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Skills for Educators

All Skills for Educators

Classroom Management to Promote Learning

by Steve Bean, ETR Associates

As "guest presenters," educators from community-based health organizations, clinics or health departments often find classroom management challenging. For many, it is so challenging that they avoid managing classroom behavior altogether. Instead, they take shelter under the protective wing of the regular teacher, letting that person handle any and all behavior issues.

This article is intended to provide some skills and approaches to classroom management for the health educator who is currently "warming up" for a new year of teaching in someone else’s classroom. It includes the following sections:

A Definition of Classroom Management

The term "classroom management" is often used to refer to behavior modification or discipline only — and for good reason. Classroom management, on its surface, is primarily about establishing guidelines for behavior and making sure that those guidelines are followed. But most educators are not interested in good behavior just for behavior’s sake. Good behavior is important for creating an environment where student learning will take place.

Good behavior is a necessary condition for learning, but by itself, it is not sufficient. When an educator begins to go beyond performing behavior modification to include strategies that promote learning, that educator begins to practice true "classroom management." This broader concept of classroom management includes, among other things:

  • how we arrange classroom space

  • how we present our "teaching self" in that space, and

  • how we expect students to demonstrate that they have learned what we wanted them to learn.

Combined with behavior modification practices, these concepts suggest a definition for the broader view of classroom management:

"A system for structuring physical space and delivering instruction that manages behavior with the overall goal of promoting student learning in the classroom."

The rest of this article describes strategies that educators visiting other teachers' classrooms can use to implement their own classroom management in this broader sense.


Asserting Your Authority

Avoiding the "Substitute Syndrome"

As a guest in someone else's classroom, a visiting educator is immediately subjected to "Substitute Syndrome." You are, in effect, a substitute teacher with all the advantages and liabilities of that role. Among your advantages is the fact that you are a new face and represent a "change of pace" from the regular classroom routine. Also, you are most likely presenting on a topic that will not only be fresh but will be perceived by many students as being important — or at least relevant — to their lives outside of school.

Unfortunately, the disadvantages of being a guest presenter often outweigh the advantages. These disadvantages include:

  • no established rapport with the students;

  • limited background information about the students (including who will and will not try to take advantage of you);

  • limited knowledge of school-wide or classroom rules and systems; and

  • little or no ability to make sure students face consequences for inappropriate behavior.

At the point where disadvantages outweigh advantages, many guest presenters rely on the regular classroom teacher to offset the effects of "Substitute Syndrome," depending on the teacher to handle all behavior issues. This is not the best strategy. In the classroom culture, there is a direct connection between respect and credibility. In other words, if students respect the educator, they are more likely to also pay attention to what the educator is teaching them. You have to earn respect when you abdicate being in charge of your own classroom, resulting in the loss of a large part of the students' belief in your credibility as a teacher. If you lose credibility, the students will learn less from you, sometimes substantially less.

Developing a Management Plan

The host teacher is the ultimate authority in the classroom and an important ally. However, instead of relying on the host teacher entirely, establish and assert your own authority. Begin by developing your own classroom management plan. Your management plan should be general and flexible enough to accommodate the slight differences you will encounter as you visit different schools. The resources listed at the end of this column can help guide you in developing this plan.

Once you have developed a plan, have a discussion, by phone or in person, with the teacher or teachers in whose classes you will be presenting. You have three objectives during this discussion:

  1. To learn about existing classroom management in the school and in the particular teacher’s classroom.

    Ask questions such as:

    • What is the seating arrangement?
    • Do students call that teacher by his or her first name or do they use Mr/Mrs and last name?
    • Do students need a pass to go to the bathroom or elsewhere?
    • Is there an official form for passes or will any piece of paper do?
    • What is the bathroom policy?
    • Does the class take breaks?
    • What are students allowed to do during breaks?
    • What is an acceptable level of noise during free time?
    • How does that teacher deal with students talking out of turn or engaging in side talk during instruction?
    • How severe does the teacher consider different infractions to be?
    • How does the teacher make the students accountable for learning from a presentation?
    • What are the class or school policies about "gadgets" like cell phones, PDAs, laptops, iPods, etc.?
  1. State your preferences for how to manage the classroom during your presentation.
Present your management plan to the teacher, adjusting it to match the most important parts of existing management practices. Be assertive about wanting to be the primary manager of the classroom during your presentation. Respect what is important to that teacher when it comes to management, but don’t compromise the integrity of your plan.
  1. Discuss with the host teacher the ways that he or she can support your management during the presentation.

