Throughout my 12 years at Success Academy, many experiences have shaped my approach as an educator. One stands out from when I was an associate teacher and still learning the ropes of classroom management. I’d been asked to lead a math lesson with our assistant principal observing. In my nervousness, I mimicked my lead teacher’s techniques — a natural tendency of teachers adjusting to life in the classroom. When our AP left, my lead teacher offered frank feedback: “What was that?! Don’t ever do that again.” I asked her what she meant, and she told me: “Everything you just did wasn’t you.”
Her feedback is now the cornerstone of my classroom management coaching: Finding your own style and voice is essential for successful — and joyful — classroom management. One of my goals as an assistant principal is to help new teachers put this concept into action. It takes time and courage to find your own way. But it’s worth the effort; the result is a classroom environment where everyone enjoys themselves, including the teacher!
An important part of finding yourself in the classroom is identifying your own non-negotiables around classroom culture and student learning. What are the things that you feel need to be front and center? When you identify your non-negotiables, you can avoid sweating the small stuff and sweat the “right” stuff for your own teaching style.
I like to use the “locked hands” example from my own teaching experience. When I first started teaching, I was committed to enforcing “locked hands,” a technique that requires kids to keep their hands locked together to improve focus. It was so important to me to see that my students were engaged intellectually — this was a non-negotiable. But I soon realized that my scholars showed their engagement through their eyes, expressions, and verbal responses. Once I was confident I had established a consistent culture of engagement in my classroom, I chose not to prioritize the locked hands rule. Instead, I picked my battles — but best believe, if I asked a scholar a question, they needed to know the answer!
Another concept I impress upon my teachers is the importance of teaching rules and routines through activities or lessons, rather than in isolation. It’s never a good idea for a teacher to ask scholars to practice transitioning, or getting into line, or setting up their desks just for the sake of it. Embedding this practice into an activity that shows them the “why” behind it is much more effective. For example, at the start of the year, I’d use “getting-to-know-you bingo” to teach my scholars how to set up their desks. In this game, scholars have a bingo sheet that they fill in by asking their classmates questions about themselves.
I would explain: “This is how our paper is going to be set up in the morning: Your bingo card is at the center of your desk; your pencil point faces the windows. After you’ve got answers to your questions, the buzzer will ring and you will go back to your seats and practice putting your desk back exactly like this.” This helps scholars understand that rules and routines are both purposeful and a part of the fun.
Regardless of the non-negotiables you prioritize and the creative ways you integrate rules and routines into lessons, it’s essential to hold yourself accountable. I recently had a teacher who wanted to improve the listening culture in his classroom. I asked him, “What behaviors do you need to see to make that happen?” He explained that tracking — looking at the person who is talking — was important to him because it shows that scholars are giving respect and paying attention. I agreed — and when I observed his classroom, I watched carefully to make sure he was adhering to his own priority. When he wasn’t, I’d point it out — “You have five scholars not tracking!” — and he would quickly correct himself.
At our schools, we are all rowing toward the same vision of holding every scholar to a high bar while keeping them safe and engaged, but each teacher is at the helm of their own boat. The mechanisms used to establish that learning environment can, and should, differ. There is power in this flexibility! I was lucky to have a lead teacher who early on stressed the importance of finding an approach that felt true to my values, even as she helped me master classroom management essentials.
With all this in mind, it’s important to remember that it will take some time, and trial and error, to find your authentic style as a classroom manager. You will inevitably have to make adjustments and course corrections — and even some total resets! — but I promise that the end result will be a classroom filled with joy.