The usual tips for classroom management sound like all you need to make your classroom an effective environment for learning math: make your expectations clear, set rules, and be consistent in applying those rules. But, as important as those practices are, they go only so far when you’re faced with a room full of bored teenagers who are more interested in their phones than in anything you have to say about the Pythagorean Theorem. We don’t have the kids in class for long enough to be able to afford discipline problems or off-task behavior.
I’ve found that I can reduce problems in classroom management and discipline with several techniques. The tips set up the class so that students are involved in the overhead of learning and in their own education. Apply these additional tips, and I hope you never have a disinterested student ask, “Why do we need to know this? When are we ever going to use that?”
Make them active, literally
In one sense, an active learner is a student who is responsible for his or her own education: someone who knows how he or she learns, knows what he or she is missing, and, ideally, wants to fill in that extra piece. In another sense, students can learn well by moving around and being literally active. There are learning benefits to exercise, in addition to the physical benefits of standing up and stretching. Look for opportunities to get your students out of their seats! Shake things up by turning the tiles on your classroom floor into a human-sized Cartesian plane, or have your students up and measuring your walls to determine the surface area of your classroom. You may have to work to find opportunities, but your creativity will be rewarded when you break students out of the far-too-common teaching rut of “I do, we do, you do”, with a lecture, some whole-class guided practice, and then individual problem-solving. I’ve had former students visit and reminisce that their favorite class was the one in which we calculated pi by rolling soup cans and bicycle wheels down the hallway.
Break up the class
Another way to vary your class and keep kids interested is to break your time with the students into several mini-periods. Think of a 60-minute chunk of time as three 20-minute chunk, each with its own structure and activity. The potential monotony of an hour-long class is reduced when each class has several components. You might begin by having several students present their solutions to homework problems. Then you might plan a computer-based demonstration, or perhaps a pop-quiz. And you finish by extending what the students know into a new area. And your own planning will be helped by thinking within this structure, rather than just noting to yourself, “We’ll do point-slope form today.” It’s particularly important when you are on a block schedule, with classes that vary from 40 to 80 minutes; then you can be sure to finish a 20-minute chunk.
Make their weaknesses into strengths
I had four classes of 13-year-olds who were much more interested in practicing their social skills than in solving equations. I was able to turn their hormones into strengths by making greater use of group work. (Anyway, who in the real world works alone? We all cooperate with colleagues, co-workers, subordinates, and bosses.) We might have had a 20-minute block of learning new material, and then, once I had made it clear how long we’d be doing group work and what I expected to be done, the kids flipped their desks around to form a table of four desks, had a brief social burst of energy, and then got down to business. I circulated through the room, listening, reminding them as needed that this is time for “math discussion”, and asking leading questions. It took a little training over the first few times for them to make the transition smoothly, but that was time well-invested and has paid off several times over.
Have students teach each other
Students learn well from each other. I saw this often during group work, when I heard students use an analogy or an example I would not have thought of – or that I didn’t think would “click” with another student. And, more importantly, students learn the material better when they teach other students. They need to think about how the math really “works” and to anticipate or respond to questions. In one remedial Algebra 1 class, I experimented with having students teach part of the material. That is, I would meet several days in advance with one or two students to pre-teach the material. That student or pair would make a mini-presentation to me and then again in class. Then, in subsequent days, I would refer questions back to the presenter(s). Particularly for this level, the students were very pleased to be considered the “experts” in the particular subject, and I saw that their retention of the material was much improved.
Have students help run the class
The greatest turn-off for students is having their time wasted. And, for me, those 45 minutes a day are precious, and I want to make the most of them and make every second count. Promote a feeling of “we’re all in this together” by getting the students involved in helping. Those “classroom jobs” from elementary school work just as well for middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. Have students pass out worksheets, distribute calculators and Tangram sets, and get everyone rulers and protractors. You can even ask a (trusted) student to jot the homework assignments on a corner of the board. I involved the students in everything except taking attendance, which I did when the students were busy with other tasks, and in collecting homework, tests, and quizzes. Not only are the students involved in what is now “their” classroom, but all the overhead tasks get done much faster, leaving more time for you to use the environment for learning.
There is a theory that the structure of the class, and how the students learn the material, provide much of the classroom-management. Keep them invested and interested! My own experience has shown that putting these tips into practice reduces off-task behavior and discipline problems.