    Present your guidelines for when you would want the teacher to step into a management role and find out if the teacher is comfortable holding off until that point. You should aim for being able to handle side talk and other common disruptions on your own. On the other end of the behavioral spectrum, no educator should handle a physical fight alone.

    Be sure that your definition of a "management issue" and the host teacher’s are similar. For example, a female student who gets upset during a rape awareness talk may be seen as disruptive by the teacher, while to you, her comments and reactions are entirely appropriate given the topic.

While this management discussion with a host teacher is an extra time investment, it does not have to take long. You can find out everything you need to know in 10 to 15 minutes. Also, teachers are used to talking about classroom management, so you will probably not have to spend time justifying the discussion.


Making Learning Authentic

As stated earlier, the ability of the students to see an educator as a valuable source of learning is dependent on the respect they have for that educator. As a guest presenter, you can earn students’ respect by showing them, from the outset, that you have "come to the table" with some serious and valuable learning in mind. Accomplishing this task involves at least two strategies, which are:

  1. show students that you respect them as learners, and

  2. hold students accountable for their learning in as "authentic" a way as possible.

Respect Students as Learners

  1. Share Your Rationale

    Start showing students the respect you have for them as learners by sharing the rationale behind what you want to teach them. You can share this information as a part of the oral presentation, by summarizing the rationale in writing on the board or on a handout, or both.
By using two or more formats (e.g. oral and handout), you increase your access to different ways students are able to receive information.
If time allows, take an informal survey of how important the students think your topic is, based on their understanding of your rationale. You could also ask the students if they agree with your rationale. Challenge them to propose their own explanations for why it is important for them to learn the information or skills you are presenting.
  1. Believe Your Rationale

    No matter what, be confident about the reasons why you think the students should learn your material. (If you find you don’t have genuine confidence in your rationale, it's time to reassess your topic!)

    However, it's important that you set clear limits on the discussion. Inviting the students to evaluate the rationale behind what they learn does not mean they must be completely convinced before you can proceed. In fact, some students will take your invitation as an opportunity to test your resolve to teach. These students will argue as long as they can to see how long you will justify yourself and how long they can delay your lesson. Respond to this behavior by setting clear limits. This is your way of expecting the same basic respect you have just offered them.

Hold Students Accountable for their Own Learning

  1. Establish Clear Learning Objectives

    Hold students accountable by making your learning objectives clear. Make sure you know what it is that you want students to be able to do after you have taught them and share those objectives with them. Couch the objectives in measurable terms. For example, "Students will be able to identify the four body fluids that transmit the HIV virus."

    Also, consider students’ differing ability levels and create a range within which they will demonstrate their learning. For example, "Students will identify 1-3 abusive behaviors that are often seen in domestic violence situations."

    Finally, when sharing objectives, use language that students will understand. Avoid jargon such as: "Students will actualize behavioral alteration through participation in a theatrical improvisation."

  2. Assess Student Learning

    If time allows, require students to produce something concrete that demonstrates what they have learned. For example, "Act out a skit in which a counselor teaches her client about the four body fluids that transmit the HIV virus." Holding students accountable for learning by asking for a concrete product is a critical element of classroom management. Students respect us more as educators if we expect them to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

  3. Ask for "Authentic" Demonstrations of Learning

    Students lose respect for us as educators if they think the learning we demand of them is irrelevant to their lives or has no value in terms of practical skills. Therefore, educators should strive for for students to demonstrate learning in ways that that are as authentic as possible. Authentic means that the product has an application in the "real world" outside the classroom and matches the way that someone would utilize the information or skill you're trying to teach.

    Much of what students are typically asked to do is inauthentic. For example, worksheets are the default product required of students by most guest presenters. They are a time honored assignment for facts-based presentations, but consider this: when was the last time you had to complete a worksheet to demonstrate the knowledge you need to do your job?

