Every teacher has had a day where everything went wrong and you felt like you had no control over your class at all. One particularly horrifying moment in my teaching career was when I was walking an unruly class back from lunch. They were literally (and I am using literally correctly) screaming and lying down in the hallway.
That moment will forever be burned into my brain. I was mortified. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I wasn’t alone. Ask any teacher, and they will have a horror story to tell. It happens to the best of us. While teachers may fear that a bad day is a reflection of them as a professional, I believe it is what happens the next day that matters more.
I’m not necessarily a glass-half-full kind of person, but when I am going through a particularly tough time, be it in teaching or life in general, I like to develop ways that I can improve. Over the years, I have accumulated a toolkit for what I need to do when I have a class whose behavior is challenging. I don’t necessarily look forward to these days, but now that I’ve been teaching for nearly a decade, I now know that it is just that: one bad day. One bad day doesn’t mean I have lost control of my class for the rest of the year. It does, however, mean that I have to take immediate action in order to reign my students back in.
Three of my most effective strategies are as follows.
Change your seating assignment; change your life
First things first, change your seating assignment. If your desks aren’t in rows, then you should consider changing it temporarily until you can get back on track. I know, I know, students don’t learn in rows, but students don’t learn in chaos, either. You have an obligation to get your classroom back under control, and creating a rigid classroom structure will help facilitate that. Don’t worry, you can move your desks back as soon as your students know that you are serious about making them meet your expectations.
It is also important to move students away from each other if you feel it will benefit the class. They will probably try to talk you out of it. Stay strong. They had their chance to behave appropriately, and they demonstrated that they couldn’t. You owe it to the rest of the class to create an environment that makes it easier for everyone to learn.
Revisit your expectations
Whenever I have a day that seems out of control, I always plan to spend a good amount of my class time the following day going over my expectations. I know those who are bound by strict pacing guides may be reluctant to devote this much class time to this, but it is vital. When done correctly, you will waste less time devoting a portion of your day to clearly revisit your expectations than you would just putting out fires as you go.
After a bad day, I reflect on the worst behaviors and I create a presentation (ahem… a PowerPoint) in which I list my three non-negotiables. I am explicit when I go over the behaviors that I expect and I am just as clear when I discuss what the consequences will be if my expectations are not met. My non-negotiables include when it is appropriate to speak, what is expected of students for their work and when, and if they can get out of their seats.
Speaking of the consequences, there can be no second chances on a day when you are revisiting expectations. If a student misbehaves, then you need to follow through with the consequences you’ve outlined. One option (that is sometimes debated) is silent lunch. I’ve found that contacting home is a meaningful way to let students know that you have high expectations for them. As a last resort, I will submit an office referral, but I like to reserve those for the most egregious behavior.
Take ownership of your role
Part of this is on you, and I’m not saying that to make you feel even worse. You have more power in your classroom than you think you do, and the sooner you embrace that, the easier things will be. You are there to teach and the students are there to learn. You are not there to be friends with the students or to make them like you. If you are consistent, kind and fair, the majority of students will like you.
When I have especially rough days, I can usually go back and determine what I could have done differently. Often, it is because I left too much downtime in my class or didn’t provide enough structure and instructions for an activity. I also have behavior issues when the tasks that students are working on are too easy or too difficult. I don’t let myself feel guilty for these mistakes. They happen. The point is that reflecting on these days in order to see what I could have changed helps me to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. If I determine an assignment is too easy or difficult, then I make modifications for the next day.
Teaching is hard. It does get easier the longer you do it, but it never becomes easy. Any day in which you feel you have no control over your classroom makes teaching exponentially harder. But one bad day is just that: only one bad day. To quote Leslie Knope quoting Mary Pickford: “This thing we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.” We will fall down many times, but that doesn’t mean we have to stay there.