students weren’t even discussing the topics of the class, and that this student could not even hear much of what the teacher was saying. It happens that this was a brilliant teacher with a profound mastery of their subject’s content, who had a delightful sense of humour, and who was very well respected over the years. I hasten to say that upon hearing expressions of concern, that particular teacher gave the matter some rapid and serious attention and, to everyone’s delight, completely pivoted the following class and essentially followed some of the observations that I make in this blog. This teacher caught the problem early and, being an excellent teacher, addressed the problem at the first opportunity. That teacher and the teacher’s students lived happily ever after.

This story reminded me of my first year of teaching, a year when I learned that knowledge and enthusiasm is not enough, when I learned that even misbehaving students are really nice people who actually expect that a teacher will love and care for them but also expect teacher behaviour that brings a studious decorum to the class. By the end of my high school teaching career, I had forgotten what it was like to not have fairly complete and effective control over a class and still retain the affection of my students. I emailed this particular teacher advice that I think every teacher should know in order to control their classes. It is a type of “priesthood knowledge” that all seasoned teachers should know. Not wishing to leave something this important to chance, I will share that advice and more with you now.

  1. Never, ever raise your voice. Raising your voice or yelling guarantees loss of control.

  2. Severity of solutions should be graduated! “Stop watching TV or you’ll be grounded forever!” “Open your book or you’ll be expelled!” “Genuflect now or its off with your head!”

    Students need time to understand their role, expectations of their behaviour, the rationale behind expectations, consequences of compliance and defiance, rights and duties as citizens. We want our behaviour and our students’ behaviour to be defensible on grounds of compassion and empirical observation and community values. We need to set the “rule”, then defend it ideally to everyone’s satisfaction, then work with our students to understand how we integrate these consensually arrived at “rules” into our learning experiences in the classroom.

    We want students to think independently and refuse to jump out the window if a crazed teacher ever asked them to, but a teacher in a classroom must also control the learning environment to optimize the affective and cognitive performance of their students. Teachers have more than a right, they have a duty, to shape the parameters of learning to optimize learning.

    If a teacher has an expectation, a “rule” that they value and insist upon in their class, then they owe it to their students to state and defend it clearly and to everyone’s satisfaction. If you can’t defend an expectation, then drop it or change it. If it is defensible, then some students need more “baby steps” than others to “get with the program.” The baby steps can come rapidly within a single class, but there should be baby steps.

    For example, if a student distracts their neighbours, then first ask them to be quiet, then tell them firmly to be quiet or they will be moved, then move them near you the teacher, then ask them to step outside the classroom to have a private conversation, then warn them that you will call their parents, then call their parents, then refer them to counselling, then have a family session with yourself and counselor and parents and the student too, then finally refer the student to the administration.

  3. Stop speaking when you can’t be heard. One of my most effective techniques, when I did not get the quietness that I demanded, was to simply stop speaking all together. I would just gaze over the students. Usually most or all would quieten down. Sometimes other students would “shussh” those who continued speaking.

  4. Give reasons for your expectations. You do not need to wait until everyone stops speaking, but there should be a significant reduction in numbers of students speaking. Then, quietly state your reasons for the need for others to be quiet while you speak. I would get excellent results from this sort of statement, which I believe strongly, “Every student has two primary duties, not one duty. They have a duty to themselves to do their best to learn what they can. They also have a duty to allow and support others to also learn the best that they can. What I have to say during our class is very important. Please respect the right of others to learn. It is very wrong to interfere with the right of others to learn. You do not have the right to prevent others from learning. Nobody has that right.”

    I would sum this little sermon with the admonishment, “You only have the right to swing your fist to the where my nose begins.”

  5. Move students who persist in distracting others around them. This conveys that you are serious but is a step that does not disrupt learning for the student. We don’t want solutions that are worst than the problems. Graduated steps give the student an opportunity to adjust and “get with the program” before more serious consequences are entertained.

  6. Have a serious conversation in private! A conversation in front of an audience is a performance. Both teacher and student must perform for the rest of the class. Very often it is essential that a teacher or student become vulnerable and reveal anxieties or concerns that are very personal. It may be that the student is being abused at home, or that another student is cheating in class, or that the student lacks the substantive background to understand the content, or that the student is addicted to booze or other drugs, et cetera. An effective solution to behavioral concerns requires that both the teacher and student have a most sincere conversation where all the perceptions and facts are laid on the table. This conversation cannot and will not happen in front of an audience and certainly not in front of the class.

