5 End of the Year Classroom Management Tips

One of my favorite education blogs is Michael Linsin’s Smart Classroom Management. Yesterday, he published a post titled, “How to Avoid Losing Control the Final Days of the School Year.” Like always, he offers solid advice, but his tips are somewhat general (possibly because he does a better job of writing for the entire spectrum of K-12 teachers than I do). Michael’s post made me think about some of the specific things I do to keep a handle on student behavior during the last few weeks of the year.

Less Me. More Them.

For the most part, my students like me. They respect me. They say nice things, make an occasional card for my bulletin board, and tell me they’ll miss me next year. That doesn’t mean they want to listen to me anymore. It’s a long year, and my students are sick and tired of my voice. I don’t blame them. I’m tired of me, too. Since I know listening is a challenge for them this time of year, I talk a lot less. Instead of spoken directions, I write them on the board or in Google Classroom. Instead of delivering lectures, I assign text. Rather than teach a particular math strategy, I show a video of someone else teaching it. Mostly, I try to keep them busy with work instead of asking them to listen to me.

Give In

Talking tends to go off the charts this time of year. Instead of fighting it by making students listen to me or by asking students to work quietly at their desks, I allow them to work with partners or in small groups on nearly every assignment. Since they’re going to talk anyway, give them something academic to talk about. I also require a certain amount of the work to be finished before I give the class a break. As I wrote in this post, I give my students five-minute breaks throughout the day when they can pretty much do what they want. But at the end of the year, some kids don’t want to work. So I set a timer for all to see and tell them that if their group doesn’t have x amount of work done when the timer goes off, we’ll skip the break, and I’ll provide more time to get the work done instead.

Recommit to the Rules

The embarrassing truth is that student behavior slips at the end of the year because I have allowed it to. While the same rules are still hanging in the same spot as they have all year, I started to selectively enforce them. Whereas in September I would nail any kid who leaves her seat during instruction without getting permission, I now see that Kylie has gotten up to get a Kleenex during the math lesson and instead of moving her clip down, I justify her behavior (“Well, what’s wrong with getting a Kleenex when you need one?”) and allow it. I become permissive, and students take advantage of it.

A simple way to regain control then is to tell your students that you’ve screwed up. Don’t blame them for a problem you caused. Explain that you’ve not been holding them accountable for some of the rules and that from here on out, you’re committed to enforcing your rules. Pick a couple of the most frequently broken rules and explain that you’ll be nailing students for violating them every time. Then do it. Follow through with the predetermined consequence without fail. You’ll see a quick decrease in those behaviors as long you do what you say you’re going to do.

Reward Tolerance

Familiarity breeds contempt. A lot of end-of-year behavior stems from students just plain being sick of each other. They’ve been together for many months and where they once showed patience and understanding and a desire to get along, they now quickly tattle or fire off a rude comment.

To regain the tolerance they showed each other earlier in the year, reward it. At the end of the day, have students share about tolerance they witnessed during the day. Reward the students who displayed the tolerance. Students may struggle with this at first, but when prizes are offered, they usually respond. They’ll be more tolerant in the hopes that someone notices. They’ll be more aware of their friends’ tolerance so they can earn them rewards. They’ll likely game the system — friends will report on friends’ incidents of tolerance so that both can get prizes, but that’s okay. Yes, it’s manipulative and Alfie Kohn would surely disapprove but 1. They’re not getting the reward themselves, which means their actions (even the scheming ones) benefit somebody else, which is a nice thing to encourage, and 2. You’re trying to get through to the end of the year. Pretty much anything goes at this point.

Head Down, Keep Going

This is a hard one, but it’s important. Don’t focus on the fact that the year is almost over. Don’t count the days. Don’t cross them off a calendar. Don’t pop balloons for each newly completed day until there’s just one hanging. Don’t discuss next year at all. Don’t remind students that they should be better at things because they’ve been in school for 165 days now. You may be excited about the impending summer vacation, but some of your students aren’t.

Some of your students will be going home to horrors you can’t imagine. They’re losing the one place in the world where they feel safe and accepted. Less dramatically, some are upset about not seeing their friends for three months. Some will miss you. Some are nervous about moving to middle school or high school or maybe a new town altogether.

Change can cause anxiety, and your constant reminders about this coming change can lead to student emotions which can lead to poor behavior. Keep teaching. Keep plugging away. Stick to your routines and schedules. Teach right up to the last day as if it’s the middle of October. Before you know it, the last day will be here and then you can celebrate.

