While coaching teachers this time of year, I find myself repeating the same phrase again and again:
“You’re going to lay everything out for your students ahead of time.”
What I mean by this is that the teacher is going to remove all uncertainty over what does and doesn’t constitute breaking rules.
They’re going to detail precisely how they, the teacher, will respond whenever a rule is broken.
As well as what is expected of the misbehaving student.
The idea is that there are no surprises. There are no secrets or misunderstandings. There are no doubts, confusions, gray areas, or fuzzy meanings.
Enforcing consequences, then, becomes a well-choreographed dance, where both parties know their role, their steps, and their lines by heart.
It’s an approach that is fair to students and easy for the teacher.
It also saves time, eliminates disrespect, and causes students to take responsibility for their misbehavior.
Most teachers who struggle with classroom management, however, don’t go far enough. They don’t model enough. They don’t explain enough or with as much explicitness as students need.
They don’t lay it all out ahead of time.
The resulting ambiguity causes resentment, disillusionment, and ultimately more misbehavior.
For example, in The Smart Classroom Management Plan for High School Teachers, we recommend eye contact as one of two ways to give an official warning.
We do this because, among other reasons, high school students respond best to a more subtle approach.
But subtle doesn’t mean unclear. It doesn’t mean weak or wishy-washy. It doesn’t mean walking on eggshells or being inconsistent.
Therefore, if you don’t define for your students precisely what an official warning looks like, then a student who breaks a rule may be hurt and confused by your response.
They may wonder why you’re staring at them or think that you’re giving them a “look”—which we very much don’t recommend.
It’s no less important for elementary teachers who we advise to say the words “You have a warning.”
Your students must experience what it’s like to receive a consequence. They must know beyond a doubt what will happen—the precise script—every time they break a rule.
This is deeply comforting knowledge that removes anxiety, tension, and classroom excitability and frees them to focus on learning and enjoying school.
While coaching teachers, it’s the one thing I return to again and again. It’s the one piece of advice I give the most regarding both the high school and elementary plans.
The way you enforce a consequence can (and should) be gentle. It can be subtle and pleasant and even kindly.
It can be fast and easy.
You don’t have to raise your voice. You don’t have to be aggressive or confrontational. You don’t have to glare, lecture, show your displeasure, or convince students that what they did was wrong.
But you do have to define where your boundary lines are.
You have to specify what behavior or behaviors break which rules. You have to teach through modeling, role-play, and practice what you’ll do in response and what it means.
You have to guide your students through every step of the way, like a Viennese waltz.
You have to lay it all out ahead of time.
So you can enjoy a well-behaved class for the rest of the year.
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