This is a guest post written by high school Spanish instructor, Lisa Bliss. Lisa has been in the classroom for over nine years with Farmington Area Schools, a 1:1 iPad district in southern Minnesota.
The key to classroom management is creating meaningful relationships with students. Though this may seem like a no-brainer, many educators still struggle with making their classroom a safe and welcoming environment for students. Teachers are constantly bogged down by data, assessments, standardized testing, and even the vastness of their own content, leaving little time to focus on classroom management. Making time for classroom management is not always easy, and it is often feels like the part of my job I received the least amount of training on.
And, classroom management looks very different at the high school level where I teach than it does in an elementary environment. Rather than focusing on raising hands and lining up quickly and quietly, high school classroom management is much more about getting students to actually engage (and stay awake). How do we instill a passion for lifelong learning when students are dealing with teenage angst and the constant need to defy authority? What I have found over the years is that creating meaningful relationships with my high school students helps all other aspects of high school classroom management fall into place without much coaxing.
I try to take into account the different reasons that students end up in my Spanish classroom. Maybe they chose to take my class, maybe they require it for graduation, or maybe they have to be present in order to avoid truancy consequences. In any case, all students have a thirst for knowledge—even if that knowledge is not directly related to the content being taught. Students are always more engaged in learning when they understand that it is important to their future success. By getting to know each of my students individually (which can be difficult, as I get 140 new students every twelve weeks), I am able to find out their learning styles and interests. Doing this helps me personalize lessons for many of my students and gives them a sense of ownership in the education process. It creates a very positive atmosphere for learning.
I am lucky enough to have been teaching in the same district for years; at this point, my reputation precedes me. Students often have heard about me from friends or siblings who have had me as a teacher, and they know who I am and how I work before they step into my classroom. This is fantastic for me because it frees me up to start focusing on building relationships with my students right away. Those relationships are my priority when I go to work. Sometimes, we teachers probably get too invested in our students as people. We care about that girl crying during third hour because we know that she and her boyfriend just broke up. We care about that student who wants to graduate early in order to move out of her alcoholic father’s house. Some of us lose sleep over our students, worrying if they are doing all right or have a safe place to go after school, food to eat, and someone to give them a hug. It makes the job harder, but it takes this kind of personality to be a teacher because we know that the well-being of our students is crucial to their education. Many students do not know how to separate their personal lives from their education because their personal lives are there with them every day in the hallways, classrooms, and on their cellphones. When students are distracted by variables outside the classroom (or even inside the classroom), their learning suffers.
The teachers who had the biggest impact on me when I was in high school were the teachers who knew that I was active in choir, volleyball, softball, and my church group. They were the teachers who would ask me about my weekend and how my older brother was doing in college. They were the teachers who quietly slipped me a bathroom pass when I couldn’t quite hide tear-filled eyes after going through a breakup. They were aware of everything besides school that I had on my plate, but they still held me accountable for my grades and for my actions. These were the teachers who made me be the best me. They had the greatest impact on me because I knew they cared about me as a person, not just as a student. In turn, I worked harder for those teachers and did my best to make them proud.
Now, as a teacher myself, I get the chance to see those relationships from the other side. The more meaningful relationships I have with my students, the harder they work for me and the more success they have in my Spanish class. Not only that, but developing these relationships creates a family-like environment in my classroom built on mutual respect and kindness. On the first day of class, I always remind students that they can come to me at any time, and I will help them—whether it is with class content or a personal issue that they want to talk about. I assure them that any information shared with me is confidential (unless mandated reporting is required).
When it comes to developing healthy and meaningful relationships with my students, what I have found works best is to let them into my own life. Of course, they don’t need to know every detail, but inviting them in a little reminds them that I am a real person with a real family and that I actually have a life (sort of) outside of teaching. They know about my husband and children, interests, pet peeves, likes, dislikes, and quirks. I am the same person in the classroom as I am when they see me at the department store. Rather than live in fear that my students will toilet paper my house, I know that if a student sees me playing outside with my children, he or she will probably stop over and say hello. When my husband and I sold our house and moved, I had strapping young men in my class offer to help, and I always have young ladies offering to babysit so that my husband and I can go out on a date. Not only do we establish meaningful relationships in class, but we laugh—a lot. We joke in Spanish as much as we joke in English. We playfully tease each other, but we always know where the line is. We think of funny ways to remember vocabulary words; the more ridiculous the mnemonic device we create, the harder we laugh, and the better everyone remembers the word. In my classes, we are a family. I have three young children at home and 140 teenagers at work. We help each other, we count on each other, and we always support and encourage each other.
By no means, do I think I have the best strategies for teaching, but I do know that I always learn and teach at my best when I am having fun with people I respect and care about. I work hard to build relationships with all of my students to make sure that my classroom is exactly that kind of environment. I know that it is silly to believe that all of my students will retain everything I teach them, but I do think it is realistic to think that they will look back on their time in my classroom as a positive experience with a teacher who cared about them as much as her own children.
Looking for more ideas for effective classroom management? Check out this blog post for seven community building strategies that will support teaching and learning in your classroom!
*These opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Farmington Area Schools Independent School District 192.