Managing the Modern Classroom


Technology, lesson plans and PBL.  All useless without one key ingredient: cooperation from our classrooms.  Students today have the chance to learn about the world around better than ever, thanks to the revised curriculum, technology and student focussed pedagogies such as PBL; however, many new teachers (and even more seasoned ones) are struggling with classroom management.  You can have the best lesson and educational accoutrements in the world but without classroom management, unfortunately the learning outcomes (and goals) will not happen as expected.

In my experience, classroom management becomes more of an issue at the 9th and 10th grade; students in these grades often have access to distractible technology, are more socially stable (in so much that they at least know their peers), they’ve learned “the system” in terms of deadlines and the infamous “I” package.  So what can you do?  What is the magical formula to getting your class to settle down and settle into learning?


Every class is different, every nuance of classroom dynamics on any given day will be different; HOWEVER, there are a few things we can do as educators to mitigate distractions, behaviour issues and create a space where learning is priority for everyone.

  1.  Set high expectations.  Right away.  If you start the year or class off with the expectation you aren’t going to get amazing results from your class, they won’t give you any.  We as teachers should be making this a priority to get our students pushing themselves to achieve more each and every day.  High expectations means that students need to actually try each day, participate each day.  High expectations helps build resiliency, because it means that students need to be prepared to fail to meet expectations some days.  It means that students will learn to try again when that happens.  It means that we respect their intelligence, their capabilities.  It shows them that you value who they are.  Setting high expectations also is an opportunity to work with students on goal setting (#goals), and what it means to reach goals and reassess.  The great thing about setting high expectations is that you can do it in every single class, in every single classroom in every single school.

What NOT to do: Make sure that the expectations (though high) are still achievable.  I can run, but I can’t run 10 miles the first week of training.  Also, remember its about the students not about you–if the high expectations are to build you up as an educator at the expense of your classes, that isn’t going to help your classroom.

2. Routines, routines, routines.  Setting up your classroom routines and expectations are integral to a successful year.  That includes rules around behaviours (and consequences), parent communication, due dates, technology use.  The tone of your classroom is essential for learning.  Students should have a clear understanding of what they can and can not do.  You are the leader of your classroom, and that should be 100% clear to students.  There needs to be a clear division between teacher and student in the classroom for it to function.  That means you aren’t their peer or friend.  I have had many colleagues that struggle with this balance, especially younger colleagues who are close in age to their senior students.  Being respected, having students listen and learn from you, and be mentored by you is more important that being “cool” (or “fleek”, apparently).  That means being consistent, owning your mistakes, keeping the mystery (they don’t need details about your personal life!) and overall, making sure that that if the classroom is the community of learning, you are the mayor.

What NOT to do: Even if you are the mayor, you really do need to pick your battles.  Sometimes turning a blind eye and limiting the “reward” of a reaction is the best way to go.  When you do go “toe to toe,” make sure that whatever threats you dole out, you actually follow through on.  That means know where the professional line is, and knowing the expectations of your school on certain types of behaviours.

3. Enjoy your students for what they are: students!   Everything is better with humour.  That means that sometimes its okay to let students be silly (don’t be surprised when they do age-appropriate things, like giggle at certain topics or are over-dramatic or [insert typical teen behaviour here].  When it comes to age-appropriate behaviour, sometimes it is best to let it play out and move on.  Use fun rewards, like stickers or stamps in a class that might not expect them.  Have competitions, or use games for learning whenever possible.  Even big kids enjoy having fun, even if they sometimes don’t act like they do.  On that same note, try and see the good in every kid, even if some are more prickly and difficult to get to know.  After all, you are the adult and you get to let them be the kids.  We want to teach good citizenship to our students, but “being a kid” literally has an expiration date so use that to help steer their enthusiasm into building a positive learning community.

What NOT to do: Counteractive to enjoying students as students who want to be a kids too–don’t treat them like little kids!  They still want to be seen as autonomous adults but with the benefits of childhood.  Don’t punishing them for age-appropriate behaviour either.  If you grade 8s can’t stop talking after lunch, then they are in need of a way to get their energy out.  Instead of threats of extra work, make them do something silly to burn that excess crazy that is turning your classroom into a chaos-zone.

