Classroom Management

Classroom Management

A well-managed classroom makes teaching enjoyable and learning possible. However, students new to the college environment may not have the foggiest idea how to conduct themselves in the classroom. It is your job to teach them.

Choose a Leadership Style that Fits Your Personality

Before you decide how to manage your class, consider the leadership style that comes most naturally to you (see The Art of Teaching for more on this). Are you more benevolent dictator or cheerful motivator? Friendly facilitator or no-nonsense straight shooter? Is it more natural for you to call students by their first names or to address them as Mr. or Ms. So-and-So? Your approach to classroom management will flow from your leadership style, so it’s important to know which style feels most comfortable to you.

For some professors, running a tight ship comes naturally. For others, it’s a learning process. I include myself in the latter category. By nature, I’m a softie. I had to learn the hard way that if you give (some) students an inch, they’ll take a mile. For example, when I started at LaGuardia and learned that many of my students had not only jobs but young children as well, I decided not to play hardball when it came to lateness. These students are inherently responsible, I thought. They have to be, in order to juggle so many responsibilities. “If you’re late, it’s not the end of the world,” I told them. “Better late than never.”

The students were happy to oblige. They cheerfully arrived five, ten, then fifteen minutes late, seeing how far they could push it. By mid-semester, maybe a dozen students would be seated at the start of class. The continual disruptions made teaching a nightmare. After one student started arriving 40 minutes late (to a one-hour class!), I finally put my foot down.

Students Want and Need Structure

Over the years I’ve learned that students want and need structure. In fact, an environment conducive to learning requires it. Given the highly distractible nature of today’s students, the smallest disruption will easily capture their attention. Suddenly, the late-arriving student is the most important thing in the room. My policy today around attendance and lateness is written in the syllabus as follows:

Attendance: Students are required to attend class regularly and to follow LaGuardia’s strict attendance policy. More than five hours of class absence (15% of the course) will result in an F. During class we will analyze and discuss assigned reading, learn new concepts and write about (for credit) what you learned. There is simply no way to make up for missed class time.

Lateness: I expect you to arrive to class on time. I will take attendance within the first five minutes. If you arrive after I take attendance, it is your job to see me after class and inform me that you were late in order to be marked present (but late). The college counts three late arrivals as an absence. If you are more than 10 minutes late, please do not come to class. It is too disruptive.

To my continual amazement, I find that as long as I enforce the rules, the vast majority of students follow them. If I relax the rules just a little, invariably the students will test the waters to see what they can get away with. That’s why I now equate being firm with being helpful, not mean or condescending. I realized, too, that I didn’t have to change my personality to get what I wanted from students. I could reframe negatives as positives. For example, instead of telling students what not to do, I tell them what I expect them to do. The word “expectations” rather than “rules” implies that I’m speaking to a more mature group (college students, not high school students), which they seem to appreciate.

The Classroom Environment

Once you’ve identified the leadership style that best suits you, think about your version of the ideal classroom environment. Is it quiet and orderly or more active and free-flowing? Should students raise their hands before they speak, or can you manage spontaneous expression? Is cursing acceptable, or will it rattle you? How about eating in the classroom? Personally, I don’t care if students eat in class, but some professors find it offensive (and it is usually forbidden by college rules). My pet peeve is when a student walks out of the classroom (presumably to use the bathroom) and returns at her leisure. So, on the syllabus, I say that I expect them to remain seated for the duration of the class and to take care of their bathroom needs before, not during, class time.

Before you prepare your syllabus, take some time to consider all of the behaviors that can occur in class, what you are willing to tolerate and, based on your leadership style, how you can most effectively handle situations in a way that comes naturally to you. Consult your college catalogue to make sure that your expectations are consistent with college policy. For softies, this can be a saving grace. Instead of having to tell the student who shows up to class with a smiling child at her side, coloring book in hand, that they have to leave, you can prevent this uncomfortable situation by stating on your syllabus that per college policy, you cannot permit children in class.

Under a section on your syllabus called “classroom management,” or something to that effect, discuss your expectations for student conduct. Remember, the syllabus is a contract between you and the students and a way to inform them of the behaviors you will and will not tolerate. Lest you consider some behaviors too obvious to mention, remember that many of your students have come straight from high school (or perhaps another country) and honestly may not know better.

In addition to the issues mentioned above (attendance, lateness, leaving class and children), here are items I always include on my syllabus and review on the first day of class:

Electronic Devices: I expect you not to take or make calls, text or email during class. It is best to turn off all electronic devices before class starts so you will not be tempted to even look at them.

Class Preparation Policy: Come prepared for class and prepared to answer questions about the reading assignments. Reading assignments MUST be completed before class. As you read the articles, you should underline key points, take notes, and write down questions you would like to discuss in class. Take notes in a notebook you purchase specifically for this class. By taking notes as you read, you will find it easier to remember and make sense of the material, and you will have key points readily available for class discussions. I will test your understanding of the material by calling on students randomly in every class and through in-class assignments. Bring your class notebooktextbook, and the syllabus to every class, as I may announce changes to the schedule.

