Article by Jon McGill
Director of Academic Affairs
Baltimore Curriculum Project
The classroom is part of the curriculum, part of the school culture and a contributing factor in creating school climate. The layouts, the décor, the seating arrangements, the pathways inside the room, the lighting, all of these tell students something about how you will manage the learning that occurs in your room. You are reflected in your classroom: your style, your objectives and your intentions are visible through this prism.
Do you have wall decorations and charts? Are they new or old, clean or dirty? Are they inspiring and do you refer to them? Do they “speak” to your students? Are they alive or dead? How do you arrange seats? Almost any seating plan is fine as long as it has intentions. Have you created walking paths; will you have ease of access to all parts of the room? Is the seating flexible in that you can have rows or groups; can you move things at a moment’s notice, if you wish?
Do you greet students at the door? Are you in the room before they arrive? Teachers should try to be affable, friendly, willing to behave as if they are thrilled to see the students (even when that might be a stretch!) What is your “ready to learn” indicator? Do you have a “do now” piece? Is there a journal entry piece, some engaging activity that signals to the students that class has begun and that you are waiting for them to meet expectations? You can use overhead projectors or hard copies for this, or a Smart board. In the olden days, pre-technology, I used my attendance book as the indicator that we were beginning: calling out the first name signaled “let’s go” and it helped me establish routines. Some teachers use music to get this starting signal: I know one person who uses a harmonica! You can raise a curtain, use hand signals, be as individual as you like just so long as the starting sign works. Sometimes I used a puzzle placed upon their desks as a signal to start thinking about the project ahead. I took many of Edward DeBono’s Lateral Thinking riddles and shared them with kids, who rapidly became addicted and clamored for such puzzles each week.
Your classroom is a home away from home, not just for you but for your students. That’s why you will often see classrooms with armchairs, plants and flowers, even curtains and lamps brought from a teacher’s home, all designed to undercut the institutional feel that many classrooms might otherwise have.
Another message we send, as teachers, is contained in the housekeeping aspect of classrooms. When I see a room with torn papers on the floor, broken chairs or desks, torn displays or other signs of either neglect or indifference, it sends a signal of dysfunction. It is easy, then, to make the leap from appearances to the actuality: poor academic results, misbehaving children, ineffective teaching. Classrooms that are in poor condition and visually lack care and concern usually indicate poor oversight from the administration.
The appearance of a classroom matters and so, too, does the behavior of children. We are not just in search of decorum or of “middle class standards”, one size fits all impositions. We look for behavior that is conducive to learning and to effective teaching. That requires a certain level of order, a certainty that there is control by the teacher, and a certainty that children have been taught what it is that we require for such effectiveness.
The two most difficult aspects of behavior management are the implementation of a consistent approach by the teacher and remembering that students need to be taught behavior just as much as they need to be taught any other subject in the curriculum. Students come from diverse environments, backgrounds, cultures and learning experiences: our task is to unify disparate children into a cohesive class, one that understands formats, guidelines and rules. There is no substitute, at least in public, inner city schools, for this. “Discovery” methods might work in mono-cultural, economically affluent schools where a free-flowing environment is applicable to small class sizes. However, when we deal with larger groups and great diversity, the children benefit most when a structured, engaging and reliable behavioral framework allows students to be at their best.
Children need guidance: if you want them to enter the classroom in a specific way, teach that way. If you expect them to work in groups, teach them how to do that in ways that favor effective experiences; if you want them to leave the room in a specific pattern, teach the pattern, and remember that they will need to practice these patterns so they become habits. Such habits become the backbone of instruction!
The Baltimore Curriculum Project works with its teachers frequently on these topics. Our coaching methods are designed to enhance both classroom organization and behavior management, not least because both of these aspects of teaching and learning are fundamental to overall school success.