After teaching high school English for 10 years, I’ve uttered some phrases I never could have imagined would be necessary. For example, “Riley, get your sandwich out of your pants!” Yes, I had to tell a 14-year-old boy to get his sandwich out of his pants. While his reply was surprisingly logical (he didn’t want to carry it to the cafeteria and didn’t have a bag for it), I still sat back in my chair after the class dismissed for lunch pondering how and why those words ever had to come out of my mouth.
This is the reality of teaching—students do some strange things, and every day in the classroom is full of surprises. When I was in college, I faintly remember going through a brief unit about classroom management and how important it was. The professor (who probably had not been in a K–12 setting in the past 20 years), even gave us some pointers on how to effectively handle our classes. These tips included learning all the students’ names immediately, setting clear expectations for classroom behavior on day one, and laying out clear consequences for misbehavior. And, while there’s nothing wrong with of these strategies, none of them prepared me to sternly ask Riley to get his sandwich out of his pants.
When the topic of classroom management comes up with my teacher friends, we often laugh because it’s usually thought of as something that only applies to younger students. So, what about high school students? How do you handle a classroom full of students who are dealing with real challenges of growing up—along with plenty of legitimate and difficult adult problems—when hormones are raging, everything is over-dramatized, and classroom curriculum is becoming demanding? Here are eight strategies that I had success with in my classroom.
Incorporate some comedy
I’m a self-proclaimed goofball, and for some reason, my students always really warmed up to that. I have often been told that I should be a stand-up comedian, and sometimes, that is what teaching felt like to me! The good news is that multiple studies have shown that students who are having fun learn more effectively. According to Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher by Judy Willis: “The human brain and body respond positively to laughter with the release of endorphin, epinephrine (adrenaline), and dopamine, and with the increased breathing volume (more oxygen). When a lesson starts with humor, there is more alerting, and the subsequent information is attached to the positive emotional event as an event or flashbulb memory.”
I’m pretty quick-witted, and I always enjoyed sharing funny stories that I could tie into the day’s lesson, or poking some fun at myself or my students. But, being sensitive is key to making this style work. You have to know your students, understand how they will react, and grasp which boundaries you can and can’t push. For example, I remember one day early in my teaching career when a student said, “What?! You’re only 27? My brother is older than you.” To which I replied, “Yeah? Is he still living in your parent’s basement too?” The student nodded and said, “Yeah, that’s legit. You definitely have your life together more than he does.” At first glance, this might sound like a harsh response, but I had established a connection with that student already, and I knew I was able to say something like this without hurting his feelings. In fact, when his parents came in for conferences, they actually brought that comment up and laughed really hard about it.
Be a real person
When you’re teaching high school, you don’t have quite the same otherworldly status in the eyes of your students that elementary teachers often do. So, I always made sure to remain personable for my classes. I would tell them stories about the things happening in my life (as appropriate, of course) and make connections between my own experiences and what we were working on in class. This helped my older students view me as a human who they could connect with—not just as an instructor standing at the front of the class telling them what to do.
It’s also important to remember that high school students are going through some tough real-world issues outside of the classroom. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in meetings about my students experiencing various abuses (whether drug, physical, relationship, verbal, or other forms) or talked to students struggling with mental health disorders, self-image issues, or just the home life stuff that all people go through. I was lucky enough to teach a class where we actually talked about those issues and how to navigate through them. Being able to tell a story or two about events that I experienced in my life gave students the chance to see me through a different lens, which could help give them a new approach to their own challenges.
Learn names right away
Yes, this one is a no-brainer (my college professor was right). However, I always liked to take it a step further by giving my students nicknames based on what I experienced with them or what they had opened up to me about. For example, I had a 16-year-old student tell me that she wanted to be a DJ one day. She said, “I know it’s not going to make me money, but it’s just something I love to do.” So, her name was DJ Della-Dell for the rest of her time in my class. It may be silly, but my students told me that when I gave them nicknames, they knew I was listening to them and they felt special because I took the time to personalize the class experience for them.
It's all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T
“I don’t expect respect; I demand it.” This is one of the first statements I would say to every new class of students. Then, I would follow it up with, “And you should expect no less from me to you. If you ever feel like I’m disrespecting you, let me know immediately in the moment, as that is what I will do with you.” Although I never had a student tell me I was being disrespectful, knowing that they had the opportunity to call me out just like I could call them out leveled the playing field in my classroom and encouraged good behavior in the process.
My students also tended to have a lot of anxiety around parent-teacher conferences. My answer to these concerns was to remind them that I would never say something behind their back that I wouldn’t say to their face. I would also encourage them to come along to conferences with their parents. They liked the idea of me being straightforward with them in this manner.
Keep an open-door policy
I am a firm believer in an open-door policy. I always let all my students know from day one of class that my door was open to them whenever I was in the building, and I posted what this policy meant at the front of my classroom. Just keep in mind that this suggestion can be a double-edge sword. I had students in my classroom all the time, both before and after school. For me, it was worth it to sacrifice that time I could have had to myself in order to make sure that my students were OK and had a safe place to go if they needed it.
Be a good listener
Occasionally, a student timidly walked into my room and asked, “Can I talk to you?” I always replied with, “Absolutely! But, know that I am a state-mandated reporter, so if you say anything that is about hurting yourself or others, I will have to report it.” I usually got a nod and a slow saunter to a chair, and the student just began spilling the story.
At the high school age, students’ emotions often come out sideways. Sometimes, I would just sit there and let them talk. . .and talk. . .and talk. I was always quick to tell these students that I am NOT a counselor and probably didn’t have the answers to their problems or even the right advice. But, I was always willing to truly listen as they simply vented. I wouldn’t have my computer open, and I wouldn’t be taking notes. I just focused on giving them positive nonverbal cues and listening to their words. The reason I focused on listening so closely is because I knew that what students had to tell me may be items that I was mandated to report or that could affect the entire school community. Like all teachers, I cared deeply about my kiddos; listening to what they wanted to tell me was the best way to show it and ensure that they were OK.
Be mindful of the broader school environment
Really horrid things happen in high schools sometimes. There are days when the best thing to do is throw out the lesson you had planned for the day, take a chair, and just be with you students. If they need to talk or if they just need some downtime, let them sit in silence. During my years of teaching, several tragic events happened in the school I worked in. When they did, my students knew my classroom was a safe space where I’d give them an opportunity to process with people affected by the same event. I would often have counselors come into my room to provide additional support as well. Sometimes, the reality is that the lesson you had planned for the day isn’t as important as what has just happened to your community.
Nothing is more valuable for effective classroom management than building genuine relationships with your students. Now, it’s just not realistic to create a relationship with each student, but not every student needs or wants a relationship from you. The important thing is to recognize the ones that do and cultivate those connections. And, in a classroom based on personal respect and listening, the relationship comes naturally. Students are less likely to misbehave in your class if that relationship and sense of mutual respect has been established.
High school classrooms will always be a chaotic place. But, it is possible to keep the chaos in check. So, when Riley puts his sandwich down his pants again, take a step back, shake your head and laugh, and then calmly tell him to take his sandwich out of his pants. Take a moment to listen to why he did that in the first place, chalk it up to another high school teacher experience., and remember that you’ll always have better stories than your non-teacher friends.
Looking for more ideas for effective classroom management at the high school level? Check out this blog post on Making Student Relationships a Priority!