The Secret to the Well-Run Classroom
President Eisenhower is rumored to have carried a piece of string around in his pocket so he could quickly display a powerful principal of leadership to anybody on the drop of a hat. He would get the string out, place it on the table, and demonstrate that if you pushed the string, it barely moved. However, if you pulled the string it would follow you anywhere. People work the same way and students are people (even if we wonder about it sometimes).
Throughout my years in education I have worked as a teacher on many levels. I’ve taught low level, high risk students and high level, low risk students. I’ve taught high school and middle school, which are two totally different animals. I’ve also spent the last few years of my career as an administrator doing discipline at a middle school. This last position has afforded me the unique position of seeing what goes on in various classrooms and has allowed me to see firsthand what works and what doesn’t. I’ve witnessed seasoned teachers who have complete authority and autonomy in their room. I’ve also seen experienced teachers who are on a sinking ship but seem to just be watching it sink. I’ve observed firsthand new teachers crash and burn, but also new teachers who have stopped a volatile classroom and turned it around.
It’s an interesting thing to watch from the outside. A group of students can go into one classroom and act like mature adults, then change classes and turn into complete hellions, the likes of which the devil himself would be proud. Why does this happen? It is a multifaceted problem with a complex answer, but if I could boil it down to one principle, I would have to say it is leadership. It doesn’t matter if you teach grade school, middle school, high school, or even college. The answer is the same: Leadership. If you are a beginning or experienced teacher tired of the behaviors students exhibit in your classroom and fearful that the students are getting worse from year to year, then you may want to think about how you can better establish authority by establishing yourself as the leader.
The Importance of Leadership
I’m reminded of the movie Dead Poets Society, with Robin Williams. In it, he uses creative methods to connect with the students in his class and in the end makes a positive difference in their lives. As educators, we want that experience, we want to make a difference and turn the lives of students around. To do this, you don’t need to learn a magic spell to make students behave; you need to be a better leader. I know that can be a hard pill to swallow, but hear me out for a moment.
When people get together or are forced to be together (such as in a classroom), a leader will emerge. This cannot be changed and it happens every time. If the leader that emerges is a student who wants to cause havoc, you are going to have a miserable class. If this happens you only have a few options. The first option is to allow that student to wreak havoc and only have peaceful days when they are not there. Option two is to allow that student to have control but convince him or her to be on your side (not a bad option, when it works). Option three is to establish yourself as the leader and retain complete control of the classroom. The third option is the one we want to focus our energy on.