Establishing Authority in the Classroom
Getting off to a good start in the classroom requires establishing authority early.
By Tim Walker
Imagine you just finished your first year teaching (you’ll be there before you know it!). You’re looking forward to jumping into your second year, but wait—you’re being assigned to that class, the one that makes your more experienced colleagues sigh and shake their heads. It’s the class that has chased off the last five teachers. And it’s all yours! Good luck.
This was the sharp curve in the road former NEA student—now active—member Ge’ron Tatum faced as he prepared for his second year at Sanford B. Ladd Elementary in Kansas City, Missouri.
“This was a particularly notorious class,” he recalls. “Classroom management can take a while to master, so getting stuck with kids who wanted to break me—it looked like a challenge.”
But Tatum was reasonably sure he could get the class on course—and maybe even make a difference. He had at least two things going for him: confidence at the wheel, and some classroom discipline strategies he’d road tested during his first year.
“No two groups of kids are the same,” says Tatum, “but ultimately students are going to push you no matter what.” The key, he says, is to know where you want to end up and be ready to face those bumps in the road.
Laura Mahurin, a teacher in Charlottesville, Virginia, agrees: “Students will test you, so it’s critical that new teachers have a plan in hand when they walk into the classroom the first time.”
Even after all the coursework you have completed and the student teaching experience you’ve gained, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed by classroom management challenges once you’re alone in the driver’s seat. We spoke to a group of new teachers from across the country, in both rural and urban areas, who shared their best advice.
Look the Part
Woodrow Price, a third-year teacher in Port Gibson, Mississippi, believes if you want respect from your students, look like the professional you are.
“It helps when you are a new teacher to dress up and look like a person who expects respect from the kids,” explains Price. “Especially in those first few weeks.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean business suits, but at the very least, do not dress like your students. For new, young teachers especially, dressing will help create what Jim Burke, a California educator and author, calls an “Adult Professional Persona.”
“New teachers must have a greater presence,” Burke says. “Set a tone that creates a little distance between you and your students.” (Click here to read more from Burke.)
Katy Cook, a second-year teacher in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma adds that “Dressing professionally can also help your image with parents. They’ll take you more seriously.”
And she warns: “You never know when they’ll drop by the school.”
Still, says Michael Weisbrod, a seventh-grade teacher at Oak Knoll Middle School in Mechanicsville, Virginia, dressing casually is fine if you know it’s appropriate (field trips, crafts, or school-wide theme days, for example).
“Jeans are sometimes okay, but maybe also wear school colors,” Weisbrod advises. “So at least you’re in the school spirit.”
But looking the part will only get you so far. You’ll need other tools to keep an orderly classroom up and running.
Connect Early with Your Students
On his first day at Sanford B. Ladd Elementary, Tatum stood at the door so he could introduce himself and shake hands with each student who walked into the classroom.
“I’m meeting my students for the first time,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I treat them with the same respect I would expect them to show me?”
For Tatum, sitting behind his desk as students walk in immediately creates a barrier that doesn’t need to be there—especially with a class known for throwing up roadblocks of their own.
Tatum says to keep an eye out for ways to make these kinds of connections with your students. Weisbrod agrees. “Once students understand that you see them as individuals and that you want to involve, not intimidate them, it sets the right tone for the year.”
Weisbrod emphasizes that you need to create a safe and secure learning environment.
Communicate to each student as early as possible that you will see to it that they will be respected by everyone in the class.
Ready. Set. Expectations!
For most new teachers, the lynchpin of an orderly classroom is a clear set of student expectations—both in terms of behavior and general classroom performance. Take whatever time is necessary to go over the rules—some teachers say you should devote your first day to coming up with rules of behavior together. The idea is to get students talking to each other about how they want to be treated. Get off to a slow start on setting expectations during your first few weeks and you’re likely to be spinning your wheels the rest of the year.
“Too many students expect teachers to treat them like fools,” says Tatum. Talking down to them is a no-no. “So right off the bat, I let my students know that I expect excellence. Not perfection, but excellence.”
“Absolutely,” says Cook. “Setting expectations is the key to establishing order in your classroom.” And as much as possible, she advises, keep it simple.
Cook starts off with three basic but critical rules: Be helpful, be respectful, and be prepared. At first, her students are floored when they hear her recite only three, but as Cook explains, “Quite a few subcategories that fall under each one, but it’s best not to overwhelm up front.”
No matter how many rules you adopt, don’t just write them on construction paper and stick them to the walls, expecting your students to memorize them between lessons.
“Practice, practice, practice,” advises Tatum. During the first few weeks, his students practice entering the classroom, sitting down, even walking down the hallways. Practice may not make perfect, but it sure beats chaos. (And remember, perfect isn’t really the goal.)
“Once you succeed in getting your students respecting basic rules and procedures,” says Tatum, “your authority will be established.” You’re already halfway there.
Now you have to be as consistent. Sticking to a routine has more benefits than drawbacks—your students will appreciate the continuity. And whatever you do, don’t make exceptions for some kids’ bad behavior while holding the line with others.
Getting others onboard
All teachers, especially new ones, need allies. Your more experienced colleagues can be a rich source of advice, encouragement, and constructive criticism. But don’t forget your students’ parents. Yes, they obviously look out for their kids, but if you establish a rapport with them, they’ll advocate for you, too.
Reach out to parents very early in the school year. Cook makes it a point to call every parent to introduce herself, and, most importantly, to compliment their child.
Think of it as preventive maintenance for the parent relationship. “They appreciate the fact that you didn’t just contact them to complain,” explains Cook. Your students, in turn, will appreciate that you went out of your way to praise them to their parents.
Generally speaking, says Price, parents will back you up if you have made an effort to open up the line of communication and keep them informed of their child’s progress.
“Some parents aren’t involved in their kids’ education and that’s a problem," he says. “But it’s definitely worthwhile for new teachers to reach out and find the ones who want to be.”
And Finally ...
Pick your battles. If you tried to correct every instance of student misbehavior or mischief, no matter how minor, you might needlessly throw gas on a tiny spark of a situation, leave less time for actual teaching, and eventually burn yourself out.
“Don’t be a stickler for every rule.” says Tatum. “If, for example, one of my students is walking around with his uniform a little untucked, I let it slide.”
Weisbrod will sometimes allow his students to move around—stand up if they need to—as long as they’re not disruptive. After all, your students aren’t little learning machines; occasionally they need a break.
“Sometimes just let your kids be kids, because a relaxed, fun classroom can also be an orderly classroom.”