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Who Are Your Students?

by Nabeelah Abdul-Ghafur

New Jersey Public School Teacher

Classroom management has always been a nebulous term for me because every classroom is different. I am sure certain protocols can be applied to almost every classroom situation, yet it is imperative to learn who your students are before you can implement a meaningful classroom management strategy. Each classroom situation requires a unique classroom management plan. It is up to the teacher to decide what is needed for the efficient education of each student (with the understanding that changes can be made as necessary), then develop and implement those practices that are needed.


How does the teacher begin do this? Two words – observation and perseverance.   Observation, initially over two or three days/classes, and perseverance for as long as necessary to reach each student.


When you are at the beginning of the teaching process with any group, engage in tasks that allow you to carefully observe your students’ behavior: things like sharing general class requirements/expectations, then specifically, your visions for the class and other “housekeeping” type activities. It is a good idea to ask your students what they hope to get from your class.  This can be done through whole class discussion, one-on-one interviews and/or written answers to your questions.  Their responses will help guide you during your lesson planning.


Because you are not attempting to carry out “formal instruction” yet, you have the opportunity to view your students in what is essentially a non-threatening, neutral atmosphere.


As you pay attention to each student, notice: Who seems perfectly relaxed? Who sits really still most of the time? Who looks bored all the time? Who fidgets continuously? Who comes into class with or made a friend in class and seems to be more interested in communicating with them than listening to you?  Who comes early or late? Who stays after class to talk to you?


Once you have begun to form your assessment of each student’s behavior/demeanor, you can begin to fashion your approach to each and every student and the class as the whole, organic entity that it is. Establish regular office hours and/or be available after class for one on one discussions about subject material or personal concerns. A word about discussing personal matters: listen to the student who feels comfortable enough with you to share private concerns, then assess if you have the capacity to help them in a simple and direct way. If not, refer them to the appropriate institutional authorities by contacting their parents or for older students, telling them directly. 


As time goes on, although there will be some students who won’t respond to your individuation, most will appreciate it. Engage the fidgeter and the bored human. Depending on the level of the class, have the talker and any other student who exhibits a penchant for disruption sit up front initially. If their behavior continues to interfere with instructional or other classroom functioning, meet with them one-on-one and explain in an objective, comprehensive, non-threatening way how their behavior diminishes the spirit of classroom community. Once you are sure they understand your concern about their disruptive behavior, ask them what you can do to assist in changing their behavior. You can then ask them what they can do to solve the problem. If they have no immediate answers, ask them to think about it and that you will discuss this again the next day or class session.


Guilliame was a very bright, charismatic student who attended my ESL class during the years I taught full-time in Adult Education. He spoke very little English and would openly engage several students from his country in conversation at any point while class was in session. Initially, this behavior was quite disruptive as I had to ask Guilliame to stop talking very often during the lesson. In several one to one conferences, I found that Guilliame was not confident in his ability to learn English. In addition to assuring him that he was capable, I suggested that he talk socially during the ten minute break and focus on classwork during the rest of his time in class. He agreed to try and after some fits and starts over the next several weeks, he was able to participate fully in classroom activities. I will always remember a note he gave me at the end of the school year which closed with the words “Thank you for your forbearance”.


If needed, the teacher can discuss specific consequences with the student should the behavior not improve at all and then follow through as needed.


Maintaining an interesting, engaging environment for students has become more and more difficult over the years, as “teaching to the test” and achievement test performance

is mandated by federal and state educational authorities in this country. These requirements are also directly connected to public and private school funding. It takes a real “sticking to it” mindset to educate children not only to understand the subject matter but also to become critical thinkers. Each student learns in their own way. Some will “pick up” what the teacher presents easily, and others will need help interpreting the same material in their own way. The teacher can help by challenging the former and giving extra support to the latter.


Classroom chores help in this process. Always have classroom chores. Observe which students volunteer to do which chores. It will tell the teacher what the student feels he or she is proficient in. If possible, every student should do something regularly or by rotation to contribute to a positive sense of community. These activities could include; taking attendance, changing the daily calendar, passing out and collecting books or other materials, planning and implementing a class trip, taking care of classroom plants and/or animals, helping the teacher create designs and messages for bulletin boards, developing, evaluating and reporting results from a survey with the end purpose being to give students a greater voice in some aspect of school administration.


Remember the key words associated with any type of classroom management system the teacher develops: observation and perseverance.

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