Classroom Management: Observing the Start of Class

          Routines are those things we regularly do.  The patterns of our life as it were.  The examples of patterns in our lives are endless.  Our morning routine of waking up and, for me at least, starting the water for coffee, checking my phone for social media, getting breakfast for my children, and getting ready for the day.  These consistencies allow me to start my day and get in the mindset for the work ahead.

          Classrooms are a series of expected routines that the student recognizes and is familiar with.  This routine brings stability and consistency to the student.  They know what to expect and they know what is likely to happen next.  A dramatic shift from the normal routine can cause significant behavioral shifts in the classroom.   Consider the impact of an unplanned fire alarm on the school day, or the week before a major break.  So, what routines should the administrator look for when observing?

          Let’s take a look at the start of the class rather than the entire lesson.  In this we will look at just Entering the Classroom to Starting the Class.  This is a significant time of transition and sets the tone for the entire class ahead.  For reference, I draw heavily from the work of Michael Grinder and Kendall Zoller especially in the areas of getting attention and connecting with the audience.

          The management of students entering the classroom is far more important than most people realize, especially during the beginning of the school year.  As the teacher, you are verbally and non-verbally setting the tone for the period of time you see them. 

There are a myriad of examples on YouTube and other social media about teachers doing all kinds of greetings and individual handshakes for their class.  I don’t know about you, but keeping track of 15 – 20 different greetings or handshakes per class is not going to happen for me.  So, my advice, do what comes natural for you or for your teachers.  Do not try to fake something that you are not.

As an observer, I want to see the teacher greeting students and interacting in a positive manner.  I like seeing teachers meeting students at the door, making eye contact, and greeting the students.  This serves as an initial greeting for your classroom and setting high expectations.  It also allows a first contact that is positive and if one is observant, an idea of where the student is at socially and emotionally for the day.  Each teacher will be different, but a positive greeting goes a long way towards connecting with students.  This sets a positive tone for the class and provides the teacher with some information about the students for the day.

As the students enter the classroom, it should be apparent that there is some sense of what to do next.  Do they hang their bags up?  Do they get their materials out?  Do they turn in work somewhere?  Is there some task accessible, that the student can begin work on and engage with the learning?  Does the teacher provide a written task on the board or projected on a screen describing the starting task or activity?

An entrance task limits down time, engages the student immediately with the subject, and sets a tone of importance for the class work.  All of this can be done without the teacher supervision, but it must be taught at the beginning of the school year and set as a routine.  An administrator walking in this class will see academic engagement and students on a task.  When the students are asked about the work, they should describe some version of expectation to get started immediately.

This is a time of significant transition for the class.  It is that moment where the students move from the passing period to the start of class.  This is where I draw on the work of Michael Grinder for Getting Their Attention.  I look for the following non-verbal and verbal cues when starting the class:

Teaching Space (non-verbal):  A teacher has a spot in the classroom where he or she teaches.  If you observe teachers, it is easy to spot but they may not realize that they are doing this.  Where do they stand to teach and give instructions?  Teachers always have a teaching space that they work from.  Do they come to that spot before beginning teaching?  If so, students engage quicker knowing that this spot is important for instruction.

          Freeze the Body (non-verbal): In preparation for the transition, the teacher, when in the teaching space, stops moving and freezes their body.  This is a non-verbal shift in the students mind that something is happening.  With practice, the teacher entering the teaching space and stopping will gain the attention of the class.  The caution is that this is a transitional state.  The teacher should not remain stationary for the entire class.  Just long enough to gain attention, using the Above – Pause – Whisper, as the verbal transition.  Then the teacher may continue with the discussion.

          Above Pause Whisper (verbal): When the teacher speaks to gain attention, how do they sound?  What is their volume level?  Great managers know that they need to speak ABOVE the volume of the class with a short attention getting word or phrase to interrupt what is happening in the class.  An immediate PAUSE and freezing the body, allows the class to re-focus on the instructor.  Then dropping the voice down to a near WHISPER verbally draws the class in to the instruction before moving to the next step which is instruction.

          Physical Cue (non-verbal):  At the beginning of the year, the teacher should combine the teaching space, frozen body, and above pause whisper with a non-verbal cue.  I like to place my right arm at 90 degrees at my elbow with my hand up and the left hand at my bellow button.  The idea being that this non-verbal cue replaces the verbal cues over time.  If I have done this correctly, I will start with a verbal and non-verbal cue, and slowly drop the verbal cues in favor of the recognized non-verbals only.  In this, my management becomes less verbal and more non-verbal and if done consistently, expected by the class.  Then, one can begin teaching.

          Written Instruction / Entrance Task (verbal and non-verbal):  At the beginning of class, we need to teach students how we expect them to start.  Writing an activity on the board, projected slide, or other method where everyone can see, allows the teacher and students to refer to it.  Initially, the teacher needs to teach this Entrance Task, the activity that students are expected to start once in the class.  However, over time, if consistent, the students will recognize this starting task and beginning to work on their own.  Or, if the teacher is providing instruction for the start of class, it is available for reference by the students and teacher.  This limits the need for the teacher to repeat instructions, instead they can simply non-verbally point at the instructions when the student say, “I don’t know what to do”.  It also allows our English Language Learners the opportunity to process the written word rather than navigating verbal instructions.

          When I am asked to observe the start of class, these are things I look for as the teacher begins class.  One can learn a lot about how the management of the class by observing the start of the class.  This significant period of transition is worth paying attention to, especially at the beginning of the school year.  Extra attention given at this portion of class will pay benefits throughout the class period.

          If you are serious about changing the classroom management style of your school, get out and visit the classrooms.  Use informal observations and create a checklist for behaviors and management skills you wish to see.  Provide feedback to your teachers about what you saw.  Have a conversation with the teacher, or teachers about what you observed and the strengths or challenges they seem to be having.  Encourage the teachers to observe other teachers who are successful at classroom management, or are demonstrating successful practices in their classroom.

          Shifting the culture of a school takes time, hard work, commitment, communication, and a willingness to commit the time to make the shift.  Keep in mind that small changes can make significant impacts in a classroom, and school.  Consistency across the school in teacher expectations has shown to have significant positive impacts in students behavior and academic behavior of students.  I encourage you to take the first steps towards making positive shifts in your school climate and classroom management practices.

For more information on the above topics, I recommend you view some of the hyperlinked videos below as a frame of reference.  Michael Grinder and Kendall Zoller are experts in the field of non-verbal communication and have provided some excellent resources for you to review in this field.

High Expectations (Michael Grinder)

I share this video as an example of how teachers can adjust how they stand to increase the non-verbal expectations.

Above, Pause, Whisper (Michael Grinder)

A description of the skill set of Above, Pause, Whisper.

Above, Pause, Whisper – Demonstration (Michael Grinder)

A demonstration of Above, Pause, Whisper with a group of teachers.

Exit and Entrance Directions (Michael Grinder)

Michael describes an Exit Direction for use with students.  This is easily modified to become an entrance direction at the beginning of class for students.

Digital Workshop: The Choreography of Presenting (Kendall Zoller)

Kendall Zoller shares his Choreography of Presenting in this video. While not specifically classroom based, it does provide us with a great deal of information as educators when we consider how we present information to the classroom.

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