Category Archives: classroom management

Making Wise Choices

Several days ago, I handed out instructions for a writing assignment to my seventh-graders. I planned for us to work on it together. M-Boy glanced at the instructions and said, “I don’t want to do that.”

“That’s fine,” I said, none too graciously. I grabbed the instruction sheet from his desk, crumpled it into a ball and threw it away.

A collective gasp arose from the rest of the students.

Over the weekend, I thought about that incident and finally decided that M-Boy was right: If he didn’t want to do the assignment, then he should have been allowed to make that choice. He would, however, have to live with the consequences.

By the time students get to middle school, they should be accepting more and more responsibility for their own learning. Thus I came up with the following reminder that they have choices to make every day:

1. I can do the work. (I will earn credit for the work I do.)
2. I can rip up the work and throw it away. (I will earn a ZERO.)
3. I can write: “I’m not going to do this stupid stuff” on the back and then sign my name. (I will earn a ZERO.)
4. I can sit at my desk and do nothing. (I will earn a ZERO.)
I’ve spent some time fine-tuning this little reminder, and I think I’m satisfied with it. Tomorrow, I will tape one to the top of each student’s desk. I hope that the daily reminder will help my students start making wise choices and accepting responsibility for their actions.

Summer School: Day 12

J-Boy lost his spot in our classroom today, along with his chance to promote to seventh grade. He’s turned in very little work over the last two weeks, and he’s often been out of his seat wandering around the classroom, despite repeated warnings not to do so.

Still, Co-Teacher and I have been reluctant to dismiss him from summer school. He’s a smart and likeable (but lazy) kid, who often makes poor choices—and today he made one poor choice too many.

The students were busy working on an assignment when, for some reason known only to him, J-Boy crumpled a sheet of paper and threw it at one of the other boys, striking him in the face—in full view of Co-Teacher. The victim yelled—and so did Co-Teacher.

“That’s it! Pack your things! You’re going home!” Co-Teacher shot out of her seat and marched J-Boy to the office.

At day’s end, as we escorted the students to the buses, I said to Co-Teacher, “I kind of hate to see J-Boy go.”

“So do I,” she said.

However, unless Co-Teacher has a change of heart and intercedes for him at tomorrow’s teachers meeting, J-Boy’s fate is sealed: He’ll be in sixth grade again next year.

Retention isn’t the end of J-boy’s life, of course, and something good might come out of his having to repeat sixth grade. Yet I can’t help but wonder what else we could have done to ensure J-Boy’s success in summer school and his promotion to seventh grade.

Kick in the Pants or Second Chance?

F-Boy is a handful. He bounces off the walls of my classroom and can’t seem to control his mouth. He’s always chattering—and most of the words that tumble from his mouth are of the four-letter variety. He’s been suspended for inappropriate classroom behavior more than once this year.

Today we were playing a word game that used plastic tokens. After we finished playing and the tokens and cards were put away, F-Boy walked over to my desk with a handful of tokens that he had secreted away. He opened his hand, revealing a half-dozen little red disks.

“Please give them to me,” I said.

“No,” he said.

“Please give them to me,” I said again.

F-Boy stubbornly held on to the tokens.

“If you don’t hand them over to me right now,” I said, “I’ll call security.”

“Fine, be that way, butthead,” he said, as he put the tokens on my desk.

I said nothing, but sat down immediately and began filling out a referral form. F-Boy, still standing beside my desk, saw his name on the form.

“I’m sorry,” he pleaded.

“So am I,” I said. “You crossed the line. You don’t talk to me that way.”

“I said I was sorry.”

I kept filling out the form as F-Boy walked back to his desk, muttering, “I said I was sorry.”

He seemed at least semi-remorseful, so I decided to take a chance.

“F-Boy, step outside,” I said. We walked into the hall. “What you said was completely out of line. I should send you to the office. No student should ever speak to a teacher or any adult like that.”

“It just slipped out.”

“Precisely! It just slipped out—but you didn’t have to let it slip out. You are in control of your mouth. You have the power to keep things like that from slipping out.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“I’m trying to believe you. In the meantime, this is what I know: If I send you to the office, you’re going to be suspended again. You were suspended just a couple of weeks ago. I don’t want to see that happen. You need to be here, not sitting at home, so here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to hold on to that referral. If you can make it through the rest of the period without shooting off your mouth, I’ll tear it up. But if you say anything out of line, I’m sending you to the office. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” mumbled F-Boy.

We walked back into the classroom, and he was almost a model student for the rest of the period.

Sometimes a kid needs a figurative kick in the pants—and sometimes he needs a second chance.

