Classroom Management 101

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Why it’s less about managing the class than joining with the group

Recently overheard in a high school classroom: “F#*%  you…sir!”    Wow: Did I just witness respect + disrespect expressed simultaneously? How does that work exactly?

Teaching is a tough job whatever the age group. Adults may be less “out there” than teenagers, but the group dynamics are the same. Groups tend to behave like unitary entities: they can be your best friend or your worst enemy. But if they fall into the latter category they are a many-headed hydra who cannot be vanquished.

Here’s how I see it: If you have to actually “manage” the class that is not a good sign. Now I am not talking about classroom management in terms of providing guidance or direction with respect to learning content or processes. Every group needs a guide to stay on track. What I mean is that if students act out, tune out or walk out, things have already gone bad. At that point it’s likely not so much a student issue as a group issue.

Here are a few tips to help get things off to a good start, and to keep it that way:

1. Mutual respect is an essential precondition for ANY relationship. If it’s lacking there’s no relating. Regularly affirm your respect for each student and for the class as a whole (the “two clients”: the individual and the group).

2. Make it interesting. Easy to say, but how? Three words: make it relevant. OK, but how? The group will tell you if you ask. What do they care about? Why are they there in the first place? What do they want from you and from each-other?

3. But… what if I am teaching a mandatory course that no one cares about? Here’s the thing: There is no such thing as a topic that’s inherently interesting (have you ever gone to a talk that intrigued you only to be bored out of your mind?). And, conversely, there is no such thing as a topic that’s inherently boring (have you ever gone to a talk you were dreading only to be pleasantly surprised?). Why is the course mandatory? What’s the larger narrative? Why is this essential knowledge and learning? These are the primary questions to address as part of an ongoing group dialogue.

4. Show that you care. Not just about what you’re teaching, and not just about your students as people, but about their experience in the here-and-now. Who’s tired? Who’s bored? How comfortable is the room? What else is happening in the world and how does that impact the tasks at hand? This in-the-moment reflection continuously reestablishes the connection between facilitator and class. In clinical practice it’s called therapeutic use of self – tune in to your own experience to help you tune in to the group.

5. Be generous. Generous with your humour, your time, your interest, yourself. I think of generosity as comprised of curiosity, authenticity, empathy and joy. It’s less a focus on how the group sees you than on who is in the group and what you see in them. And be generous with people when they’re having a bad day. It happens to all of us.

Over the last two days I facilitated a mandatory training for a diverse group of health and social service professionals in Halifax, Nova Scotia. What a pleasure – even if some learners started off the day with ambivalence, we all ended on a high note. And just to add…if you ever find yourself in that beautiful city, be sure to check out Cabin Coffee on Hollis Street for a latte and a killer cinnamon bun!

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