Hopefully some of what I’ve talked about in this post will be helpful to you in your classroom, even if you have taught a number of years already!  Teaching is a joy but also very stressful.  Classroom management can make or break your year, so take the time to fix those issues you might be seeing right away before you start to look at content.  A lot of these tips aren’t in any shape or form NEW to education, but sometimes reiterating (instead of reinventing) the wheel helps it spin a little better, a little faster, a little more effectively…




Seasonal Student Excitement: Tips & Tricks


Those jingle bells are ringing, the holiday lights are twinkling, and if you are a teacher then those students’ minds are wandering!  Especially at the secondary level, often times before a break in classes, (winter break, spring break, summer) we see a definitive lapse in student attendance and participation in classes.  It is almost as though they’ve headed to the airport days (or even weeks) before their flight is set to depart.  In elementary, they like to bring their holiday excitement to class; whereas in secondary they would prefer to celebrate anywhere but!  Seasonal excitement is a real speed bump in education, and how you approach it can make your final few days or weeks prior to a break more production, and even dare I say it, educational!

Don’t give in to the desire of students to slack-off or go crazy leading up to the break!  Movies (though when relevant can be useful), worksheets and other simple distractions may save your sanity but they aren’t going to help your students learn or you to teach.  Instead, find ways to spice up your classes that fit into student desires to do something “celebratory” in those days or weeks leading up to the holiday.  Planning ahead in this respect is always a good idea.  For example, we typically utilize December as the month we introduce programming our Sphero robotics with our junior computer science students.  Some science classes may “save” more involved labs for later in the year or close to these breaks.  English classes may find ways to encourage group work or class discussions versus seat work, channeling excited chatter into something educationally productive.

All that being said, there are times and places for celebration, typically the last few days before a break (depending on what kind of break it is) and certainly don’t completely shut down the opportunity to build community within your classes.  No matter the age, students love to celebrate and encouraging it (and even the planning of it) can help to hone those excited feelings into something more productive.  Obviously, making sure all students are involved in one way or another is important.  Another way to focus student excitement is to work together with your classes towards a common goal, be it to complete a project on time or perhaps even contribute philanthropically to a local cause.  Although most charities are thought of to be in greatest need during the winter holidays, in fact they are always in need.  Make it an incentive for something perhaps, like a movie on the last day or treat.

While the break itself will be needed by all, those days leading up to it can be exhausting–so embrace the excitement, channel the energy and plan accordingly!  


Parent Connections


With the world of today, parents are finding it increasingly more difficult to connect with the school community and classroom teachers.  One would think that with the increased usage of technology, parents would feel more connected vs. less.  Although some parents may receive upwards of 3-5 emails per week from their student’s teacher–others feel left in the dark in regards to how their child is faring.  Obviously, there are significant differences in parent communication when you look across the span of different age groups (elementary, middle and secondary)–with a notable drop in parent involvement as students draw nearer to graduation.  So, what is the answer?  To determine the answer, we first must identify the end goal.

Is it to have more parents present in the building (PAC, events, etc.)?

Is it to have parents feel more involved, nay, BE more involved in daily classroom learning (via home checks, emails, etc.)?

I would argue that both goals are important, at all levels of education.  There are certainly more opportunities at the younger grades for parents to be involved than at the secondary level; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is impossible.  Taking the time to invite parents to interact with the school is the first step in creating bridges between classroom and home; however, inviting multiple times is often required for parents who are busy and have limited options for school participation.

Three key ways to encourage parent involvement:

  1. Keep them informed.  How can a parent be involved if they are not informed of what is happening around school?  If a child isn’t overly forthcoming with school-related news, parents should have another access point for important dates, going-ons, etc.  For some schools, a weekly newsletter or blog has been useful for keeping parents “in the loop,” especially when items such as report cards, field trips or assemblies is concerned.
  2. Offer multiple opportunities to get them in the building.  While parent-teacher interviews are a standard way for parents to be included in student learning, there are many other avenues to have parents visit a school, even a secondary school! First, hold events at times that are typically available for working parents, such as open house evenings, performances, etc.  Second, offer more than the typical events that parent attend (sports, theatre, band), such as Fine Art/Applied Skill open houses, Social Studies project presentations or family-friendly language plays are just a few suggestions!
  3. Keep inviting them.  If turn out is lower than expected, keep inviting parents.  If they can’t attend the first event, it doesn’t mean they won’t or can’t attend the next.  Making sure parents really know schools want them to be a part of their child’s education is vital to seeing more participation and presence at the school.

Overall, having parents feel included in their child’s education will lead to them being more involved, more invested and more likely to encourage their student to be more engaged with their learning.  School community should be a symbiotic triad between staff, students and parents.  All three working together leads to better education for students, and that is of course, what we are here for.



