Herding Cats: How to create a safe, effective classroom from Day 1-“Command the Room” Part 1

As a twelve year veteran teacher, the majority of that time having been spent in Middle School, I’ve picked up a trick or two, and learned a LOT from trial by fire. In this series of posts, I’ll be sharing with you some of my signature tips and tricks to help you create a safe, effective, and efficient classroom from Day 1. Middle Schools are often branded as being the toughest age group to work with, and when I tell people I’ve spent more than a decade there by choice, I’m often asked how I do it. The answer is strong classroom management. You don’t have to be a tyrant to create a learning environment that helps students learn. Over the next few posts, we’ll look at some of the key components of quality classroom management.

Classroom Management Step 1: Command the Room

One of the most important gifts I can give my students is peace of mind in knowing that I am in charge of our room. No, that does not mean being a power-hungry dictator. But it does mean that they can rest assured that I know what I’m doing, I know what they’re going to be doing, and I have things under control. They are safe; they are loved; and they can release their concerns about how the classroom will be run, because it will be the same every day, so they can focus on learning.

So how do we command the room?

RESPECT–This is the key component of keeping command of the room. Despite our desires, you are going to have to give Respect before you are going to get it from your students. And, you are going to have to give it consistently, whether it is deserved or not. This is ESPECIALLY true if you are working with difficult students.



Commanding the Room Part 1–What does respect look like FROM ME?