Christmas Eve: Mind of Christ

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

Philippians 2:5-7

It seems as though many of my students have minds for mischief. They flout my no-gum-chewing rule by pulling the gum from their mouths, and then stretching it so that it looks like a strand of spaghetti. They snatch as many books as they can from the shelf and stack them up like fantastic Lego® creations on their desktops. They hide each others’ backpacks. They crumple up perfectly good notebook paper into balls and try to toss them at the trashcan from where they sit at their desks. They ask to borrow pencils; I “lend” brand new ones (I know I’ll never get them back) and they proceed to grind them down to mere stubs in the sharpener.

By the time a day of mischief-making is over, I’m almost out of my mind!

What am I to do?

One of my mentors of old tells me that the cure for my condition is to have the mind of Christ. He means that I should empty myself and become a servant.

Well, what he actually writes in his letter is somewhat harsher. The Greek word that he uses (δουλος) doesn’t mean “servant,” but “slave.” Paul says I should become a slave.

A slave to my students? Let them get away with sitting at their desks doing nothing? Say not a word when they pretend that my classroom is a basketball court? Fail to reprimand them when they call each other vile names? Stand by and simply roll my eyes as they “spaghetti-ize” their gum? In short, let my students call the shots?

No, that’s not what my mentor means. Someone does indeed need to call the shots in my classroom, but that someone is certainly not my students and, strangely enough, not I.

Servants—or slaves—don’t call the shots. That’s a job for masters, and in this instance, the master is Christ.

So I think my old mentor is telling me something like this: “If you let Christ call the shots in your classroom, things will go more smoothly than they have ever gone before.” Not perfect, but more smoothly.

It’s Christmas Eve at the end of a rather difficult year. I’m ready for some smoothness in my classroom and in other areas of my life as well. It’s time to let Christ call the shots by listening to the Spirit, who speaks reason and wisdom, peace and sanity, not only during my Advent journey, but every day of the year.

Third Saturday in Advent: Words

Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.
Psalm 139: 4

The last few days before the two-week winter break are always difficult, because students are restless, they don’t want to work, and they act out in strange and not-so-wonderful ways. Most of my students have learning disabilities, which makes academic work much more painful for them than for students who can read and write with ease. Sitting at their desks and staying on task is sheer torture for my students. Many of them jump out of their seats frequently and find it almost impossible not to chatter, even when I am talking.

Thursday was an especially torturous day. Within minutes of the start of my third-period language arts class, the jumping began. Four boys danced around the room, aiming paper balls at the trashcan, pretending they were shooting baskets. I asked them politely a couple of times to get back in their seats. They ignored me.

“Get back in your seats right now!” I bellowed. My raised voice got their attention, they knew I meant business, and they sat down.

To reinforce my bellowing, I shook my finger at each of the offenders in turn and said, “You will stay where you are until the bells rings, you will do your work, and you will not get out of your seats. Do you understand?”

At that moment, the acting principal walked into my classroom. “Are you having trouble with students not doing their work?” he asked.

“Did you hear me yelling at them out in the hall?” I asked.

“I didn’t hear a thing,” he said. “We’ve had some issues in other classes this morning, and I just wanted to make sure everything is all right in here.”

“It is now,” I said.

Satisfied that everything was under control, the acting principal left. In retrospect, I’m positive that he heard every word I yelled, but because he knows that I work with some challenging students, he chose to ignore my raised voice. Yet even before the words were on my tongue, says the psalmist, God knew what was coming.

During these last few days before Christmas, as I ponder what God knows about me—including what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it before I open my mouth—I am grateful that God’s knowledge is tempered with love. God doesn’t hold my bellowing against me, but teaches me new and better ways to use my tongue. After all, “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:01).

Third Monday in Advent: Instruction

Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
Psalm 25:8

Gone are the days when teachers wielded canes or paddles or rulers to beat their students into submission. Beating was never a very effective pedagogical method anyway. The student who received the caning or paddling was likely to harbor such a grudge against the teacher that further learning was next to impossible.

I know, for I was one of those students.

I enjoyed singing, even as a very young child. I had a wonderfully kind and patient music teacher during my first years of school, Mrs. Janice Giles. She carried a pitch pipe with her as she moved from classroom to classroom, teaching songs that I remember to this day, including “White Coral Bells,” “Go In and Out the Window,” “Haul on the Bowline,” and “Low Bridge, Everybody Down.”

Then I moved to sixth grade and Mr. Roger Carpenter’s music class. He nearly made me lose my love for music the day I made my own “instrument.” I discovered that I could produce a curious vibrating sound by putting the pages of my music book between my lips, and then humming and blowing simultaneously. My classmates enjoyed the sound and I thought Mr. Carpenter did too, because he turned from the piano to look at me several times and gave me what appeared to be a slight smile.

Suddenly he bolted up from the piano bench, snatched the music book from my hands, and escorted me from the classroom. On the way out, he grabbed his 16-inch wooden paddle. The music room was near the auditorium, so Mr. Carpenter marched me onto the stage, took me behind the curtain, and summoned another teacher as a witness.

I was terrified. I had never been paddled in school before.