    In the high school where I taught for 23 years, I often saw a teacher and student step out of the classroom and have a conversation. The teacher would be just outside the door of their classroom so that they could monitor proceedings and be available for contingencies arising, but they were out of sight and hearing and could have a very serious exchange. Sometimes I or the student would exchange an angry comment or a vulnerable confession. I never felt disrespect and the student did not have reason to doubt my sincerity because the conversation was strictly one-on-one!

  7. Send a sleeping student for a walk, preferably outside in the fresh air! If a student is sleeping in class, they are probably tired and definitely insufficiently energized. Don’t punish them for reacting naturally. When tired, we should sleep. Tell them to take 5 – 10 minutes and get some fresh air. It is really amazing how often this works because it is really the case that often a student is sleeping in class because … now hear this … they are tired! You may want to subsequently counsel the student on the importance of rest and how to achieve that in the context of their lives and schedules.

  8. Target serious offenders. If one student or a group of students persist, and this does happen, I would then quietly walk over to the student or group. I would sit down beside them. (Yes, the rest of the class is watching and listening.) I would speak quietly to the student(s), very quietly so that they would have to almost strain to hear what I have to say. (Again, never yell.) Then, very clearly, I would state in a kindly way, “You are a very mature person. You are an adult here. I wish to ask you to please be quiet now so that others can learn. I cannot compel you to learn, but please respect the right of others to do what they have come here to do.” This step works 99% of the time. Very, very seldom have I had to go to the next step.

  9. Threaten expulsion from class and then do just that if necessary. Sometimes even the above measures do not work with one or two students. Then you must take this next step or everything that you have done can unravel. In a firm (never yell) voice, state to the offending student(s). “I will not allow you to destroy the rights of others to learn. This is the last time that I will ask you to be quiet while I speak. If I must speak to you again, I will ask you to leave this room and possibly refuse to admit you in the future. I do not wish to do that, but I will be left with no other choice. It is up to you to respect the rights of others or to lose your right to be here.” You may have to follow up on this statement. You need not deal with those student(s) during that session. You may speak to them after class. You may well have to expel one or two students in this very worst case scenario.

  10. Solicit support from your administration. I was fortunate. I taught in schools whose families sent us students who had high respect for teachers. I never had to solicit the support of an administrator for disciplinary purposes, but I know how very fortunate I really was. When I was a student in the Olden Days, a student in my class physically assaulted our teacher. Then again, a teacher that I had actually yelled at us when she couldn’t get our attention. Assaults such as yelling don’t work because such behaviour ignites antagonistic relationships between students and teacher, locking both in a lose-lose scenario of students doing by subterfuge what the teacher disallows by admonishment. But, though it never happened, I know that if ever I were assaulted or if ever a student had refused to obey (I use that term deliberately) a request from me that was both legal and reasonable, I would have cited the student for defiance and referred the matter to my administration. A student must know that, when push comes to shove, they are legally obligated to “obey” direction given by their teacher provided that direction is both legal and reasonable. Parents and administrators can discuss what is “reasonable”, but where there is a consensus of what that is, the student must then know that their choices are limited to that consensus. Again I was fortunate throughout my career to have superbly supportive administrations, so much so that students knew in advance that their teacher was strongly supported by parents and the school’s administration.

    “The threat is greater than it’s execution.” – My Favourite Chess Quote.

    I once taught in a school with wonderful students but the administration had slackened off … students began texting during class, frequently arriving late, minor instances of disrespect were creeping into situations that we hadn’t seen before; there was a lackadaisical attitude in the corridors. That fall at the beginning of a new school year we got a new principal who was very “Tuff” (sic – this is a pun for some with whom I once taught) indeed, or so it seemed. In our first assemblies with each grade, our new principal came on so strong, with language and threats so dire and warnings so adamant that teachers were to be respected at all times, that he literally scared the bedevils out of staff and students alike. I recall thinking, “Ah, what will this school be like with this mad person in control?” Well, that was the first and last day that I ever saw that principal appear angry or tough. Thereafter that principal was forever a quiet, soft spoken fatherly figure from whom I never again heard an angry or threatening word. But our students did not want to get on the wrong side of this particular principal. The culture of our school changed that week. Incredibly, overnight, our students became more disciplined and respectful and serious. They knew who was in charge and it was not the student. That “Tuff” day increased the quality of learning more in that school than anything in one day that I could recall in my entire career.