    Those who teach interpersonal skills have long recognized the need for authentic demonstrations of learning. Having students participate in roleplays, or small group practice, is a way of increasing the authenticity with which students practice or demonstrate having learned a skill. Strive for this level of authenticity in the products you ask of students.

    Giving an STD prevention presentation? Consider having students write letters to people they think need to know more about STDs — like friends, parents, or girlfriends or boyfriends. Doing pregnancy prevention? Create a web search that will enhance students' understanding of the prevalence of pregnancy in their age group. Get creative! Many students who balk at yet another worksheet or quiz will jump at the chance to script a scene or draw a comic strip that demonstrates their grasp of skills or knowledge-based content.

Using these strategies may not seem like classroom management. But remember, the ultimate goal of classroom management is to promote student learning. In that context, expecting an authentic product means you take the learning seriously, which communicates to students that you take them seriously. Both lead to mutual respect and engagement which, in turn, lead to good behavior.

By using two or more formats (e.g. oral and handout), you increase your access to different ways students are able to receive information.


Using Movement and Proximity to Modify Behavior

In theater, references are made to "the fourth wall." This phrase refers to the physical and experiential separation between actors and audience that comes from the architectural design of a typical theater. Actors and audience are separated by the height of the stage, the frame around it, and the space between it and the seats.

Some "theater people" have developed techniques for breaking down this fourth wall because they feel it creates a separation that keeps the audience from having the fullest possible theater experience. Examples of such techniques include seating actors in the audience, having actors enter or exit the stage through the audience, or designing theaters without any sort of inherent spatial separation between audience and stage.

Traditional classrooms contain their own type of "fourth wall," or separation between teacher and students. Regardless of whether desks are arranged in rows or groups, they are usually oriented towards a black- or dry-erase board. Somewhere near the board and away from the students is the teacher’s desk. Even if the teacher’s desk is among the students’ desks, the differences in its size, height and structure set it off, thereby creating both physical and psychological separations. Similarly, a podium, though useful for holding notes, introduces a barrier into the space between teacher and student.

Eliminating Spatial Separation

Eliminating spatial separation between an educator and students is essential to good classroom management. Spatial separation removes students from the learning process and increases the impact of any distractions. Spatial separation also creates a sense of distance between students and the real effects of their behavior. When there is spatial separation, there is also emotional distance. It is easier for students to heckle, talk to neighbors, roughhouse, or otherwise behave inappropriately when the educator is "far away." The educator seems less like a real person who deserves respect and attention when there is spatial separation.

  1. Using Movement to Eliminate Separation

    Movement is an effective classroom management technique to eliminate spatial separation. To use it, simply move to different locations in the room during instruction. By moving about the room, you break down that "fourth wall" of separation and convey to students the sense that learning (as well as behavior modification!) is all around them. There is no separation. Therefore, the emotional distance that leads to disrespectful and disruptive behavior is also minimized. Furthermore, if you have to approach a student for behavior management, your movement will be less surprising than if you had spent the entire time at the front of the room and therefore be less likely to heighten the overall tension in the classroom.

    Moving around the room can be a challenge for many educators because it casts them adrift from instructional tools like notes, blackboards and handouts. As a guest presenter, you can solve this problem by placing your instructional tools in several locations in the room instead of concentrating them all in one place (that place usually being a traditional "teacher spot" in the room like a teacher’s desk or the blackboard).

    You can take this strategy one step further by entrusting your different educational materials to various students around the room. You then have a natural reason to gravitate to various positions in the room. You can even incorporate student participation into this technique. For example, it will seem perfectly natural for you to go over to students who are holding your handouts to ask them to begin passing the handouts around the room.

    Be aware that your movement is a powerful form of body language that sets a subliminal tone for your instruction. Jittery motions, constant pacing, or following the same route over and over can undermine the benefits of movement. Practice making your movement around the room natural and fluid. Place yourself at different locations, and then do some instruction from each location.

  2. Using Proximity

    Proximity — or placing yourself inside the personal space of a disruptive student — is another, very powerful way of using movement to break down the "fourth wall" and manage student behavior. Once you have noticed a student being repeatedly disruptive, calmly walk over, stand next to that student, and simply continue instruction from that spot. By doing so, you are sending the message that you see the student's inappropriate behavior and you want it to stop.

