Just thinking back over some of the training sessions I have attended on the topic over the years, there has been a wide range of areas covered. Some workshops have focused on giving instructions and transitioning from one lesson stage to the next, others have looked at motivating and engaging learners, some have presented ideas for establishing class routines, and others have centred on discipline and class rules.
So, which definition is correct? I would say probably all of them! If we want to establish a positive atmosphere in the classroom and create an environment where learners are relaxed and ready to learn, we need routines, rules, clear signposting of lesson stages and engaged learners. The importance of each of these elements will change though, depending on the context we work in.
I currently work in a centre which caters to a wide range of age groups from very young learners (ages 4-5) up to adults, and each one requires a different emphasis.
When teaching children, maintaining discipline is very important. Without it, our learners can easily drift off task, be distracted, or at worst disruptive. However, this does not mean we need to be super strict with rules and enforcing them. We should also strive to be positive with the language we use – avoid “Don’t...” and “You mustn’t...” and go for “Always...” and positive commands instead. Finally, too many rules can be confusing so it is best to stick to 4 or 5 simple ones. My primary class rules generally look like this:
- Always listen when someone is speaking
- Be on time and be ready
- Always be polite
- Ask before you take
However, we also need to focus on the other aspects of classroom management as well. Learners at this age need to feel safe and secure when learning something new and a positive classroom atmosphere with a familiar environment helps tremendously with this. That is why class routines are so important. If you always start the lessons with a familiar song or an active stretching routines, the children can relax and they know the lesson is about to begin. Indicators such as hand claps or a fixed phrase to signal the start or end of an activity are also important so the children know what to do next. Add in consistently applied rules and you are well on the way to a happy classroom.
With teenagers, a slightly different approach is required. By this time, our students are able to take on more responsibility and may have an adverse reaction to what they perceive as ‘authoritarian’ rules or ‘childish’ class routines. This is a good time to start negotiating rules with learners – at the start of the course, ask them what rules they would like to have in class, discuss their ideas and agree on a class set of rules. This shows the students that you are willing to listen to them and give them some say in the lessons. As an alternative, I sometimes present my teen classes with a few rules I want them to follow and then ask them to discuss and decide on a few rules for me – another way to give them that feeling of control!
I extend this approach to other aspects of the lesson too. Sometimes, I offer the class a choice of activities or topics we could focus on that week, and go with the class consensus. For some activities, I give them the choice to work with a partner, work in a small group, or work alone. I may also offer options for homework or for how to present projects (e.g. they can make a poster, give an oral presentaiton, or prepare a short recording). By being allowed to make some of the classroom management decisions, they feel involved in the lesson and respected by the teacher. It also helps avoid complaints of lessons being ‘boring’ or topics not being relevant to them as it was their decision!
With adults, I find that fixed rules are not really necessary. The vast majority of students by this point can apply their common sense and adhere to social norms in terms of behaviour. The only case in which I find a rule sometimes needs to be established is with mobile phone use. I have come across students who seem to think nothing of answering their phone in the middle of a listening test! In these cases, a class discussion on acceptable use takes place and we usually agree on some basic rules like putting phones on silent mode and keeping them off the desks (I never want to take phones in or force people to switch them off in case of emergency calls).
Beyond that, the main classroom management issue I find with adults is getting them used to being in a language learning environment. When I teach people who are taking their first educational course of any kind for several years, I often find that they have quite ‘old-fashioned’ expectations of what the lesson will be like – the teacher will explain, drill and ask and the students will respond. It takes time to establish the routine of student involvement, input and interaction. It also takes time to motivate them to take charge of their own learning. This is where I find learner coaching to be of great benefit. Encouraging learners to establish a routine both in class and out of it for practising English and helping them identify and work on their own strengths and weaknesses really helps establish a positive learning atmosphere and a sense of progress.
Whatever the age group, the key to classroom management is to always be aware of your learners. Find out what interests and motivates them. Seek and respond to their input. Help them feel happy, relaxed and secure when they are in the classroom and encourage them to keep learning outside it. Then, you will have a well-managed environment established for learning.
David Dodgson, originally from the UK, works for the British Council in Bahrain as an ICT coordinator. He has also worked in Turkey and Gabon, gaining experience with young learners, adults, ESP and EAL classes. He runs two blogs, davedodgson.com, which is about his teaching and learning experiences, and eltsandbox, which focuses on using digital games as authentic materials for language learning.