Quick Tip Tuesday: Establishing classroom policies

November 3rd, 2009

In the second edition of Mentoring Beginning Teachers, authors Jean Boreen, Mary K. Johnson, Donna Niday, and Joe Potts provide mentors with a road map for helping new teachers become confident, reflective educators. In this week’s Quick Tip, they talk about how to establish simple, easy to follow classroom policies even before the beginning of the school year so that students know right away what is expected of them.

Classroom Management Strategies Should Be Developed Before the School Year Begins

Although we have already mentioned it, we want to reinforce the idea that proactive planning is critical to the success of less-experienced teachers. Lin Su, a second-year fourth-grade teacher, remembered last year’s management decisions vividly. She had decided not to give the “rule talk” to her fourth graders on the first day of class because she did not want to come across as the “heavy.” The students responded to Lin Su’s lack of direction by making every effort to determine how far she would let them go before reacting. By the end of the first week, Lin Su was contemplating early retirement even as the students embarked on a year of anarchy. She eventually restored order, but the process was lengthy and difficult. This year, she would do things differently.

If a teacher goes into the classroom and has to make management decisions on the spot, without the aid of a previously developed policy, problems are inevitable. A disruptive student who is reprimanded in front of classmates has an even greater incentive to contest teacher actions in order to “save face” if there is no management policy in place. Teachers who make their policies clear early in the semester have the flexibility to enforce or to modify those policies because the students already know the rules and what is expected of them.

Classroom Policies Should Be Simple to Explain and Easy to Enforce

Stan, a first-year teacher, has already decided that he will not be caught unprepared when management problems arise. Before the school year began, he spent hours developing policies for absences and tardiness, bathroom passes, late work, talking in class, respect for classroom furniture, respect for other students as well as the teacher, trips to the water fountain, and every other conceivable activity known to students. On the first day of class, he distributed a three-page management handout to every student and sent another copy home to parents. For each infraction, his management plan detailed the consequences for the first, second, and third occurrence. On his desk were individual infraction sheets that he intended to file by class period as well as the sheets he expected to use to keep track of how many points students lost for “one-day-late” work, “two-day-late” work, and so on.

Stan’s is an example of the too-complex management plan. Prior preparation is admirable, but he has created a system so complicated that all his energies are likely to go into an unsuccessful attempt to maintain it. Stan instituted this management plan hoping that it would make his teaching life easier and convince his students that he was serious.

However, the pressures of everyday school life and the inevitable exceptions that will arise will eventually make his professional life more difficult. In addition, he may inadvertently be leading his students and their parents to believe that he expects frequent misbehavior and that he lacks confidence in his own ability to work with them—and they may be right. Although a carefully thought-out management plan is essential, it is also essential that the plan be practical. Stan’s mentor should remind him that a system requiring extensive and detailed record keeping traps the teacher by its inflexibility and is prone to failure. Even if the teacher is capable of maintaining such a system, his or her time is better spent grading papers or homework, planning lessons, or conferring with students. (See Resources for Teachers for more information on specific, easy-to-use management plans.)

Among the topics usually found in the basic management plans of experienced teachers are tardies and attendance, late work, and expectations for appropriate behavior. Certain disciplines may require attention to other types of behavior; for example, a science teacher may wish to delineate specific rules for lab day, or the wood shop teacher for running certain types of equipment. Mentors should also remind beginning teachers that students’ age level will also determine the rationale for a management plan. Rules appropriate to high school students may be unrealistic for younger children. Obviously, a “one size” plan does not fit all grades, disciplines, or teacher personalities.

Management plans should also specify what the consequences are when students do not adhere to the rules. Experienced teachers know that rules are pointless if they are not backed up by reasonable consequences. Has the new teacher planned what she will do if Sue leaves class to go to the bathroom without obtaining a hall pass from the teacher’s desk? How will she handle Mark when he mysteriously appears at the class door thirty minutes after the bell has rung without a clear-cut explanation of where he has been? How will she respond when Betsy tries to turn in all her homework at the end of the grading quarter instead of when it was due? What will happen to Eugene’s class standing if he misses four days this week and three days next week and the absences are not excused? Although we prefer not to detail specific consequences here, it is critical that you encourage new teachers to decide well in advance how they will respond to situations of this nature.

Although management systems should emphasize consistency, they should also allow for some flexibility. While some parts of the management plan require a common approach from situation to situation, some issues may have to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Even teachers who rigorously adhere to a policy of tardiness would not penalize two tardy students who brought a pass from their chemistry teacher explaining that they had been cleaning up after a lab. You might encourage your beginning teacher to be lenient with a student who was not able to finish a homework assignment because she was involved in a minor collision the night before or a student who ran to the bathroom without asking because she thought she was going to be sick. When working with less-experienced teachers, it is important to encourage them to be flexible. Without a plan, however, they will lack credibility and exceptions will become the norm.

Entry Filed under: Classroom practice,Quick Tip Tuesday

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