But, no one is born knowing all the ‘tricks of the trade’ and most teachers learn the hard way, by their mistakes! Most of us (I hope!) can remember feeling completely out of their depth in a classroom situation at some point in their teaching careers. For example, in my first year of teaching, a particularly ‘lively’ group of ten and eleven year olds managed to lock me outside of the class; it was a very steep learning curve! I can still remember feeling my heart racing as the panic increased. At that point I was really thinking that maybe I wasn’t cut out to teach children after all. However, that was almost seven years ago and I’m pleased to say I’ve never had such a bad experience since. I have learned a lot from talking to and watching other teachers, trying new techniques and experimenting with lots of different ideas. One thing I’m now sure about, is that good classroom management depends a lot on how you establish the ground rules at the beginning of a course. Students need to know what you expect from them and what they can expect from you during the course. They need to know where the boundaries lie and what will happen if they step over the boundaries.
Even if you are in the middle of the course it is never too late to refresh students’ memories of the ground rules. It can also be worth spending five minutes establishing the ground rules when you get thrown in to substitute a class you have never taught before.
There are many different ways to go about establishing the ground rules of a classroom. Here are just a few simple ideas.
- Happy face vs sad face
Divide the board into two and put a smiley face and a sad face at the top of the two columns. (Use a tick and a cross if you think your students won’t appreciate the smileys!)
- Have your ideas clear of what you want to end up in the columns beforehand. You can adapt them according to the students’ contributions but you should know your own ground rules before going into the class.
- Give students examples of types of behaviour, and as a group decide which column to put them in. Depending on the level of the students you could explain the types of behaviour or use mime to get your message across. You could mime using a mobile phone for example. Ask the students, is it ok to use your phones in the class? Establish that it’s not ok and write ‘using mobile phones in the class’ in the sad face column.
- When you have done two or three as a class, divide the students into groups and get them to add as many things as they can to the columns. Then collate all the groups’ answers together on the board.
- Ground rule posters
You should then display these rules on a poster on the wall so you can refer to them later. Groups could be asked to make the posters. Talk with the class about what will happen if these ground rules are broken. (See section ‘When rules are broken’.)
- Class contract
Similar to the smiley chart idea above, a class contract is a negotiated document written by you and your students. It is more formal in that both parties (you and your students) sign the contract and keep it displayed. The contract outlines what you expect of the students and what they can expect from you.
The students of XYZ class will … The teacher of XYZ class will …
- Try to speak as much English as possible
- Give homework on Thursdays and return it on Tuesdays
- Listen when the teacher is giving instructions
- Arrive on time to the class and finish the class on time
- Not have mobile phones on in the class
- Give students clear vocabulary lists on the board
- Arrive on time to the class
- Give students a song / game etc.
- Not throw things around the classroom
- Etc. etc.
- Etc. etc.
Class contracts can be written with whole groups or with individual students. If you realise that you have one or two difficult students in the class you could write a contract with just those students. It’s a chance to talk to them about their behaviour and to set the limits of what’s acceptable in written form so that you can refer to it in the future.
- Praise the positive
If you do have a difficult group it’s really important to remember to praise good work and behaviour when (if!) it occurs, rather than always highlighting the negative. One way to do this with young learners is to have a star chart. Draw up a list of all the students’ names and at the end of each class, or periodically throughout the class, go through all the students and put stars (or a tick or a smiley face) on the chart by the names of students who have worked well. Some teachers like to give prizes to the students who get the most stars by the end of each term.
- When rules are broken
All schools have their own discipline procedures in place, so bearing those in mind establish with your group exactly how you will react if the students do break the rules. You may decide to give each student three chances in each class. If a student breaks a rule their name goes up on the board. If their name gets on the board three times in one lesson further action will be taken. It may be they’ll have to talk to the co-ordinator, or their parents get called, depending on your school. Just remember it is useless to give a threat (e.g. phoning the parents) of any sort if you are not prepared or able to carry them out.
As I mentioned at the beginning, you will probably find that you will learn from your mistakes. Going into a class at the start of a new course and getting the balance right between being strict and being friendly and approachable is difficult. It also depends a lot of where you are teaching. Here in Spain where students can be very confident and often rather cheeky, the general motto is ‘Don’t smile until Christmas!’ Obviously, not to be taken literally, but the idea is to start reasonably strict so as to get off on the right foot. It’s always easier to lighten up when you and the students have a mutual respect than to start off too soft and then have to get stricter as the weeks go by!