    If the student continues to be disruptive, increase the proximity. Put your hand on the back of the chair, or if appropriate, place it gently on the student's shoulder. If this approach does not stop the disruptive behavior, then you will have to speak to the student.
The "I-statement" approach outlined in the next section, Conflict Resolution-Based Discipline, is recommended when speaking to a student about disruptive behavior.
Proximity is an effective behavior management technique because you can tell disruptive students that you want them to change their behavior without making a big public issue out of it or even interrupting the lesson. Students are more likely to comply because minimizing the confrontation allows them to back down without losing face in front of their peers.


Applying Conflict Resolution-Based Discipline

In order to maintain a positive learning environment for students as a group, I recommend educators use a technique I call "Conflict Resolution-Based" (CRB) discipline. The technique of CRB discipline is taken directly from conflict resolution. Like most good classroom management techniques, CRB discipline takes a little more time in the short run, but because it can effectively prevent disruptive behavior from continuing or escalating, it can save time in the long run.

Using a Five -Part Script for CRB Discipline

Conflict resolution-based discipline follows a five-part script. To address student misbehavior:

  1. Name the behavior;
  2. Describe the effects of the behavior using a non-blaming "I-statement;"
  3. If necessary, explain why the behavior makes you feel the way you do;
  4. Make a request for a change in the behavior; and
  5. Negotiate another outcome. Obtain a specific response to the request as necessary.

Example of Conflict Resolution-Based Discipline

The best way to illustrate the CRB discipline technique is by example. Imagine a common occurrence: a student talks to "Pat" — a friend at the next desk — each time you begin a portion of the presentation. Assuming that you have already used Proximity silently and it had no effect, you need to take the next step. You should go over and squat down by the student's desk in a spot where you can still talk to him or her.

Note: Squatting avoids subjecting students to the unnecessary intimidation of being addressed by someone looming over them. Later, if the situation escalates and more authority is required, the educator can move to a standing position, thereby increasing his/her authority. For guest presenters, the escalation of the incident will probably be the point where the classroom teacher needs to get involved.

To make the interaction as private as possible, use a voice that is firm but quiet.

See Proximity for more on the advantages of keeping discipline private.

Addressing this situation with conflict resolution-based discipline follows the five-part script and looks something like this:

"When you talk to Pat while I’m talking, I feel frustrated because I find it hard to concentrate on my presentation. I would appreciate it if you would stop. Will you do that for me?"

The technique is effective for many reasons:

  • It minimizes student denial. When you accurately describe a behavior without blaming, a student has a lot less incentive or a lot less room to deny doing it.

  • Using an "I-statement," which addresses the behavior without blaming the student, avoids sending the message that the student is "bad."

  • By using an "I-statement," you are expressing what you feel. This is a powerful position because no one else can tell you what you do or do not feel.

  • Making a request for a change in behavior, instead of giving an order, is empowering for the student. It gives the student the power to choose between continuing the inappropriate behavior or resolving a conflict in a mutually respectful way.

  • Even the most disruptive student has internalized some positive norms about "doing favors" for people. These internalized messages reinforce the behavior modification imbedded in making a request for a behavior change.

  • Asking for a specific response to the request requires that the student commit to changing or not changing inappropriate behavior. By answering "yes" to the question "Can you do that for me?" the student enters into a verbal contract. Intrinsically, the student knows that talking again, after explicitly agreeing not to, will be a violation of that contract.

  • Obtaining a specific response to the request also leaves room for negotiation. If the student states that he or she cannot honor the educator’s request, then the educator can suggest or solicit a counterproposal for addressing the situation.
    Negotiation is a good way to prove that there is mutual respect, but set reasonable limits about what you're willing — and not willing — to compromise, and don't let students waste valuable class time trying to see what you'll let them wrangle from a negotiation. Make the time window for negotiations "short and sweet."

Defending Other Students

A subtle variation on the conflict resolution-based discipline technique is to use it to address behavior that is affecting other students or their learning environment. Using conflict resolution-based communication on behalf of others is more difficult, and it reduces the power of the "I-statement," but it is still effective.