One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

My next book is about how teachers can take home less student work to grade. Part of accomplishing this worthy goal is finding ways to grade papers during the school day. There are obvious times like planning periods, recess, or, if you’re really dedicated and/or desperate, lunch. But I like to use those times for other responsibilities (and in the case of lunch, to eat). That leaves grading while students are in the room.

A lot of teachers never grade papers when students are in the room. They feel like when students are in their presence they need to be actively engaged with them. They must be instructing, or working with small groups, monitoring, or assessing. After all, they reason, so many kids need so much, how can they ever justify grading papers?

They also worry about what others will think. What if the principal walks in and finds them at their desks checking math tests? What if the reading specialist comes in to work with at-risk readers? Would she look down her nose or think the teacher is lazy or lacking in dedication?

And there’s the guilt many teachers seem to carry around like a free tote bag at a reading conference. Guilt comes from violating our own beliefs. Since most teachers believe they should do everything they can to help students, taking time out of the day to score student work doesn’t feel right.

But if you want to reclaim your personal life and stop taking so much work home, you’ll need to carve out time while students are in the room to grade papers. There are many ways to do this that are educationally sound and good for kids. One simple way is to give your students breaks.

I started giving five-minute breaks because I hate managing transitions. Conventional classroom management wisdom says that teachers should train students to execute transitions between subjects with crisp, quiet efficiency to maximize every minute of the day. Teachers are warned that sloppy transitions lead to misbehavior and wasted time.

But I always hated demanding these kinds of transitions. They made me feel like a drill sergeant. I couldn’t help notice that with the exception of the military, adults rarely transitioned seamlessly from one activity to another.

So instead of quickly switching from one subject to the next, I give my students breaks. Now, after students have sat through a 20-minute lesson and worked for another twenty minutes on their math, I announce a five-minute break. Students can play games on their Chromebooks, read, draw, or just hang out and talk. I let them know when time is running out and count down so they’re back at their seats and ready when the five minutes are up.

Breaks are good for everybody. They allow us to recharge, change our mood, engage with others, laugh, stretch, and refocus. Science backs it up. A 2011 University of Illinois study showed that participants who experienced diversions once per hour did better at a task than those who plowed ahead with no breaks.

Breaks also help with student behavior. Because my students know I’m going to give them choice time on their Chromebooks a few times each day, they’re less likely to sneak on to a game site during work time. Breaks can also help students get over frustration. This morning I was picking jobs for our class lemonade stand. One student was upset because he wasn’t selected. If we would have moved into more academic work, his negative attitude would have led to a lack of attention and a poor effort on the assignment. Instead, we took a five-minute break. I could almost see his thinking: He could sit there and stew and lose the five minutes of free time, or he could do something fun. He chose to play a game. By the time we resumed work, he had forgotten all about his disappointment over the lemonade stand.

Breaks also help me. They free me up to do some of the work I used to take home. While I sometimes use the time to get ready for the next subject, I’ve also used student break time to work on my newsletter to parents, write sub plans, and check student papers. Throughout the course of the day, my students usually get three or four breaks, which means I get 15-20 minutes of work time. And it’s not as if I’m checking Facebook. Writing newsletters, making sub plans, and checking papers are part of my job. I should do them while I’m being paid.

There are teachers and administrators who will read the above and cringe at the “lost instructional time.” They’re hypocrites, and you can prove it to them.

The next time you attend a long professional development presentation with one of your critics and the presenter announces a break, interrupt her and ask if the break can be skipped. While everyone stares daggers at you, explain that you value your learning time too much to take a break. Tell her you don’t want to “waste” a single minute.

See how that goes over.

 

Old Stuff:

Why Teachers Should Help Less

Teach Like a Cat

6 Ways to Spread Happiness in the Classroom

 

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What Comes After Fidget Spinners

My daughter knows I write this blog, and she asked me the other day whether or not I’d written about fidget spinners yet. I told her the topic was too trendy. Besides, I reasoned, the whole thing will blow over, just like Bakugan, Pokemon Go, dreams of 100% proficiency, and those little skateboards that infested my classroom a few years back. But I’ve changed my mind. Fidget spinners themselves won’t be around for long, but the trend that fidget spinners started just might.

