Learning vs. Classroom Management
Teaching elementary school involves managing student behavior. In fact, managing the kids is most of the job. You can plan the best, most engaging lessons in the world, have all your materials ready, and then bomb the actual lesson if you can’t quiet the class down, and keep the class clownery to a minimum.
The students need to be under control for learning to happen. Students need to understand all of the expectations for behavior (no kicking, no running) and be familiar with your procedures to follow in the classroom, including how and when to sharpen your pencil, how and when to ask for permission to use the restroom, how and when (and weather you should) interrupt the teacher if she is working with another student, as well as a million other things.
For example, in my classroom, tissues are stored on a small cart by the door. You don’t need to ask permission to get a tissue; please just go take care of your nose quickly and quietly. Even after verbally explaining those expectations, and reinforcing them on the first days of school, I end up having to clarify:
You shouldn’t blow your nose on your mask, we have tissues for that. We also have extra masks. You probably only need one, just fold it in half after you blow, and blow again. You shouldn’t show people your tissue after you blow your nose. Yes, you should use a tissue to stop a nosebleed. But you shouldn’t show your bloody tissue around either. Same goes for loose teeth that are bleeding. Oh, but tissues are NOT for wiping up spilled water bottles, it just isn’t efficient. Efficient means you need, like, fifty tissues to absorb what one paper towel can.
Managing vs. Micromanaging
To micromanage is “to manage especially with excessive control or attention to details,” according to our good friend, Merriam-Webster. When you’re dealing with children, who don’t quite have a handle on life yet, how much attention to detail is excessive?
When the pandemic started, my school replaced the drinking fountains with water bottle refilling stations. Students needed to bring their own water bottles to school, and I showed the students a hand signal they could use to non-verbally indicate when they needed to leave the room to fill up. Then, the micromanaging started:
If you forgot your water bottle today, I have some extras, just ask. Um, no, you can’t have one of my water bottles just because you don’t like how the school water fountain water tastes. Beggars can’t be choosers. Dear, I can see that your bottle is half-full, you don’t need to refill it in the middle of class. Please don’t swing your metal water bottle in the air, it could hit someone.
Can you… Can you Please just Not…?
Kids will push boundaries and see what they can get away with. You shut down their efforts to get an extra water bottle, or goof off in the hallway by the water stations when they’re supposed to be doing a spelling activity. I’m supposed to shut that all down. If I didn’t stop them, they wouldn’t learn anything, right?
But by far, I have been the most micro-manage-y when it comes to social behavior.
You shouldn’t talk about other people when they aren’t present in the conversation. That’s gossiping. When someone calls your name, you should respond to them by looking at them, and saying, “yes?” When you have headphones on, and someone gently taps you on the shoulder, you should respond to them by taking off one headphone, and saying, “yes?” When I ask you and a partner to discuss an idea from our book, make sure you stop after a few sentences and ask your partner, “what do you think?”
Perhaps because of social distancing during the pandemic, some of them have forgotten how to talk to each other. You have to tell them to look one another in the eye (one trick is to look at someone’s forehead, if the eyes is too intimidating). If I don’t step in to correct them, they have full-on meltdowns because someone ignored someone else or someone didn’t take turns in a board game.
And don’t get me started about lunchtime:
Don’t talk with your mouth full. Finish your lunch and clean up before you go play. No, don’t do a cartwheel with an apple in your hand. It’s rude to ask for a second helping if you haven’t finished your first. Feeding your food to the pigeons does not count as “finishing” your food. No, a bag of chips, a soda, and dry ramen do not sound like a healthy lunch. Let’s get something fresh from the cafeteria.
They say teachers make 1,500 decisions per school day. Many of those decisions aren’t educational, and most of them are about micromanaging children. Who clearly need to be micromanaged. That girl who did a cartwheel with an apple in her hand back in September fell and broke something later in the year. The boy who blew his nose in his mask had a spare in his backpack, but he didn’t say anything until after I unwrapped a fresh mask of my own and gave it to him. The girl who didn’t respond when people called her name or tried to talk to her actually switched to another school, and I wonder if her new teacher taught her to read social cues better than I tried to.
I think I micromanage because, in the words of an anonymous first-grade teacher in Mississippi, “When they do something wrong I want to correct them. I also care about them deeply, and want to see them grow into better people.” She, and all the authors of all the books we had to read in our teacher preparation programs, say we should focus on enforcing positive behavior, rather than punishing negative behavior:
I appreciate how Danny waited until after his partner finished speaking to start writing his response on the worksheet. I see that Mary quietly used the restroom signal without disturbing the class.
That works some of the time. Much of the time. But imagine, again, the girl who is about to do the cartwheel with the apple in her hand.
I like how Margot and Chelsea and Steve are not doing cartwheels with apples in their hands and are not going to lose their balance and break a limb and their parents aren’t going to sue me.
What Happens When…
What happens when I stop micromanaging? We run out of tissues, and I have to call the office for more. The kid who wanted to fill her bottle in the middle of class again misses the instructions for our next activity. And I have to explain how to do it again. The student swinging their water bottle or tipping their chair over hurts themselves, or someone else, creating a new problem for me to solve, and rouses parents I have to explain myself to. More decisions, adding up to that 1,500 decisions per day estimate.
I would like to give my students the leeway to make their own decisions and find their footing. But I don’t have time.
A 2021 report found that stress is the leading reason why teachers quit, even before the pandemic added students sneezing into masks during the school day. Teachers are told we need to keep our classrooms under control, but we are also told that micromanagers make bad teachers. It’s an impossible job.
So I pick my battles. Elementary school should be a safe place for children to test their limits, break some (minor) bones, learn from their mistakes, and not make those same mistakes again. It’s January, I’m not going to micromanage any more. They know my expectations by now. Let’s hope we all make it to May in one piece.