“…And if you walk into our room you may be surprised at the noise and the mess, but to me that means the students are engaged.” So ended an elementary teacher’s presentation to my class on classroom management and I was horrified. Noise? Mess? Not this teacher! I was going to run my classroom like a machine. Those kids would know routines for everything, even down to when they could sharpen their pencil, and they would love me for it because that was part of my expectations as well. Equipped with all of my Harry Wong ideas, I was ready to whip these kids into shape and they would be so thankful. After all, how could anyone possibly learn in noise or out of their desks?
Now some years later I look around our room and we are that classroom. The one you can hear coming down the hallway, the one where students are splayed out on the floor, discussing, laughing and gosh golly sharpening their pencils whenever they like. There are no laminated rule posters hanging on our walls, there are no reminders of how to get their stuff or how to come into the classroom. There are no sticks to move or stars to give. Just a classroom being run with the students and by the students. To the untrained eye it may seem chaotic. After all students crave routines, even in their classrooms. But if you look closer, you will notice they are there. Students get to work and stay focused, they treat each other with respect. They tell me in the morning when they forgot to do their homework and they ask to work on it during recess or to get it to me the next day. They have their things organized, they know when I need their attention, and they know how to treat each other. Behold, the managed classroom without the overt rules.
I did not start this way, in fact, I am not sure any new teacher should. As a new teacher it is so important that you discover who you are as a teacher, that you discover your own best practices and then start to question them. Question the ideas you are taught and see how they fit into your vision. I was taught that I should post the rules of my classroom so that the students would be continually reminded of what the expectations were. Except I like clean walls, and I don’t think students need constant reminders. Down came the posters and my room somehow got uncluttered. I was taught that I had to be the ultimate authority in the classroom or it would turn into Lord of the Flies, except I found out that by sharing the authority I created autonomous learners that were much more engaged. I was taught that students would learn better if they were rewarded with stickers or A + but found that we didn’t need the extrinsic motivation if the learning was worth it. How did I learn all of this? By watching my students and questioning my own practices and then trying it. I was terrified the first year I threw out the rules. When I told my students there would be no rewards and no punishment I thought I would have a riot on my hands, kids who refused to work, homework that would be weeks late, and instead? No change. In fact, the kids shrugged, no big deal, they knew they had to get to work.
So this year I did the unthinkable; I didn’t tell the kids the rules. I instead asked them what the routines should be and what type of classroom they envisioned. They discussed without much of my input and that was it. We didn’t make a poster, we didn’t all pledge to follow the rules, we moved on to more exciting things. Now students live up to the they expectations set and they help each other work well in the classroom. If a day is louder than normal, then I know we need to get out of our desks and I adapt our learning to their moods. By being clued in to what their behavior is telling me, we have a lot smoother days because I am not trying to squeeze them into my box of expectations. They are in the truest sense of the word active learning and teaching participants.
So how can you make this work for you? Start to question what you have been taught. Question those tips and tricks you were given that didn’t seem natural to you. Ask yourself how do you learn best and then ask everyone else you meet. The answers may surprise you. Ask the students; their voice is the most important one in the room. Yes, that’s right; their voice, not yours. Create a space where the students feel comfortable, welcome, and have ownership. Show them you trust them to make great decisions and then give them an opportunity to do so. Change your curriculum to fit their needs and get them moving; long periods of stationary work lead to restless bodies which means their minds have long since wandered off. Have i fit their age; I teach 5th graders so I can expect a lot more autonomy than I can from a roomful of kindergartners, but even our youngest students can own the room. And most importantly; believe in your students. Believe that they have buy-in in the room, believe that they care about it, and then give them a learning experience that they actually do want to care about. Tear down the authority between you and them and give them a chance to prove you wrong. Give them a chance to show that they can work without the overt rules, that they can set the expectations, that they can rise to the occasion.