Classroom Management Strategies: Using Choices Effectively in the Classroom

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Veteran educators are well aware that teaching is a trial by fire, and the majority of these trials are related to the issue of power in the classroom. Teachers are told to "take control of the classroom, to show your students who is in charge." However, while that sounds great in theory, it often does not work well in practice because students resist, either passively or aggressively (or both) their teacher's attempts to "show them who is in charge." Education then degenerates, for all intents and purposes, into a power struggle, rather than what it is intended to be, an educational endeavor. Power struggles turn education into a trial by fire.

Simply put, power in the classroom can be summed up with three basic questions:

1. Who has power in the classroom?
2. Who wants power in the classroom?
3. What is being done to get power in the classroom?

Often times the answer to these questions jumps dynamically from the students to the teacher and back again, depending on the interactions in the classroom, and the perceptions of the students and teacher. For example, most student misbehavior is related in some way to the issue of attaining a sense of power in the class setting. The teacher's reaction to the student's misbehavior is always done to regain their sense of power over the classroom. If you were to objectively observe most classrooms around the country, you would likely see hundreds of these interactions going on, a kind of psychological tennis match, with volleys, serves, attacks and counterattacks, threats and tantrums, all leading to a dysfunctional situation which never ends well. While one side may "win" the match, the other side plans their revenge in order to regain power. What is lost is not just power, but the solid function of the classroom for the benefit of all.

What if you could take power struggles out of the equation all together? Would that make the classroom seem less like a trial by fire, and more like a nice place to spend an hour or so learning a few concepts and skills? There are strategies that can be employed that can almost completely remove power struggles from your classroom interactions, but it will take a mindset change on your part to make it work.

The first mindset change you need to have is to get rid of the idea that your students should immediately listen to you simply because you are the teacher. Some of your more cooperative students will listen to you for this reason, but they are the minority. You must accept that, human nature being what it is, you will have to convince your students that what you have to offer them is at least equal to, or better than, what they would prefer to do, which is pretty much anything else than actual school work! It's no good whining about how "in my day, we listened and respected teachers, and blah blah" because if your honest, you know this is simply not true. You listened to the teachers you felt were worth listening to, and you ignored and under the ones you did not. So the first mindset change you need to have is to figure out how to make your class worth listening to.

Now that you have accepted the idea that you need to offer your students something worthwhile, you have to determine what that is. And as much as I hate to say this, the content of your course is not going to win you legions of eager students! (Without you teach a video games class or a class dedicated to allowing students to socialize and walk around the building aimlessly) So does this mean you have to become an educational entertainer? Well, perhaps, but not in the way you think.

Sometimes we can learn a bit from the entertainment industry. Why are people so willing to pay good money, and listen intentionally, to what the entertainment industry has to offer?

Well for one thing, it's a preferred activity which means people like doing it. No one seems to like school, which is evident from the lack of joy that infects most schools. But the bigger clue here is that people choose their entertainment. They are able to exert power through choice, as a result they are engaged and invested in the entertainment activity. I would argue that choice is as big a stimulating factor as the level of entertainment offered.

Therefore, the second mindset change is to work choices into your lesson planning. This will take planning, but it is well worth the effort. Offering students choices gives them the feeling that they are invested and engaged in the class. As a result, they will be more willing to listen to what you have to offer, even if it is boring and repetitive. For example, let's say you have planned a lovely lecture on photosynthesis (yikes!). The traditional teacher approach is to demand silence as you present your concepts to the class. Along the way, you know you will have to interrupt conversations, sign passes to the bathroom, watch students get up to grab tissues, wake up sleeping students, etc. However, what if you could avoid most of those hassles by offering students a choice as to how they will learn about photosynthesis today? Let's say you were to offer them 3 ways to learn the material, and they get to choose the one they like best? After all, is it really important how they learn it, if the methods are all equally effective? The choices would be one of you can live with of course, so you are only giving up some control of the classroom in order to gain control in other areas. Students would then be more willing to listen to what you have to say because they will feel invested. Power struggles will be eliminated considerably.

The opportunities for using choices in the class are endless. Good luck as you implement choices into your bedroom. I think you will find that this strategy will work well. Just make sure you offer choices you can live with, and watch your students engage in learning.



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