The genius of the fidget spinner, of course, is that word “fidget.” This shamelessly transparent attempt to legitimize a toy is a lesson in how brazen marketers can be when their targets are gullible parents who will apparently fall for anything with an education word attached to it. It’s because of this that we aren’t done with fidget spinners and their nettlesome offspring. When the fidget craze ends, we can expect to see copycats. It’s really easy to do. Take a toy. Stick an educational buzzword in front of it. Voila! The next big distraction invading your classroom.

Rumor has it the following are already in production:

Gritty Bear

Place this cuddly taskmaster at the corner of your desk and pat his head during a tough math problem. He says things like, “Don’t give up!” “Winners never quit!” “You can do it!” “Persevere!” and “Don’t you know there are kids in Asia who will spend 20 minutes on a problem like this?” Manufactured by Duckworth Enterprises.

Focus Ring

Simply slip on this ring anytime you need to concentrate better. Taking a big test? Put on the ring and watch your scores soar! The focus ring is made of a copper alloy and infused with essential oils, guaranteeing its wearer a laser-like focus.

STEAM phone

Your school bans cell phones. How unfair.  But what school in their right mind would even think of banning STEAM phones? STEAM phones come preloaded with all your favorite math, science, and engineering apps! Forgot the symbol for antimony? Use your STEAM phone! Need to calculate large sums? The STEAM phone has a calculator! Thinking of checking Facebook or texting your friends during that boring history lesson? You can do that, too! But then you can go right back to doing STEAM stuff! Teachers love STEAM, and they’ll love these phones!
 

Growth Mindset Gnome

This adorable gnome with the face of Carol Dweck blows a raspberry anytime you have a fixed mindset thought. There’s nothing like a loud Bronx cheer to change your thinking from “Ah, shit! I screwed up again! I’m so stupid!” to “Mistakes help me learn better.”

Self-Regulation Marshmallows

Science has proven that children who delay gratification grow up to be adults who make more money, report higher levels of happiness, always put down the toilet seat, and never go bald. How did science learn this? MARSHMALLOWS! Now your kids can practice delaying that gratification all day long. Simply place the self-regulation marshmallows on students’ desks. Use the self-regulation marshmallow app (available on iOS or Android) to set a timer. Then sit back and watch students learn the Pavlovian way when they get a small electric shock anytime they touch the marshmallow before the preset time! FUN!

These are only the five I’ve heard about. But I bet, reader, you’ve heard of others. Tell us about them in the comments or on Facebook.

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10 Things Parents Just Don’t Understand About Teachers

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I’ve eaten at hundreds of restaurants in my life, but I’ve never worked at one. My wife was a waitress in college, so when we go out to eat and I complain about something, she’s usually able to offer me an explanation. The table next to ours received their food first because they ordered soup and sandwiches and we ordered pizza. That family was seated ahead of ours because a table for four opened up, but there isn’t yet room for our party of six. The restaurant may appear sparsely populated, but our food could be taking a long time because there’s a backlog of take-out orders.
Until you do a job, you can’t appreciate all that goes into it.  It’s this fact of life that accounts for many of the misconceptions parents have about teaching. So here are 10 things parents might not know.

We Have Less Control Over Things Than You Think We Do

The state adopts standards that we have to teach. The Board of Education approves programs that we’re required to use. The district’s administrators are under pressure to improve test scores, and that filters down to us. We may be “there for the kids,” but we’re also employees. So while we may want to teach your child other things and in other ways, we usually have less discretion than you suspect. When you complain about our math program,  you put us in a difficult position. We might very well agree with you, but saying so would be unprofessional.

We Do It All Ourselves

Teachers don’t have office assistants. We type all of our own newsletters and emails. Because we have many other urgent things to do, we likely typed that newsletter in ten minutes, while being interrupted three times, and then quickly read it over once before hitting print and running out of the room to pick up our students from some other class. Those typos aren’t because we’re idiots. They are a result of never having enough time to do all aspects of our jobs at the level we’d like to.

We Forget Stuff

There are a LOT of things that happen during the day. We may read an email from you right before the office interrupts with an announcement and a girl picks a scab and comes running for a Band-Aid. The contents of your email can quickly become forgotten amid the hustle and bustle of our days. We don’t recall everything that happens. If we send an email home explaining that Tommy had a rough day, don’t be surprised if we’re unable to recall the six things Tommy specifically did that led to the email. All we remember is he was disruptive

We’re Really Busy

We don’t have office jobs. We have a computer, but there’s a very good chance we won’t sit in front of it at all the entire day. If you email at 10 a.m. asking us to tell Timmy to ride the bus home after school and you don’t get a response back, you should call the office. We either didn’t check our email or we read it and forgot (see We Forget Stuff above).

