This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on seminars I attended at the recent IH Portugal Training Day.


Carol Crombie

IH Viseu

We all have classes that we think of in ….  less than glowing terms.  For whatever reason these are the groups where nothing ever seems to get done, or the whole experience is like herding cats – everyone wanders off in different directions and you’re lucky if you come out of it without scratches on your arms…

Carol’s session was an excellent reminder of how to approach class management and what to expect from it.  I should point out – this post doesn’t represent complete coverage of Carol’s seminar – just those aspects of it that feel most pertinent to my own teaching situation.

I think the most refreshing idea that came out of it was the point about matching expectations to reality – refreshing in the sense of making me think “oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that” – but also in the sense of me coming out of the session feeling ready to do something about some of those cat herding classes.

For example – do you expect your learners to put their hands up before speaking?  Do you expect them to switch their phones off before the class?  Do you expect them to enter and leave the room in good order?  Carol’s list of “ideal” classroom behaviours got me thinking about the difference between “desired” and “expected” behaviours – I think it would be lovely if all my classes did all of the things on Carol’s list (not chew gum, be respectful to each other, listen to the teacher etc) – but I don’t “expect” it, because, well – that’s the question – why don’t I expect it?  Have I just been worn down by them?  Do I have a jaundiced view of teenagers?

Possibly the reason why I have trouble with my classes is because, as Carol pointed out, the first rule of classroom management is to be clear in your own mind of what you expect from the class.  By setting clear boundaries, you’re signalling to the learners that it’s alright to work within those boundaries of what’s allowed and what’s not.  Teenagers are, as was once pointed out to me, professional students.  It’s what they do all day, all week and most of the year.  But they will push, just to see what they can get.  If, like me, you’re a theoretical disciplinarian (you know how it works in theory, but the practical applications are a step too far) – what happens is that the learners don’t so much push, but nudge.  A little here and a little there and pretty soon you find yourself running the class by their rules.  Set the boundaries and guard them vigorously!

Part of the difficulty is in what Carol referred to as “signalling your authority” – or “my room – my rules”!  How do your students enter the class?  All in a jumble, still nattering, texting, i-pods a-blazing,  scattering school books everywhere? (Yes, I have a class in mind as I write this!)  Entry and exit routines can help reinforce the idea that the classroom is not just an extension of their everyday surroundings, but that it is YOUR turf, they enter on sufferance and to remain they must abide by your rules.  So, asking them to wait outside until you arrive, and then asking them a revision question before they come through the door.  Or to add a word to the vocabulary category on the board (later students will find this more difficult, thereby possibly improving punctuality?).  Equally, exit routines, where there isn’t a mad rush for the door, but a tidy up, returning furniture to it’s proper place, collecting the homework task, another “exit” question – it all helps reinforce the idea that they’re leaving “your environment”.

It is important of course, to choose your battles wisely.  There must always be a line that is not crossed – but in some ways, choosing the battles that are minor and inconsequential are the most important.  Carol gave the example of students chewing gum in class.  This, she says, is her line in the sand and she will brook no disobedience.  I think I can see the point – for the students to give in on the minor things, which ultimately don’t matter to them one way or the other, generates the idea and the habit of submission to teacher authority, so that when a bigger issue arises, the habit is already there.  Also though, as Carol mentioned, when learners craftily sneak one past you (and quietly get away with chewing gum in the corner of the room) it satisfies the rebellious instinct.

So – back to my herd of recalcitrant cats…  We’re going to have a bit of a talk.  But I’m not going to tell them off.  We’ve probably done enough of that already and it hasn’t done much good except for set us against each other.  Instead I’m going to borrow Carol’s behavioural expectation checklist and edit it a bit and I’m going to ask them to use it to assess their own behaviour.  Do they think they’re doing everything they should?  (This was another of Carol’s great ideas by the way).  And I’m going to let them set the behaviour rules they think are appropriate for the class.  I’m going to pick four that are non-negotiable, and I’m going to let them choose another six from the remaining items.  And I’m going to see what kind of enforcement policies they think would work best.  There is a danger here, that they will think absolutely none of them are suitable….  and I’m anticipating them requiring a bribe of some kind….  but we’ll see.

I’ll try and come back to this in a couple of days with some feedback on how things went – but in the meantime I’m off to sit down and work out exactly what I expect from my classes.