  1. I build relationships through DAILY positive greetings. Whether my kids deserve it or not, I greet them with a genuine smile, eye contact, a handshake and positive greeting EVERY. DAY. “Good morning Sara, it’s great to have you here today.  You have NO IDEA what these kids are going through, and you may be the only person who takes the time to look them in the eye, give them positive touch, or say their name today. You may never know it, but each kid is going to appreciate this small amount of dedicated time that you give to them–whether they show it outwardly or not. 
  2. Prepare your classroom BEFORE students arrive. I take the time to think about what we’re going to do, how materials will be distributed, where students will put their work when completed, how I will share information, EVERY DETAIL is thought out prior to the kids ever walking through the door–this includes questions they may ask or concerns they may have. Taking care of these things before hand brings you a sense of calm, which is then translated to your students. They see by your actions that you have it all under control. Don’t be that frazzled teacher shuffling papers around as the students are coming in. Take the time to properly prepare. 
  3. Help them to know where to put their things, what they need, what they are supposed to do, and how much time they have to complete each task. Clearly state these details BEFORE the students have questions. “Today we’re going to take a quiz, so when you enter the room, place your backpack on the hook and take out only a pencil.” Once they’re seated and the quiz has been distributed say something like “You’ll have 10 mins to complete this quiz. When you’re finished you’ll turn the quiz over and leave it face down on your desk.” Preempting all these questions ahead of time alleviates any concern or anxiety the students may have about these things. And if students aren’t following these directions, pay attention and try to figure out why…I once had a kid who could have been perceived as insubordinate because he refused to take off his headphones and do his work. I had an inclination that there was something more going on. I went over to him and asked him what was up in a loving way. He told me that his headphones were super expensive, he’d wanted them for a long time, and that he’d just gotten them. He was afraid that if he put them in his backpack, they’d be stolen. He couldn’t concentrate on the work because he knew he was making a choice not to follow rules and that upset him, but he didn’t feel he had a choice. He was between a rock and a hard place. Together, we quickly came up with a solution–I’d hold his headphones for him on my desk, where they’d be safe so he could do his work. He immediately agreed, and was overjoyed to realize that I had SEEN him, that I knew he was trying to the do the right thing, and that I had cared enough to figure out a way to help him with what he really needed. 
  4. Know your material and have confidence in your knowledge. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many teachers out there don’t really understand the material they are teaching. Make sure you fully understand the material, have thought through potential questions that may arise–and know the answers– and demonstrate a sense of confidence in your aptitude. And for goodness sakes, if you don’t know the answer to a question, do NOT try to dance around it, because kids can tell when you are lying, and they can smell fear! Own up to it and turn it into a learning experience. “Actually I don’t know the square root of 234,532, let’s look that up together.” Or better yet, “How about you look that up tonight to teach the class tomorrow for some extra credit!”
  5. Give clear, concise directions. Speak clearly, slowly and make sure to use as few words as possible to give instructions. If you’re like me and love to hear the sound of your own voice, resist the urge to pontificate. They will tune you out! In addition, make sure they understand the words you’re using. I learned very quickly last year, that my students didn’t know what a “podium” was. Therefore, there was a lot of confusion when I told my first class of the day to get their materials off the podium. I quickly adjusted my directions and told them to get their materials off the podium, and then took the time to explain what that was–bonus, they learned a new word!                                                                                                                                                                  
  6. Use your voice to reassure the students of your authority. I was blessed with a raspy, deep, man-voice thanks to years of diligently destroying it as a cheerleader and later as a coach. I used to be embarrassed by it, but lately I’ve realized it’s an asset in the classroom. I NEVER have to raise my voice. I actually lower my volume if I’m needing the attention of the class and not immediately getting it. If you have a lovely, Disney princess voice, work on lowering your tone and making sure that your inflection does not convey a question when you give a directive. Also be sure your word choice displays your desire for them to obey your command without retort.  “Please take your seats.” with an inflection that reflects a statement is very different than “Please take your seats, okay guys?” Which suggests a question and an option not to comply.                                                                                                                      
  7. Give respectful redirections. I never humiliate my students or use my power as the person in charge in an attempt to make a student feel small, even when they are misbehaving…even when they are ALWAYS misbehaving. When you cut a child down, especially in front of his peers, you are sending the message that you don’t care about them, that you are in power and they are lesser, and that they are not safe in your classroom. This can do irreparable damage to their ability to succeed and to your ability to reach them after as little as one time. With some kids, you only get one chance. If there is ANY possibility of redirecting privately, choose this option. A quiet, private conversation, a note on their desk asking them to see you after class, etc.  Something of this nature goes a long way. Then, when you do converse with them, give them the benefit of the doubt. “Sam, I saw that you were drawing all over your desk today instead of taking notes. This isn’t like you; you’re always so attentive (if they are not, find SOMETHING positive you can say here). What’s going on today? Is there anything you want to talk about that might be upsetting you or taking your focus off class?” This shows the student that you care about him first as a person. And as such, he will be more willing to work for you because you have made him feel safe, accepted and loved, even in times when he’s made a bad choice.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
  8. Provide consistent and fair rules, procedures, and consequences ALWAYS. I have rule that if I see a cell phone out in class, it’s taken up (in compliance with the school policy). Period. It doesn’t matter if it’s my best student or my most unruly, whether it was mom calling to remind them to stay after school, grandma texting “Happy Birthday”, their boyfriend Snapchatting to break up with them, or the Pope himself calling to bless them personally. I am ALWAYS consistent. Making exceptions invites questions about consistency, favoritism, and concerns about fairness and whether or not I’m in the “mood” to follow my own procedures. Procedures, consequences, and rules are straight forward, clearly communicated often, and I always follow through with what I say I’m going to do. Now… having said that, there are, of course, EXCEPTIONALLY rare occasions where I may veer off this rule based on extenuating circumstances (a “my brother is in the hospital, and I’m really worried about him, and my mom said she’d text me when he was safely out of surgery” sort of situation.) Again, private, discrete handling of a sensitive issue like this conveys that I care for them and that I recognize that they may need just a little flexibility for this one day. But again, this is extremely rare. 
  9. I am your teacher, not your friend. Now I LOVE my kids. Even the ones that are constantly testing my patience. I love them all. But I am clear with them that I am their teacher, not their friend. I expect them to call by Mrs. _____(Last Name), not Mrs. G, Mom, Teacher, Miss, or any other “pet name”. I address them by name and expect the same from them. Always. I do not friend them on social media or share personal details about my private life with them (basics, yes, but details, no.). There is a clear boundary that states I care about them, but there is still a line. They have enough friends. Be their teacher. 
  10. I model and expect respect at all times. I model kindness and how to speak in a respectful way. I expect my students to do the same, both to me, about themselves, and to others in our classrooms. When they don’t seem to be able to demonstrate respectful speech, I help them by giving them sentence stem options: “When you greet me, you could say something like “Good morning Mrs. _____, it’s great to see you today.” Or “Hi, Mrs. _____.” Or “Hello Mrs. ___”. 
  11. The bell does not dismiss the class, I do.  This accomplishes several things: 1) They aren’t packing up while I’m talking (disrespectful behavior), 2) They know I’ll give them time to pack up, and that I will alert them when that time will be (no use watching the clock), and 3) I am able to end each lesson with an encouraging and positive comment as they leave for the day. “You guys did a great job; I’m really proud of the way you _______ today.”!
  12. And lastly, every day is a fresh start–no matter what. I legitimately had a kid cuss me out, break my materials, and walk out of my classroom one day last year. I, of course, followed up with my consequences as laid out in my classroom procedures, but, the very next day when he came to class, I greeted him at the door with a genuine smile, eye contact, and this: “I’m really sorry I upset you so much yesterday. I’m hoping that today we can reset. I hope you’ll let me know what I can do to help facilitate that.” Boom. Mic drop. (and so did the kid’s jaw!) I’ve just showed him that I care about him, that I’m not giving up on him, and that he can release his anger about what happened yesterday. I’ve apologized,  moved on, and I’ve given him the chance to move on too and now, we can get back to learning.


So there you have it. My 12 simple, (but not easy!) steps to help you take command of your classroom. I promise you that if you are diligent in putting these principles into action, you WILL be on your way to a classroom that runs itself! Be on the lookout for my next post in this series “Command the Room, Continued–What does Respect Look Like From Students

What other ways do you command your classroom by demonstrating respect? Share them with me in the comments below!

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