Watching a video presentation by Dr. Carla Shalaby, I was introduced to the concept of a classroom management curriculum. Dr. Shalaby is the coordinator of social justice initiatives and community internships at the University of Michigan and the author of Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom From Young Children at School. She identifies that “kids are constantly learning from what we, as the adults say or don’t say, what we do or don’t do, what we have on the walls or don’t have on the walls. Every move we make in classroom management is a lesson. Kids are watching us and they’re learning.” She suggests we need to be as intentional in the classroom management curriculum as we are with other curriculums.
Shalaby parallels students labeled as troublemakers in school to the canaries in the mines. The death of a canary signaled danger in the environment. “Troublemaking” students are important signals. Too often struggling students are seen “as the problem” and we fail to look at what we as educators are doing.
As I read her description, I immediately flashed back to my first year of teaching when Jimmy (whom I was labeling as a troublemaker) refused to begin working on an assignment I gave the class. After several “warnings” from me, I gave the threat, “You can get started on the assignment or go to the principal’s office.” Jimmy jumped to his feet, grabbed his books, and said, “See you later, Mr. Barkley.” It took too long for me to uncover what Jimmy was trying to teach me. The principal’s office was a more comfortable environment than my classroom where I was forcing engagement in a task that he not only wasn’t interested in doing but also was unable to do. I wasn’t getting his signals and probably missing signs from other students who were being compliant.
Classroom environments are complex and if we aren’t thinking about what students are learning from our choices in how we look to facilitate or orchestrate them we may be unaware of what our choices are teaching.
Shalaby shares that the challenges of the classroom can lead us to believe we should have one powerful person solve all the problems through clear rules and external consequences. While perhaps very efficient, this robs everyone of the chance to learn how to manage and work through the “predictable, messy, necessary conflicts and issues that arise in community.” We fail to use school as a chance to teach, learn, or practice the necessary skills.
Years back I worked with a primary teacher who began the year with a set of classroom rules posted on sentence strips around the classroom. She shared with her students that their goal was to be able to do away with the rules as they became a community. This strategy matches Alfie Kohn’s statement from the quote above that rules are relevant to “groups of strangers rather than to people who are working together as a community.”
“Classrooms are a rare and powerful opportunity to experiment with new, better ways of being together. We can ask, ‘What is the world we want and how can we practice and try out that world in the daily life of our classroom?'”
(Dr. Carla Shalaby)
What opportunities might you create for teachers in your school to share their thoughts around their classroom management curriculum? Are there elements in classroom management or school discipline policies that are counter to the SEL curriculum that you’ve explored? Are there decisions that are more focused on compliance than understanding and developing the skills of community? A lot of learning comes from mistakes. How does a classroom management approach deal with mistakes in behavior?
A classroom management curriculum may not be an easy topic for coaching. Teachers are often anxious for a quick problem fix so that they can respond to the pressures they feel from the other curriculums. A conscious look at what the desired outcomes of classroom management decisions are could lead to important positive impacts for teachers and students.
Will Richardson in a blog post, Rethinking Best Practices, reinforces the importance of our “management” decisions.
“Given the adolescent (and adult) mental health crisis we’re dealing with, might ‘best practices’ be more attuned to making sure our students and teachers are joyful, hopeful, and peaceful?”