We’re More Annoyed Than You About Buying School Supplies

We don’t like asking you to provide notebooks, pencils, folders, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, and all the other things on those beginning-of-the-year supply lists. But our schools aren’t buying them for us, and we already spend plenty of our own money on things we shouldn’t have to. If you don’t want to buy the stuff on the list, that’s fine. But don’t complain to us about it.
 

 We Don’t Really Want Your Kids’ Toys and Electronics

We know it’s unrealistic to expect you to double-check your kids’ backpacks every morning and that most toys arrive in our classrooms without your knowledge. But please understand that when we take your sons’ toys we’re doing it because they’re distracting, and if we allow one there will ten more tomorrow. So please, if your child takes a toy to school and it’s taken away from him, don’t bail him out by coming to school and asking for the toy back. Let him learn his lesson, at least for a week.

We Might Not Want Your Help

Schools like to talk about how they want more parent involvement, and some parents generously offer to help in classrooms. Sometimes, it’s greatly appreciated. But other times, it’s more work for us. We’re used to doing things ourselves. We’re not very good at delegating. And if we know you’re coming every Wednesday at 2:00 p.m., we have to find something for you to do. We’ve also had parents who caused more problems than they solved. They joked around and distracted students, made too much noise when they were in the room, and modeled bad behavior for students. We don’t want to correct your behavior in front of the class, but we also don’t want our students disrupted. Sometimes, we don’t want to take the risk, so we don’t ask for your help.

If We Meet With You Before or After School,  We’re Working for Free (and We Might Resent It)

If we need to talk to our doctors, we must do so on their time. If we call a business after it’s closed, we have to wait until tomorrow to get service. Even professionals like realtors or financial advisors who will meet with us after hours are doing so with the expectation of a pay-off in the future. If we meet with you before school, we’re probably thinking about all things we need to do before students arrive. If after school,  we’re tired and want to go home. We’ll be professional, but we’re not happy about them.

There’s Not Much I Can Do To Punish Your Kid

Some of you want us to handle all things school-related, but there’s little we can do when your child regularly misbehaves. Our principals may think we’re ineffective if we send your kid to the office too often. Taking away recess is counterproductive and punishes us just as much as your child. Other more creative consequences may be met with criticism from you, despite your pledge to stay out of school matters. If your child isn’t doing her job at school, you’re in the best position to punish your kid because you can take away the things she really likes. You’ll send a stronger message by taking away her iPad, making her go to bed thirty minutes early, or not allowing her to attend a sleepover on Saturday than we will by giving her a lunch detention. If we’re telling you about your kid’s poor behavior, it’s because we want you to do something.

We Sugarcoat

If we tell you that your kid was disrespectful to his classmates, we’re really telling you your kid was a jerk. If we describe your child as “difficult to motivate,” we’re calling him lazy. If we say Jill had a difficult day, we mean she was a major pain in the keister. Whatever we tell you, assume it was twice as bad as it sounds.

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Be a Better Teacher by Doing Less

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Like most new teachers, I read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School when I was starting out (I’ve also read it every August since). My favorite quote from the book is:
“The reason teachers are so tired at the end of the school day is that they have been working.  If I worked as hard as many teachers do, I’d be as tired too.  But have you ever noticed what happens at 3 0‘clock when the students leave? “Yea, yea, yea!”  Why are they so full of energy?  Because they have been sitting in school all day doing nothing while the teacher does all the work.  The person who does all the work is the only one doing any learning!”
 
It took me years to internalize the truth of this. For most of my career, I have been the dominant presence in my classroom. My need to feel in control, my mistaken belief that my doing more would lead to greater student success, and the feeling that because I was the only one in the room getting paid to be there, I ought to be doing most of the work, all contributed. I was convinced that the more I did, the better teacher I’d be. I was wrong.

Doing less benefits me. It also benefits my students.

