Crime & Punishment in the classroom

A young friend e-mailed me with a question about controlling the classroom. This is her first teaching job and she said she was having quite a bit of a problem with some of her students.  I can sympathize. My situation is a bit different,  I teach at a public school through EPIK; with 20-40 students in each class.  I’m lucky because my school has the students in each class graded on their English ability so some of my classes are advanced, low intermediate, high intermediate or basic.  This helps a lot on planning, but not always for classroom management.

Classroom management is one of the hardest parts of my job.  I said before I really like the creativity of making plans and making materials – even though I admit to taking ideas from anywhere I can find them.  But managing children and adolescents in another country is hard. There are several reasons, and one of the big ones is that your students don’t really understand everything you are telling them. The second is that they are not always that keen to be in the classroom with you in the first place (most of the time it really isn’t personal)

I also have the problem of no real carrots or sticks. In my class, my students aren’t graded by me.  I don’t have any power with that (although I do administer the speaking test, their grade for that is applied to  the Korean English teacher’s class)  The worst thing I can do is tell the home room teacher that the student misbehaved.  This can work if the home room teacher is happy to help you, or likes the fact that there is a foreigner in the school, or is supportive of the English program.  These are not guaranteed.  And if you know that the home room teacher uses corporal punishment, that also can make it difficult to go to him or her.

So how do you control the classroom?

Some teachers use candy– I am very against this practice.  I know that it seems like a good idea.  But.  1) Why would you give sugar to someone who is already having problems controlling their own behavior? 2) Do you really think giving your students cavities and diabetes is a good thing? 3) Do you know how much it is going to cost you by the end of the year?

I think it is much better to have the students behave because that is what they need to do, without bribes of candy.  I also know several teachers who make photo copies of fake money and use that as a reward. If the students ‘earn’ so many teacher dollars the teacher will give him or her a prize.  This isn’t a bad idea, and can work with a lot of younger students.  I don’t really use it but it could work. Just be careful.

So if I don’t use candy or prizes, and I usually don’t punish the students, how do I control the class?

Mostly through praise.  A lot of people think students (or workers) are motivated either by rewards or fear.  I disagree completely.  I think we are social animals and as such we are motivated by three things.  To fit into a group, to feel that they are contributing to something that makes them feel important and to feel they are successful and respected.

1. To fit in and belong with a group.  Isolation and being ostracized  are both horrible things, especially when you are young. It is very important to feel part of something and to feel like you are a member of some group or even to have friendships.  That is why my first rule is we all work together. I want to make the class a peer group and a place where everyone in the class is a part of that group.  We have our own class song that we sing at the end, and I am very strict about changing the small groups around so that students work with everyone in the class. I also have everyone make a small presentation at the end of the class. I can find mistakes that a lot of students are making and correct them as a group and also gives everyone a chance to contribute something to the class, even if it is only one sentence.

And that brings us to the second thing that motivates people. To feel that they are important and that they are contributing to something. It is why people volunteer for causes.  Everyone wants to feel that their work is valued and valuable. Not just in a monetary way, but in an emotional way. That is why it is important for a teacher to make sure that everyone in the class has a chance to give to the class and help their classmates.  It is also why I usually make sure that even the shyest or the most basic speaker has a chance to shine a bit. Maybe I can’t do it in every class, but I can do it at least once in a while.  I also try to talk to my students in the hallway and try to smile at them even if I don’t say anything.  Everyone wants to shine at something.

The next thing I try to do to motivate my students is to foster a place where everyone is respected.  If one student is doing her presentation then the other students should be listening. I’ve been known to ask at random intervals what the presenting student just said. That usually works to keep everyone paying attention.  I’m also pretty generous with my praise, especially if a student is showing improvement. I try to notice when they do things right and make sure I say something right then. I’ve also said something to the whole class when a student or group does something really good.  We all want to be successful.  And this is also where a teacher’s prep time comes in.  I know most teacher’s have to follow a book to a greater or lesser extent, and they have to follow a curriculum developed for the whole school or whole program, not for each individual class.  However I think it is important to make sure the tasks that you create or add to the class are made to help the students succeed.  The task can’t be too easy, or the student will get bored (and that is never a good thing in class)- but if it is too difficult, it is much easier to just give up. Who wants to fail.  Everyone does, but it still sucks, and if a student feels that they can’t win in class, they will not participate.

Still, even when you do everything right in the classroom, you can’t control everything that happens to your students. Here in Korea it is hard because my Korean isn’t at a level to find out what is bothering a student. I know some of my students have jobs after school  and so they are really tired in class, and I know that like everyone else they can have bad days, or they got in fight with their mother/father/sister/brother/best friend and they really don’t have the space in their head to concentrate on class. Sometimes a student is bullied and it is frustrating because the language and culture barrier makes it difficult to help that student.  Sometimes the student really just hates your subject.  And sometimes the chemistry between you and the student  is just bad.

In the end, all you can do is be clear about your rules, and fair in enforcing them.  Having some fun tasks and activities helps.  So is remembering that both you and the students you teach are human.

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