Plagiarism: Plagiarism is a serious matter. Using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit is plagiarism. Plagiarism can include, but is not limited to, cutting and pasting from websites, failing to put quotation marks around a quotation and failing to include a citation when referencing or paraphrasing the ideas of others. Students found guilty of plagiarism or cheating will receive a grade of F for the assignment and possibly for the class. You are encouraged to read the college’s policy on cheating and plagiarism, available on the college website.

Civilized Discourse: As college students, you are expected to express your ideas thoughtfully and diplomatically, taking care not to offend or degrade any group or individual. If you do, and it is pointed out to you (i.e., a fellow student says he found your comment offensive), you should apologize immediately.

Expressing an opinion is fine, but expressing an opinion supported by facts is even better and is the sign of an intellectual. Be aware that many of us hold firm beliefs when it comes to criminal justice issues, and certain topics, particularly real-life encounters with the criminal justice system, can inspire impassioned responses. As such, it is expected that students will not interrupt one another, dominate classroom discussions or use offensive language. Practicing decorum and civility is expected and appreciated by your professor and fellow students.

Encourage and Model the Behavior You Want to See in Your Students

Be professional. Arrive to class on time, take attendance, and come prepared with lecture notes, PowerPoint presentations, and an agenda of what you’d like to accomplish. Have a goal in mind of what you want to cover during the class period so that you know how much time can be spent on class discussion or other activities. The more organized you are, the more confidence you will project and the more respect students will have for your authority.

Be firm but friendly. Over the years, I’ve learned that if I treat students with respect and kindness, they will usually return the favor. I show interest in them as individuals and encourage them to share stories from their own lives. I try to project a demeanor that is genuine, honest, and approachable. I encourage them to come to my office hours if they need help understanding something or need academic advisement.

Create a safe space for learning. I tell students that the only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked, and that if they don’t understand something, their classmates probably don’t either, so they’re doing their classmates (and me) a favor by asking for clarification.

Handling Challenging Situations

The Sleeping Student

Don’t take it personally. For all you know, the student may have been up all night with a sick child or working a double shift. You can either ignore it or ask a neighbor to tap the student gently on the shoulder.

The Confrontational Student

Some students get a kick out of being confrontational. They may challenge your knowledge or authority or pick an argument with you just to see you sweat or hear their classmates laugh. Above all, remain calm and open-minded. Breathe. Genuinely listen to and consider their point of view. If you know it’s wrong, tell the student you’re unaware of any evidence that supports her point but would be delighted to see if she can find research to prove it.

The Obnoxious Student

Whether they’re bullies, loudmouths, talkers, or smirkers, you need to nip the behavior in the bud if it is affecting your ability to teach or other students’ ability to learn. While taking attendance, tell the student you’d like to see him after class. Begin by taking a nonconfrontational approach, speaking in a neutral, non-accusatory tone. “I’m sure you’re not aware how annoying your talking in class is, because if you knew I’m sure you wouldn’t do it, but I need to ask you to help me do my job as a teacher by not talking and whispering to other students when I’m teaching. It really distracts me, and other students have complained.” If the behavior persists, don’t hesitate to ask the student to leave the classroom. I’ve only had to do this once in seven years of teaching and was surprised at how simple and effective it was. When two male students whom I’d warned several times during the semester about joking around in class and talking out of turn started up again, this time disrupting an in-class activity, I told them to leave and not return until they could act like adults. I remained silent as they collected their belongings and left. To my surprise, they not only returned but apologized the next day.

The Manipulative Student

These are among the most difficult students to work with because if they’re good, you won’t even know you’re being manipulated until it’s too late. At the time, you’ll just feel yucky, and then maybe blindsided. The most common examples are students with sob stories so tragic that only the most horrible professor would question their veracity, students who flirt with or flatter you excessively, and students who attempt to wear you down with a steady stream of excuses or feigned ignorance about why something that should have been done wasn’t. For example, the student who says, “You didn’t receive my assignment? I emailed it last night. You didn’t get it? I’ll send it again when I get home,” thereby gaining themselves a full-day advantage over their peers.

Your best approach for dealing with manipulative students is to trust your gut. If you think you’re being manipulated, you probably are. Second, don’t spend too much time engaging in a debate with such students. Wearing you down until you give in is part of their strategy. Simply tell them that you cannot bend the rules for them because it wouldn’t be fair to other students. Tell them you wish you could but you can’t, and do not feel guilty about your decision.

If a student flirts with you, show through your body language and behavior that you are not interested or even flattered. You may need to be terse and a little cold to get your point across. Similarly, do not flirt with or engage in any kind of romantic relationship with a student. Consensual or not, it violates CUNY policy and, if discovered, will get you fired.

When meeting with students, always keep your office door open and meet them only on campus. Anywhere else, even a public place, sends the wrong message.

The Student with Problems

If students come to you with personal problems, your job is to listen empathetically and direct them to the appropriate resource, preferably an on-campus resource. Unless you have a background in social work or counseling, do not play therapist or tell them what to do. All CUNY colleges have counseling departments. Have the location and phone number of yours available so that you know where to direct students in need.


by Jennifer Wynn