Strategies for Classroom Management-For the Most Challenging Classrooms (Part 1)

I have worked in alternative high school settings in Southern California for 8 years.  I have seen it all.  I know what works and what does not work.  Control does not work; psychology does.  

Part One will discuss What Not To Do
Part Two will discuss What To Do  


I was a Teacher’s Assistant in one of the most challenging alternative schools in San Diego County while I was going to college.  During that time, I was able to learn an immense about classroom management as I saw substitute teacher after substitute teacher fall flat on their face, cry, and leave defeated after a classroom of rebellious students, mostly gang members, ate them alive. 

I saw the manipulation tactics in full force.  The students switching names, seats, convincing the teacher of made up rules, and overall just taking over the classroom (the kind of classes the Substitute had taught in the inner cities, I’m sure). I have seen students cause teachers to cry and then the students play the victim and blame the sub.  In my experience, I have had a student throw a desk across the room in frustration.  I have kicked students out daily. I have been called every name in the book in front of the whole class and have had a few of them get so close to my face that I could feel their breath.   

I have also lost control over my own behaviors that the class was unable to resume. I have tried my hardest to regain some normalcy or control but failed daily.  I have tried everything for certain classes and left defeated.  I had this one kid, one that I hope no one ever has to experience, who had a diagnosed behavioral defiance disorder.  This kid was completely unable to agree or say yes or do anything that anyone told him to do.  That’s the kid I will never forget.  That’s the kid that I dedicate this post to, haha!  

So what mistakes did I make?

I tried to control, micromanage, persuade, bribe, anything you can imagine to get these students to behave and “Just do your work!”  But experienced teachers know that micromanaging students who are expert manipulators only leads to giving away control over the classroom.  So without further adieu, let’s address the strategies that don’t work.

  1. Don’t take it personally.    

It’s not about you.  It is not about hurting your feelings or making you feel bad.  You are a pawn in the game of “Let’s make the teacher cry so we can brag about it for years.” It is a game to them. You become nothing but a means for entertainment and wasting class time, so they don’t have to work.  

Don’t be overly emotional about anything.  This does not mean to be stoic and unemotional.  It means that once students realize that you are reacting to them, they will know that you don’t have control over your own emotions and they can and will start playing games.  These are generally innocent “I am not doing anything wrong” type of games but they will continue until they get kicked out or you cry, whichever comes first.  (Losing the emotional battle will most likely happen at some point, and it is recoverable but not ideal.) 

2. Don’t call out students from across the room or debate with them



Oh, I’ve played this game a lot.  It looks like:

Me: Gerardo, get to work.
Gerardo: Huh? I am working.
Me: No you’re talking.
Gerardo: No I’m not. *lifts up paper. See, I’m working. You’re interrupting me.

This is a very simple example, It could be so much worse than this.  The bottom line is that students of this caliber will debate about anything and they are most likely way better at it than you, they have more endurance to keep it going longer than you have patience for, and if you lose your patience then they win.

I call this The Rule of 2 Back and Forths. If you make 2 statements and they try to keep it going, stop it by giving them the “Because I said so” statement, the “Do we need to talk about this outside?” statement, or a variation of a “This conversation is over” statement and ignore the rest.    

3. Don’t have a power struggle



You will never win if you think that teaching is about winning the outward battle.  If teachers learn psychology with these students, we will either become the winners while making the class think they are winning or we will make ourselves crazy trying.  

Let them think they are winning as often as you can.  If letting a student get the last word every time gets them to be quiet so you can move on, then let them.  They will think they have won but you have been able to continue and finish what you are doing.  If you hate stopping in the middle of class to have a talk with a student, do it anyways.  Take the time that you need in order to improve the flow of the class in the future.    

The bottom line is whatever you pour into them, the expectations, the relational connection, or the time, you will get back only a fraction in return.  So make the amount that you pour into them over and beyond, so that you will return a bigger amount.  

This may sound like a drag, and the Don’ts are always a drag… stay tuned for the What TO DOs tomorrow so that the whole thing doesn’t sound all negative and life-sucking.  

Let’s review:

  1. Don’t take it personally.
  2. Don’t call out students from across the room or debate with them
  3. Don’t have a power struggle

Do you have any other DO NOTs to add?

Stay tuned for the TO DOs…

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