Classroom management techniques you don’t get taught

‘Fake it till you make it’ is a useful motto for new university teachers facing a classroom of antsy students for the first time. Here are seven basic skills to master

John Weldon's avatar
Victoria University
21 Sep 2022
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For many academics, teaching is an “all of the above” situation when it comes to classroom management skills they don’t get taught before they’re thrown into a room full of antsy students, each with half an eye on the device of their choice. Speaking personally, I was a writer on a Friday and by the next Monday – several phone calls, faxes and dropped-off notes later – I was giving my first lecture.

This situation is perhaps indicative of the low regard in which teaching in higher education is still held. It’s often something you are forced to do if your publication record is not up to spec, rather than something you actively prepare for. The fact that – in Australia, at least – you don’t need to know anything about teaching, let alone have a teaching qualification, to be a university educator only serves to make this classroom management problem more acute.

Here are seven tips I wish I’d known about classroom management before I taught my first class.

1. Teaching is a matter of trust

Classroom management in higher education has little to do with imposing on students a set of rules devised by the educator: “This is my classroom, these are my rules and you will obey them.” No one likes that, and such a structure invites opposition and defiance. Rather, effective classroom management is more about building trusting relationships and making people feel wanted and that they are a contributing part of any governing structure.

It’s hard to build trust without confidence. So, as an educator, you’ve got to be confident yourself. Even if you’re not. Teaching is like stand-up comedy – often unintentionally so, but that’s another story. If a comedian is happy in their own skin, if they’re confident, the audience will trust and go with them. However, if they’re not, if they’re obviously uncomfortable, if they look terrified, then the audience has no one to lead them; they become restless and the heckling starts. The same applies to teaching; whether it’s lecturing or seminar work, you have to appear confident, so fake it till you make it.

2. Own the space

Think of the successful teachers you’ve known. They didn’t cower behind their desks or lecterns; they didn’t stand with their backs pinned to the wall. They moved around the room as if they owned it, made eye contact with their students and spoke assuredly to them. Yes, the classroom belongs to all within it, but it must belong to the teacher first.

You don’t have to run around the room like a headless chook, but you do have to demonstrate that you are at home in the space. Doing so helps to make the classroom a place of safety and you a figure the students can trust to lead them.

3. Get to know your students

Not everyone wants to be noticed, but pretty much everyone, even the quiet student up the back, wants to be known – it makes people feel valued and helps build that relationship of trust between you and them. Learn your students’ names as soon as possible and, if the class is small enough, learn more about them, their hobbies, likes and so on. Welcome them by name as they come to class and use their names when you ask them a question. This shows that you care about them and furthers that trust relationship.

If it’s a bigger class, have the students create name tents so that you can at least use their names when you address them.

4. Be prepared but also be prepared to be humble

Part of being confident is being prepared. Do your homework ahead of class. That’s your job. You need to be thoroughly grounded in your subject, but that doesn’t mean you have to know the answer to every question your students are likely to ask. In fact, being able to openly admit that you don’t have all the answers, without getting flustered, shows both confidence and humility. It demonstrates that you and the class are on a learning journey together.

5. Lead with a charter, not a set of rules

Involving your class in the creation of a charter can be an effective way to build a sense of both togetherness and accountability on the part of the students. What kinds of behaviour do they deem acceptable? How do they expect you to deal with lateness or with those who do not do the class readings? What behaviour do they expect from you?

Get the class to write the charter on the board. Get everyone to sign it and take a photo. You can refer to this charter when necessary, knowing that these are standards everyone agreed to abide by.

However, when breaches are made, try to approach them with humour. Never get visibly angry and never issue ultimatums that leave you or a student with nowhere to go.

6. Deal with devices in the classroom

In today’s world, divided attention, whether it’s split between a laptop and the TV or a phone and a conversation, is acceptable everywhere – except in the classroom. How will you deal with that? A blanket “no” to devices is unlikely to work; people will text under the desk or when your back is turned. Do you allow five minutes every hour for texting? Do you discuss divided attention with your class and add something to the class charter?

Whatever you decide, dealing openly with the issue and involving students in any decisions made around this is key.

7. Promote an active and engaging classroom

In a passive room, students sit and listen. They also tend to get bored and restless. In an active classroom, they are given agency and the responsibility to create their own knowledge; they are challenged to engage in research, to come up with questions, answers and understandings of their own rather than being spoon-fed. In such a classroom, a socially constructivist classroom, if the work is interesting and relevant, students manage themselves.

This list could go on for several pages and, twee as it might sound, effective teachers never stop learning about classroom management. Stay open, keep smiling and carry on!

John Weldon is associate professor and head of curriculum of First Year College at Victoria University, Australia. He is co-author, with Jay Daniel Thompson, of Content Production for Digital Media: An Introduction (Springer Nature, 2022).

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