Finding “Space” for Student-led Learning


If “home is where the heart is,” then the classroom should be “where the learning is,” but also where inspiration is, where passion is, and where exploration is.  Just like every home should be different and customized to its inhabitants, so too should we be able to customize our learning spaces to suit the needs of our students.

I primarily teach in a computer lab.  For at least the last 5 years “Lab 239” has been my home base, mostly for information technology courses, with some “extras” in past years thrown in–Interior Design and Yearbook to be specific.  I love having the lab, and it is obviously essential for the types of courses that I teach, yet it still functions as a 20th century classroom despite the fact I am teaching 21st century curriculum.  Why?  Well, I am limited by the constraints of my physical space!  My computer stations are built in, with power supplies positioned accordingly. The lab was built in the mid-1990’s, (yes–I have teal and purple classroom accent colours!) and this style of “worker-bee” computing was the standard.  I’ve adorned the walls with movie posters, fun slogans, and other creativity-inspiring elements; however, I am daily faced with the physical configuration of my classroom.  I believe that many other teachers find themselves in a similar situation, wishing for a more homey classroom, but faced with rows of desks and built-in elements that are just not conducive to modern education.

So the question becomes: how can we transform our 20th century classrooms into 21st century learning spaces?  In some cases, it might mean asking for funding.  It in others, it might mean sacrificing “teacher space” to make room for “student space.”

For me, that means some funding.  For others in a traditional learning space, it might mean moving desks out of the way for circle discussion, or grouping students in work pods.  Companies that make educational furniture are listening to the needs of students, and are making new and innovative designs (I love to look at the Natural Pod catalog personally!).

On top of our classroom layouts, we can also transform our walls into shifting, moving inspiration by changing what our students see on a regular basis. We can’t all afford to paint each wall with white-board paint (you can always ask though!) but there are other options to look into such as giant vinyl whiteboard adhesives from Writey Boards.

Colour, safe spaces and movement are all great ways to change traditional classrooms into 21st Century Learning Spaces.  I encourage you to explore what is available and find ways to “redo” your classroom!


Substance over Technology: Tools, Tasks & Takeways


Is technology a stumbling block for you?  Does a lack of internet connection ruin your day?

There are two extremes to technology use in the classroom; with a full range in between.  On the one hand, there are teachers who utilize technology tools because they feel that it is the ‘thing to do.’  They are creating Powerpoints instead of overheads, using YouTube Videos in lieu of VHS.  They have embraced technology as far as they feel comfortable.  If you mention blogging, or hashtags, they bear a panicked look–hoping beyond hope they can retire before anyone notices their Smart Board is covered in dust.  On the other hand, there are teachers who have plunged classrooms into the deep end of the technological pool.  Every day they use something technology-based with their students.  They’ve logged hours upon hours on the in-school COWS, and have a ‘app’ for everything.  They use so much technology, students are beginning to forget how to write with pen and paper.  Both of these extremes exist; fortunately, the majority of teachers fall somewhere in the middle.

substanceovertechnologyTechnology doesn’t need to be the centre of your classroom.  It also doesn’t need to be a pain in the you-know-what.  Think of technology in two ways: as a teaching tool, and as a learning tool. By combining both tools, you should be able to create a dynamic and modern learning environment for your students, where technology makes tasks easier, and takeaways more magical.

Never feel pressured to teach with technology, 100% of the time.  For example, does it make more sense to use a tablet for notes in math than an old-fashion overhead? Of course! Notes can be reused and saved, rather than erased…plus, no more overhead pen all over your hands!  Technology as a teaching tool can make your classroom a better place for not only your students, but for you as a teacher.  How you incorporate it is up to you, and I encourage you to find new ways to give notes and lessons, be it through presentation software, or perhaps Skyping with an expert.  You don’t need to use it all the time, but at least find way to use it sometimes, and always for the betterment of student learning rather than for the sake of technology.  Technology tools should make daily or weekly tasks, like notes, easier and more engaging.  When technology is used as a learning tool, students are given the opportunity to learn new technology, but how to use technology as a tool rather than a toy (see HERE for a post about that).  When there is sound, pedagogical reasoning behind using technology as a learning tool when it comes to students, good things happen.  When students use technology to explore, to engage and to demonstrate their learning, the takeway factor is magic.   Don’t be afraid to discontinue the use of technology if it isn’t positively impacting learning in your classroom or if students aren’t yet ready to use it for learning.  Find another way, another tool, that does work for your students.

And above all, when using technology in your classroom–for teaching or otherwise–make sure that what you are doing has substance.  Make sure that you are utilizing technology as a tool for learning, that the tool hasn’t taken over the teaching.  Remember: Substance should always win over technology.