An example of a common scenario is when a student plays off your topic to make a rude or insulting comment about another student:

"So, next we’re going to do a roleplay that shows how a teen might handle a peer pressuring her to do drugs. I need two volunteers… Juan, ok, great, why don’t you be Student One… Oh, wait, I’m sorry, Student One is female…"

"That’s okay. Juan’s such a fag, he can do it!" (Students laugh)

Handling this situation using conflict resolution-based discipline would look something like:

"Carl, when you called Juan a fag, I felt offended because it was insulting to a member of the class. I’d feel better if you would apologize to Juan and then agree to follow the groundrule for our discussion that says 'No put downs.’ Will you do that for me?"

Handling Deflections

Using conflict resolution-based discipline, in the above situation, is less powerful because you are essentially speaking for someone else, which weakens your position. Carl is apt to say that he was "just kidding" or claim that "Juan knows I was just kidding" or dismiss his comment by stating, "We call Juan a fag all the time; he doesn’t care."

These deflections are difficult to handle when an educator doesn’t want to put the victim — in this case Juan — in the awkward position of having to choose between backing the teacher and siding against his peers. An educator can guide the deflections back towards the behavior by asserting:

"While that might be true, what I want you to hear is that I feel offended by the comment."

In this case, sticking to an "I-statement" is still powerful because:

  • The student has to come to terms with the educator’s feelings about the issue.

  • The technique still focuses on the specific behavior instead of the personality or worth of the student who exhibited the behavior.

  • The technique still implies a belief and confidence that the student can control his or her behavior.

  • The technique still leaves the student the option to negotiate.

In addition to its effectiveness as a way to manage classroom behavior, CRB discipline has an added benefit. By modeling strategies that students can use to resolve their own conflicts, the educator is indirectly teaching students an important interpersonal skill.



For both full-time classroom teachers and guest educators, perfecting classroom management skills after a long summer break is a lot like learning tennis. In both cases, two rules apply: don’t try to master too much at once, and don’t overexert yourself at your first practice. Pick one or two techniques to start with and practice them until they come naturally. Once you have a couple under your belt, add a few more, and then a few more until, eventually, you have a full complement of techniques that together make up a comprehensive management plan.

The classroom management techniques highlighted in this column were selected on the basis of how they complement one another and how they support a management approach that maximizes the goal of promoting student learning. There are many other classroom management techniques not discussed here which are also useful parts of a comprehensive plan. These include:

  • Using stillness and vocal pauses to regain attention.
  • Changing voice patterns to regain or maintain attention.
  • Redirecting students to the presentation or reading.
  • Making seating assignments that maximize behavior management.
  • Using "time-outs."
  • Identifying and using peer leaders to support classroom management.
  • Equalizing attention among students to increase engagement.
  • Using a cooperative approach to teacher-directed questions.

For more information on these techniques, investigate the titles listed in the resources section below.



Internet Resources

Books Recommended by Teachers

  • Cooperative Learning
    by Spencer Kagen
    Kagen Cooperative Learning (1994)

  • Beyond Discipline
    by Alfie Kohn
    Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (1996)

  • Keys to the Classroom: A Teacher's Guide to the First Month of School
    by Carrol Moran (editor)
    Corwin Press (2000)

  • The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher
    by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong
    Harry K. Wong Publishing (1998)

Classroom "Democracy"

  • Democracy in Small Groups
    by John Gastil
    New Society Publishers (1993)

Author's Influences

  • Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom
    by Lisa D. Delpit
    New Press (1996)

  • Deschooling Our Lives
    by Matt Hern (editor)
    New Society Publishers (1996)

  • I Won't Learn From You! The Role of Assent in Learning
    by Herbert Kohl
    Milkweed Editions (1991)


About this month's guest author:
Steve Bean, M.A., is the manager of the Program Development Unit of ETR Associates’ Training Department. His unit is currently implementing Cultures & Communities, a violence prevention program, and the Young Women’s Leadership Alliance, a girls' leadership project. He has spent nine years teaching and developing experiential education programs in areas such as outdoor adventure-learning, environmental education, conflict resolution, dating violence prevention and service learning. Before joining ETR Associates, he was a full-time teacher for The Delta School, a charter high school for severely at-risk students.