  11. Be super strict in the first couple of weeks and then slacken off. This old adage is the truest rule of class discipline that I know. If you begin in a maximally strict fashion, that sets the tone and expectations forever more. You can thereafter be nice and joke around as you wish, but you have set the tone. The moment you become serious, so will the class. The corollary is also true. If you begin your term with frivolity and try to just be a “sort-a fun” type of person who doesn’t exhibit a serious attitude, that is precisely how you will be perceived by those students … to the end of your career. For the remainder of your course, you will never fully reign in expectations because you (yes, “you”) have defined yourself thus. Thereafter any deviation from that initial impression will be seen to be just that, a deviation from the jouster that you first showed yourself to be. In that first week or two, you want to be “Tuff” (sic); I mean “tough”.

    You will have the respect of all because you did not lose your cool (never yell) and you were courteous but clear in your statements. You will be seen to have been fair because you gave graduated warnings. But you must not allow the disruptions to destroy the excellent assets that your bring to your class. And you will be seen to be in control of the learning environment.

  12. Class is over only when dismissed by the teacher. If learning is a priority, then it is important during every minute of the class. Teacher expectations send a huge signal about how much they value learning in their classroom. If learning is mission critical, then we do everything reasonable to facilitate learning. If there are 60 minutes between bells in my class, then I expect students to spend 60 minutes learning, not 58 minutes learning and 2 minutes vegetating. Enforcing this practice requires enforcing prerequisite behaviours.

    Class is over when the teacher says so, not when the bell goes. The bell is a reminder for the teacher, not the students. The teacher and not the bell dismisses students. It sometimes happens that a teacher is finishing an explanation or solution to a problem when the bell goes. Learning is too important to be short-circuited by a bell. I would often “finish up” after the bell sounded. This option clearly reminds students that learning is more important than rushing to a locker. Of course, given that the bell has indeed gone, courtesy to both students and their next teacher requires that the class be wound down and students dismissed in short order, but it is the teacher and not bell who makes that call.

    Typical prerequisite behaviours that must be enforced in order to enforce the “dismissal by teacher only” rule are:

    • Open books are to remain open until the teacher declares that the class is over.
    • Retrieve and adorn coats or sweaters after dismissal.
    • Daybags and backpacks are to remain zippered in the final minutes of class.
    • Students logged onto a computer cannot log off until dismissed.
    • Never, ever are students to stand or approach the door before dismissal.

    Students must remain actively engaged in learning tasks until dismissed by their teacher. Closing activity is extremely disruptive to learning and should not be tolerated. The last minute of class is every bit as valuable for learning as every earlier minute.



    Specifically, In A Computer Lab:


    1. Shut off the monitors if you want the students’ undivided attention. It takes time to reboot a computer but only seconds to power up a monitor. You don’t want to compete with the Internet.
    2. Sit at the back of a lab to observe monitors. Trust but verify! When sitting at the back of a lab, you can see at a glance whether students are working with appropriate software. Better yet, students know that you can and will monitor their activities, so they will be more likely to remain on task. I have yet to see nanny monitoring software that is as efficient as a glance about the lab.

    3. Pair programming benefits both students from interaction. Two is company and three is a crowd. Any more is a project team and needs a facilitator! Pairs of students learn well from each other, but a third student is often a spare wheel.

    4. Disallow access to distractions. MIT studies and other research has shown that performance amongst even the top students in the world suffers when multitasking. Insist that all electronics be turned off and out-of-sight if you demand top performance! There is no credible evidence that Mozart music increases performance. Base your decisions on evidence, not urban myths. Texting while driving is criminally dangerous! Rationalizing that listening to music while studying somehow optimizes performance is simply delusional, bereft of credible evidence or logic. If a teacher wants to dismiss their class early, then do it, but don’t rationalize that learning is enhanced by distractions!

      If a student asks to leave class and hang out in the parking lot listening to their favourite radio station while working on their assignments, there are teachers that would object. Yet many of these same teachers rationalize that comparable behaviour is acceptable when done in their classroom. Doing two tasks simultaneously that both use the same faculties of the brain degrades the performances of both tasks.

      I have the greatest respect for today’s teachers. I have said many times in many places that, as a cohort, today’s teachers are far and away vastly superior in virtually every respect to the generation that came before, which happens to be my generation! I wish that I could deal with this issue without insulting anyone, but if the shoe fits, then …. This issue is simply too important to smile and say to colleagues, “That’s OK, cripple your students’ performances because you do, after all, have the best of intentions.” Yes, nice people sometimes do really stupid things. This is one of those things.

