Managing a counterproductive learning environment: What works, what doesn’t?

For many “old-school” teachers and parents who grew up in an age of greater conformity and fear-based authority, the culture of our schools is in dire straits because they believe there is a deficiency in discipline. In reality though, we currently dole out far more punitive disciplinary measures like suspension than we did 30 years ago. So then, how can we effectively prevent a counterproductive learning environment in class?

I’m certainly not advocating for a “soft” stance on discipline—truly disruptive or violent behavior must be dealt with strongly. However, since it seems like punitive discipline isn’t always very effective, shouldn’t we consider other options to change behavior and create improved school climates? I seriously believe we need to set clear boundaries for students in our classrooms and strengthen techniques for engaging them in learning in order to improve on classroom management.

So this is my first rule of classroom management: draw a line between friendly and friendship. You are not your students’ friend. Friends help each other out with favors and expect give-and-take. This is not the way things work in the classroom. Contrary to the belief of many teachers, most students want an authoritative, caring adult in the classroom; one who has a consistent approach to dealing with all students but in a friendly empathic manner. That said, it’s important to build constructive relationships with students. Show interest in their music, hobbies, and after-school activities. It can be tough to show patience and flash a smile with certain students, but showing you are a friendly, caring adult will go a long way toward preventing behavioral problems.

Secondly, use engagement. A classroom-management argument I certainly don’t buy is that it’s the student’s job to sit there, be quiet, and learn. In my view, it’s the teacher’s job to make sure students are engaged. Sure, there is always a student who is going to pop off no matter what I do: I’ve had students who are victims of rape, war and are malnourished when they enter the classroom, among other conditions I can’t control. Nevertheless, I can make the situation better for all of us if I take actions to elicit students’ interest and attention. Giving students extended periods of time with no expectation of active involvement or teacher feedback will lead to disruptions, guaranteed. Creating opportunities for movement and involvement are often a good way to curb emerging behavioral problems.

Creating the right conditions in the classroom will also go a long way in improving discipline. Educators need to continually ask themselves whether an infraction in class warrants losing class time. Do you want to write up students who come unprepared to class, lacking a pencil or paper, and pass the problem along to the administration? Do you want to remove students from class for dress-code violations? Or, do you want to create conditions where students are in classrooms, potentially learning, for the maximum amount of time? Gone are the days when teachers would remove students from classes for little things all the time; now the onus is on us to create more rigorous, engaging instruction, which can prevent the bulk of discipline issues.

We can’t control who comes through our classroom doors or what a student’s home life is like, but we can shift how we deal with—and prevent—transgressions, both on the classroom and school levels.

The writer is a Language Consultant