“How many swats do you think you deserve?” Mr. Carpenter demanded.

I wanted to blurt out “None!” but I knew instinctively that such an answer would only serve to exacerbate Mr. Carpenter’s wrath.

“Three,” I said. He ordered me to bend over and touch my ankles. Then gripping the paddle with both hands, he swung it like a baseball bat at my buttocks. The force of the blows nearly knocked me over, yet I was determined not to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he had hurt me. I stifled my tears and walked back to the classroom as nonchalantly as I could, even though I was limping slightly. For several months after that humiliating—and painful—experience, music lost its magic for me.

Unlike Mr. Carpenter, the Master Teacher never beats students to force them to comply or to learn. Using a mixture of goodness and uprightness, the Holy One teaches willing pupils everything they need to know to live full, rich and fruitful lives. As I sit in the Master’s classroom, I expect to receive invaluable instruction that will guide me on my way through Advent and into the New Year.

No-Fly Zone

My seventh-graders with IEPs will do almost anything to get out of work, not only in my class, but in other classes as well. The social studies teacher e-mailed me:

I am wondering if it is part of F-Boy’s IEP to be allowed to wander around the room at will?? I told him several times to sit down and simply watch a movie, part of a mini-series “Into the West” He insisted that he did not have to sit more than a few minutes at a time. I challenged him to get back to his seat (4 feet from my desk) and give it an effort. I also told him I was going to check to see if this wandering thing is written into his IEP. He is currently sitting and seems to be getting into the story…

I replied immediately and assured the teacher that F-Boy has no such accommodation written into his IEP.

Nice try, kid, but it won’t fly.

Parental Fallout on the Way?

There are two of us special ed teachers at our school. We co-teach a seventh-grade life skills class. Today’s lesson was on test-taking skills. The kids weren’t interested. Some of them refused to open their test booklets. Some of them opened their booklets, but sat and stared at me. Others kept asking, “What page are we on?” even though I had repeated the page number at least half a dozen times, and walked around the room to make sure everyone was in the right place.

After more than 30 minutes of their defiance and indolence, I’d had enough. “You’re on your own, guys. The rest of this assignment is due at the end of the period. You have about 20 minutes to finish.”

I went to my desk and began entering grades in the online grade book. My co-teacher was sitting at another table in the room, where she had been grading papers. Two or three of the boys moved to her table immediately and asked for help. She read the questions and possible answers to them so they could choose the best answer.

For about 10 minutes, the room was fairly quiet except for some giggling coming from the table. All of a sudden the quietness was shattered by my co-teacher’s declaring to one boy: “If you’re going to be an asshole, then I’m not going to help you. Go back to your seat.”

I kept my head down. I didn’t dare look up. I knew I’d start to laugh if I did. Fortunately, the bell rang a few minutes later and the boys left for their next class.

These kids can try the patience of the proverbial saint. My co-teacher and I aren’t saints. She’d finally had enough of their antics and said the first thing that came to mind.

We’ll see if there’s any parental fallout from this incident.


I woke up to snow this morning—about five inches’ worth—and hoped fervently that school wouldn’t be canceled, because I was supposed to have the first of my two annual evaluations and I wanted to be done with it.

In past years, I’ve concocted dazzling dog-and-pony shows for my evaluators, but with the recent death of my brother, I was too tired to try to impress anyone. I figured my principal could take me just the way s/he found me when s/he walked into my classroom. Apparently the casual approach was the right approach, because among the comments s/he scribbled on the evaluation form were these:

…designs lessons appropriate with adjustments to individual student needs.

Student behavior was excellent. [Of course it was—I had warned them sternly that the principal was coming and they had better behave!] All students were on task and learning.

…makes difficult concepts simple and understandable to the students.

…is always friendly to staff and students. He is professional at all times.

…takes part in staff meetings and runs a good IEP meeting.

All of my ratings were either “satisfactory” or “excellent.” Still, I have to agree with one of my colleagues, who says of the formal evaluation process, “It’s the most barbaric practice I know of.”

One barbarism down, and one to go!

Book Shot

Testosterone flows in my seventh-grade class like whisky at an Irish wedding—or wake.

Today as we were reading aloud from Sing Down the Moon, F-Boy and J-Boy arose from their seats almost simultaneously and headed for each other. A shoving match ensued, replete with a string of expletives.

Always the paragon of politeness, I asked them please to stop.

They ignored me.

I slammed my book down on the table so hard it sounded like the crack of a rifle shot. “Stop it!” I bellowed.

The startled combatants froze in their tracks.

“Now back to your seats! And stay after class! We have some talking to do.”

Somewhat sheepishly—and reluctantly—F-Boy and J-Boy returned to their desks.

I really don’t like treating books the way I treated that hapless copy of Sing Down the Moon, but if it prevents bloodshed in my classroom, then I’m willing to make the sacrifice. A book can be replaced.

A tooth or an eye? Probably not.