John Davis is an alumnus from the 2015-2016 cohort. Before coming to China, he studied linguistics at Georgetown University. He has taught English as a Second Language in Nanjing for two years, and is beginning his third this fall. With lots of practical experience, John wrote this week's post to help new teachers bring their best when it comes to classroom management!
So you want to control a classroom full of 45-50 youngsters who do not speak your language natively and over whom you have very little to hold. Fear not! It can be done! In my experience teaching both primary and middle school-aged students, the three keys to complete classroom control are the three C’s: Comprehensibility, Consistency, and Secret weapons.
First and foremost, I find that the students who act out the most are the students who comprehend the least. While this is likely a chicken-or-the-egg problem, being more comprehensible to your students can only do good things for your overall classroom control. How do I become more comprehensible, you ask? Put yourself in your students’ shoes. It is hard work to focus on a second language for close to an hour straight especially for younger students. All it takes is one offhand comment or unusual command to start a chain reaction for the student of trying to comprehend, failing, proceeding to zone out (or worse), being called out for zoning out, and then being embarrassed for the rest of the class period.
The easiest way to combat this cycle is to simplify one’s language (from everyone please take out their English notebooks to everyone take out a paper), repeat the simplest form of the command several times, clearly demonstrate/model exactly what you expect, and importantly, consistently be checking for comprehension (in this case, are there papers on every desk?). When new words come up in the lesson, it is important that the class’s attention is drawn to the new word and it’s definition/translation.
Try having the class repeat the new word in unison, then choosing students at random to repeat the word individually (to check pronunciation) and guess at the definition. The first student to give a good definition should be rewarded and the class made to understand the definition. In this way, students remain engaged because there are many opportunities to make sense of what is happening in the front of the classroom. The students with the best English will usually be the ones to guess the answer first, but it is important to remember not to teach exclusively to them, constantly check for comprehension among the weaker students. When even the weakest students are engaged and tracking the flow of the lesson, the entire class will be in the palm of your hand.
Incomprehensibility contributes directly to what is perhaps the second most common source of misbehavior in the classroom: inconsistency. In my experience, students take to routines like a fish to water. When something out of the ordinary happens, it normally only takes on blink of an eye before students are flopping in the air gasping for air between their shouts and laughs. Of course I am exaggerating slightly, but I cannot over emphasize the importance of routines in the classroom. By the third or fourth week, students should have a very good idea about what to expect when class begins, when new vocabulary is learned, when games are played, when rules are broken, and when class ends.
When teaching young students, I have had relative success by making my basic classroom behavior expectations into a simple chant that doubles as part of my warm-up for each lesson. My students may not remember much of my lessons, but they will almost certainly remember the five rules of my classroom and the consequences of breaking them. When a student breaks a rule, I can easily cite the rule in a comprehensible way for the rest of the class, and then I can enact the student’s punishment. For the first infraction, a student will stand for at least 5 minutes; the second infraction incurs a long stand in the back of the classroom and disqualification from any fun activities coming up in the lesson; the third infraction usually involves my secret weapons and usually third infractions only happen once or twice in the beginning of the semester before the students learn about the secret weapons.
What is this secret weapon, you ask? Well, I would like to say that my secret weapon is a film or game that the students can watch or do when you have determined that the class is beyond your control. In my experience, nothing gets a class of rowdy fourth graders quiet faster than the lights going off and a movie going on. Try this method once. If it works, congratulations.
In practice, though, secret weapons often take the form of TAs or head teachers. Having a good working relationship with your colleagues can be a godsend in stressful situations when it comes to controlling a class that sees you as the their most lenient teacher of the day. Have a meeting with your colleagues at the beginning of the semester. Learn their names and exchange contact information. When a class or even an individual student gets out of hand after several warnings, snapping a picture of the troublemaker and sending it to the head teacher can work wonders. The head teacher may end up scolding the student in front of the class or in extreme cases calling the student’s parents. You may be called upon to explain your case to the head teacher and the parent, but that student without a doubt will be much better behaved for the next lesson.
In these situations, comprehensibility and consistency are still very important. Explaining (or showing) that you have the head teacher’s contact and following through with the punishment from the beginning will make your classroom that much better.
Obviously every teacher and every classroom is different. Find what works for you. I hope, though, that being more Comprehensible, Consistent, and Secret Weapon-Wielding will continue to improve your effectiveness as a teacher and the students’ English language proficiency.