Doing less work means I have more energy and more personal time. I get home early and eat an early dinner (as recommended in my five-star book, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss (how’s that for a shameless plug?)). I achieve a healthy work-life balance by doing things I want to do instead of more work. I exercise, read, write, go to my daughter’s softball games, and just hang out with my wife on our deck. I get seven and a half hours of sleep every night, and I return to work the next day recharged.

I’m in a better mood at work because I’m less stressed. My better mood means I’m more patient with students.  Being well-rested means I’m less likely to make bad decisions and more likely to be calm, use humor, and build positive relationships with students and colleagues. It makes for a more pleasant environment for everybody.

My well-being directly impacts my students.

While doing less work benefits me, which in turn benefits my students, it also makes me a more effective teacher.

 When you do less, your students must do more. That means they’re more likely to learn. The person who does the work is the only one doing any learning.

Talk Less

I used to spend large parts of my day talking at students. Now, I try to present information in other ways. Sometimes, I ask students to read the information. Other times, I assign videos that teach what I would have taught. It’s arrogant to think we’re the only ones who can provide students with information or model a process. For directions, I’m transitioning to putting most of them in written form in Google Classroom, so my students can start working without having to listen to me.  In writing, I usually teach a short lesson, then let students actually write. They share their document with classmates. Those classmates are required to offer at least three comments about their writing. Instead of me giving all the feedback, I’ve shifted some over to the students.

Help Less

As I wrote in this article, I also try to help less. Helping less tells students that you believe in their abilities to figure out their own problems. It counteracts the helplessness many students have learned and empowers them to actually try. It allows students to fail, which allows them to learn.

Reduce Behavior Problems

Stepping back from my starring role at the head of the class has also helped those students with the greatest behavior challenges. Many of these students have a hard time sitting and listening. They get bored and wiggly. To entertain themselves, they make noises, leave their seats, or start bothering others. Many of these students do much better when they have work to do. By curtailing my role and increasing theirs, I cut down on the number of times during the day when these students are asked to sit still and listen, which is often when they get in trouble.

Plan Less

I’ve also tried to plan less. I used to do most of the work for students. I’d locate articles, copy them, require students to read them, and then ask them to respond in some way. I’d find exemplar texts for students to study before a writing unit. For a social studies unit, I’d locate all the texts, videos, and activities students would need. I’d compile a packet of worksheets. Then I’d guide students through each and every one of them.

But that’s now how anyone in the real world works. When I wrote my book Happy Teacher, no one gave me a stack of articles and books to read. No one provided links to the best web sites on happiness. I had to find them. I had to decide which ones best served my purposes. I had to select what information to use. I decided how much and what parts of each book to read. I had to evaluate the sources. This is the work students should be doing. When we do it for them, we miss powerful opportunities to teach authentic skills.

This year, for a unit on Native Americans, I did less work. Students did more. They collaborated to create a Google Slides presentation about three Native American groups that lived in Michigan. I provided the guidelines and different colored index cards to record notes. I modeled some of the skills outlined above. Then I set out every resource I had in my closet and let kids have at it. I allowed them to search online for videos. My role was limited to offering guidance, getting kids unstuck, and teaching lessons on evaluating the resources for how well they helped students meet the guidelines.

Assess Less

I didn’t do much assessment either. Students shared their slideshows with kids from other classes that had yet to study the topic. Those students were given a short form to complete that provided my students with feedback. They should know that my opinion on their work isn’t the only one that matters.

Some groups did well, others didn’t. They may not have all learned everything they were supposed to about Native Americans of Michigan, but they did all learn about working in a group, managing their time, evaluating resources, the importance of design in their presentations, and many other lessons that are more applicable to the real world that what kinds of houses the Chippewa built (wigwams, if you’re curious). And besides, they don’t all learn what they’re supposed to learn when I do all the work, either.

Enlist Their Help

In the last two years, I’ve also started to use student mentors. In math especially, there are students who are  head and shoulders about their classmates. These students often finish early and need more to do. In the past I gave them busy work, let them read, or gave them some free time. Sometimes I offered enrichment activities (which they usually resented). Now, these students become “coaches on the floor.” When they finish their work, they let me know. I check it for accuracy and write their names on the board as my mentors. When students raise their hands for help, the mentors assist me in providing it. Sometimes, the students are more patient and do a better job explaining things than I do. It also gives the mentors a chance to solidify their understanding. We learn best when we teach others.

So as I start thinking about next year, I’ll be looking for more areas where I can pull back and ask my students to step forward. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

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