An early mentor for me was a teacher named Chuck. Chuck taught sixth grade and was a master at classroom management. In him, I was able to see what was possible. I can remember how impressed I was when, two or three days into my teaching career, I saw him leading his students across campus.
All 36 of them were walking in two perfect lines as Chuck followed from a distance of about 30 feet. They were calm and focused and walked with a casual purpose, displaying a level of maturity I had not seen before.
The two lines would not, however, be characterized as militaristic. And I would soon learn that Chuck was far from the dictator type—quite the opposite. He was kindly, gentle, and, though firm and exacting, never raised his voice.
Shortly after, I approached my principal and asked her if I could observe Chuck when he was teaching a lesson. She made arrangements for someone to cover my class for an hour or so, and within a few days, I was on my way over to his room.
As I walked up the ramp leading into his portable classroom, I peered through a front window and noticed his students working in groups; they were wrapping heavily salted chicken legs in gauze to simulate an ancient Egyptian mummification process.
As I reached for the door, little did I know that I was in for a surprise other adults on campus had grown accustomed to.
When I stepped inside the room, the student nearest me quickly got to his feet as he nudged the student next to him on the arm. His group, in turn, immediately dropped what they were doing, stood, and faced me. The rest of the groups followed suit, and within two or three seconds, every student in the room was silent, standing, and facing me.
Having the relaxed look of one who knows his students will behave as expected, Chuck smiled and greeted me. We exchanged a few words while his students remained attentive. Chuck then introduced me, thanked his students for being respectful, and released them to continue their work.
For the rest of the hour, I wandered about his room, talked to students, and watched as Chuck periodically asked for attention to give more instructions. His students were engaging, friendly, and unfailingly polite. It was clear they had great respect and admiration for their teacher.
I was impressed and fortunate to see for myself, just days into my career, that excuses for poor student behavior—from teachers, parents and students themselves—are just that—excuses. Chuck proved to me what was possible at a school that had a reputation for being an especially challenging place to teach.
But despite his exceptional work, not everyone on campus was so impressed with Chuck’s attention to detail or his highly specific expectations for basic procedures like walking in line or how to react when an adult walks into the room.
I began hearing grumbling from other teachers and noticing eye rolls whenever anyone brought up Chuck’s class. They couldn’t understand why such seemingly petty things mattered so much to him. They found his penchant for explicitly teaching the finer points of walking from point A to point B unnecessary, even silly.
But these eye rollers just didn’t get it, which is one reason why they spent so much learning time reminding, demanding, and pleading with their students.
You see, Chuck understood a secret to effective classroom management that so many others fail to grasp.
The way your line looks when you walk across campus and the way in which your students give their attention when you ask for it—as well as a few other indicators—are measures of your classroom management effectiveness.
I realize that’s a big statement, but I’ll stake my career on its truth.
Watching a teacher lead his or her students across campus tells you a lot about that teacher and the amount of learning taking place in the classroom. The reason is simple: how students handle everyday procedures—like walking in line—reveals how they handle more important matters like, for example, working together in groups.
A line of students can indicate:
- How much they respect their teacher.
- How much they respect each other.
- How well they follow directions.
- How ready they are to receive instruction.
- The amount of time spent on—or off—task in the classroom.
Now, I know some teachers claim that they only focus on what they feel is most important, that although their line may not be great while walking across campus, they assuredly expect attentiveness and respect in the classroom.
But this argument doesn’t hold water. Having different behavioral expectations based on the importance of an activity doesn’t work because it sends a confusing message to students. Further, it sets a bad precedent, provides a bad example, and creates bad habits—especially for and among those students who have a proclivity for poor behavior.
On the other hand, clear expectations and explicit guidance on how to perform basic procedures like walking in line will translate to, and be compatible with, those learning skills that must take place in the classroom. In effect, a line is a perfect learning lab, where students can practice the skills needed to be successful in the classroom—and without the loss of class time.
So next time you get a chance, put your class to the test. Send them off in a line as you follow from behind. Watch closely because it accurately measures your classroom management effectiveness and, consequently, your effectiveness as a teacher.
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