      Today’s teachers are incredibly fair and open minded, but it is challenging to remain abreast of relevant research. Some teachers simply don’t trust their own better judgement. I liked to listen to my favourite music when studying when I was a student, but I soon learned that it crippled my academic performance when I had to focus on something that I found challenging to understand. So long as the material was pedestrian (easy to walk through with minimal concentration), I quite enjoyed the soothing experience of “studying” with music elbowing its way through my brain. It took longer to cover the same material, but if that material was boring, then I didn’t mind taking 3 hours to learn 1 hour of material. It was a small price to pay to retain my sanity. But I learned then from personal experience that when I needed to optimize my academic performance, such as studying for final exams, an absolute prerequisite was the elimination of all distractions possible, including the intellectually anesthetizing but crippling effects of electronic accouterments.

      If a teacher wants to dismiss their class early, or just take a slow day, that is a legitimate decision, but there is now persuasive evidence that texting or listening to an iPod or MP3 player while reading or solving math problems is significantly affected by this all too prevalent multitasking. Multitasking destroys focus and performance. It really is that simple … well, almost. We know now that motor activities are controlled by different parts of the brain than some high level functions, so Parkinson’s patients crippled by destruction of dopamine faculties can temporarily alleviate symptoms when dancing or riding a bicycle.

      Update 18 August 2010: An article in The Journal of the American Medical Association reported new research that nearly one in five American teens, some 6.5 million youngsters, suffered from hearing loss in 2006, a rise of around 30 percent from 12 years earlier. Girls were less likely to have it than boys and it was more common in teens living below the poverty line.

      “What surprises us a little bit is the difference between the previous time that this data was gathered and the most recent,” said Josef Shargorodsky of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the lead author of the study. “There was a 30-percent increase in prevalence of any hearing loss in this age group and there was a much greater, about 50 percent increase, in the prevalence of mild or worse hearing loss,” he said.

      Researchers led by Shargorodsky studied data from two sets of hearing tests performed on 1,771 12- to 19-year-olds. “The effects of noise exposure on hearing loss in adolescents deserve further study,” they said, also calling for further studies to determine reasons for the spike in hearing-impaired US teens and identify risk factors that can be changed to prevent hearing loss.

      [ End of Update of 18 August 2010 ]

      Music can set a mood, and it may be that “background” music truly is conducive to some types of academic pursuits, but if that be the case, then deliberately engineer the learning environment to take advantage of those findings. Do not rationalize that the personal preferences of students are anything more than escapist distractions from what may well be a less than academically stimulating experience in our classrooms. That may well be the real rub.

      I think that this deserves its own blog someday. I will leave it here for now. But the burden of proof rests with those that rationalize that multitasking somehow enhances or at least leaves neutral a student’s academic performance in the classroom. To date empirical research and, I dare say, teachers’ own personal experiences suggest that electronic multitasking in the classroom debilitates academic performance.

    5. Always schedule more worthwhile work to do than can be done in the allotted time. Students come to learn, not stare at ceilings waiting for a bell. If students know what is expected of them days and weeks into the future and they have access to the resources to proceed, there will be few discipline problems.

    6. Use textbooks and pencil and paper too … not just computers! A computer screen is a small window on a large universe. The strength of computer interfacing is that content can be hyperlinked, but the advantage of physical media is that it can be flipped and cut and spread over a large horizon for viewing.

      1. Placing all work in a single field of vision helps follow the flow and connect one part to another. My IB students had to do a computer program for a dossier that often stretched to 100+ pages of code. Invariably bugs would appear. After an hour or two of frustration at not identifying the bug(s) with software tools, I would tell the student to print much or even all of their entire program … all 100+ pages. I told them to then lay out the code on the floor or a large table and look for the bug manually. When all else failed, this “technique” often worked. Yes, it consumed an unconscionable quantity of paper … but it worked … because … the student could begin simultaneously relating code on one page with code on another page!
      2. It remains easier to follow sequential content in a book. When presenting code on a PowerPoint slide, I always ask students to also follow that code in their books or paper handouts. If a student can’t follow the presentation, they will become frustrated and distracted.


About the Author:

Gerry Donaldson was Calgary’s first high school teacher to use a lab of personal computers. Gerry taught CSE, including CTS, AP and IB Computer Science, for 30 years before teaching and consulting to the Department of Computer Science at the University of Calgary.
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