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The ABCs of Classroom Management

These 26 tips will help you connect with your students and make your music class run smoother.

As a veteran teacher, I’m often asked about my concept of classroom management by prospective and new teachers. My short answer is this: Managing your classroom isn’t about any one thing but rather about your philosophy of how you deal with everything.

My long answer would include all the tips below, many of which were passed on to me by other directors, educators and motivational people. I don’t claim to be the first — and I definitely won’t be the last — to offer these tips. While all of them may not suit your immediate needs or situation, my hope is that you’ll find a few ideas to put in your pocket that will one day help your band run smoother.

Because music teachers do not encounter these issues in any specific order, I’m presenting them alphabetically.

A is for Assets

Many new music teachers are not aware of everything that’s available to them. Warm bodies, instruments, music, chairs, stands and other equipment are obvious, but what about personnel assets? Administrators, teachers and other staff on campus, as well as other band directors around you are wonderful resources and mentors. If these folks are not in your immediate community, you can find them in the online community of band directors and teachers. This is an awesome asset to tap into for answers, ideas and innovations!

I think it’s important to make a few distinctions here. First, behavior management is not all of classroom management, but it is an important element for sure. Second, in order to effectively manage behavior, you must be able to separate the behavior from the child.

No child walks into your class with the express purpose of ruining your day — despite what you might think. Don’t take it personally. The sooner you can address the behavior as something separate from who the child is, the less stressful behavioral management will be. Always remember to establish a clear set of behavioral expectations from day one.

Which leads to C…

C is for the Classroom Culture

female teacher pointing to studentThe sense of expectation and family in the music classroom is unlike any other. Where most subject-area teachers are concerned with the development of a student through a year of their course, music teachers are concerned with student development through a multi-year program. We must be invested, and so must the students.

In my program, we start with a simple behavioral concept: you’re either “in the box” or “out the box.” The “box” is what we’re doing right now, or in the long term. It is all-encompassing. Sometimes, all I need to do to emphasize my point is to draw a box on the board and ask a student, “Are you in or out right now?”

Another concept that works is the word “outstanding,” which to me means expecting 100% every day of whatever you’ve got to bring. Problems happen when students become self-centered and find themselves “standing out.” I ask these students to stand up, which will help them realize that their behavior is inappropriate and provide them with a moment to focus. It’s important that I do not recognize the specific behavior and continue teaching during this correction. After a minute or less, I indicate by gesture or verbally for the student to sit down.

So, what exactly did I accomplish? I was able to teach without recognizing the negative behavior. I maintained the pace of my class and gave the student a moment to “reset.”

When students really need time to cool down, I take this concept one step further along the behavioral management spectrum. I have them “out, standing” in the doorway but still within my view. This physical distancing is important to preserve the quality of learning for the rest of the students, and it allows the individual student to have a little more space to reflect on his or her behavior.

It is imperative that you explain this system of management to parents and students early in the year to ensure buy-in.

BONUS: C can also stand for consistency. Is what’s expected for one expected for all? Does “fair” mean “equally”? Strive for equity along with fairness and always consider each student’s background and special needs in applying consequences.

D is for Defense

No battle was ever won by defense, so get on the offensive first rather than putting yourself in a position of defending your program. The sooner your students realize that you are on their side — you want to help them get through and excel in their school experience — the better. This also applies to your interactions with administrators, peers and even parents. When your school staff sees that you are interested and invested in your combined efforts to help kids, they will be more likely to show their support for you and your program.

Each moment is important, so don’t waste effort! Focus on those things that only you can do, and get others to do the rest. Students love to take an active role in your program if you let them! Rely on student leaders, class monitors, librarians, secretaries, stage managers and parents. Learn to ask for help and delegate.

Will you have to take a little more time explaining in great detail what you want done? Yes.

Will the work be done to the same standard as if you’d done it yourself? Probably not.

Will you have more time to get things done? Definitely!

Try to do 5% more each year with 5% less effort. You’ll find your life gets easier.

F is for Follow-Up

Always check back with that student who you sent “out, standing” (see “C is for the Culture in Your Classroom”).Before he or she leaves class that day and again in a day or so, have a quiet, private conversation to make your expectations clear.

The real power in this one-on-one interaction is the positive message you provide. Start the conversation with a positive statement about the student and then ask questions about his or her behavior, but let them identify the issues. Conclude with your reassurance that the student is capable of doing great things. This sends the message that you truly care about the student’s well-being. It also deemphasizes the problem and instead emphasizes the path toward solutions.

Also communicate with students and their parents if you foresee little issues becoming bigger problems.

dart board with dart in the bullseyeG is for Goals

Goals are targets, and you can’t hit what you can’t see! Do everything with an end in mind.

Everyone needs to know the goals for the class — even see them written out sometimes — so all of you can be headed in the same direction. Make short-term as well as long-term goals — this class period, today, this week, this month, this quarter, this semester, this year — to help you stay focused. Most importantly, be ready to revise your goals.

H is for Harmony

Harmony is needed in any music classroom. But harmony also means “a combination of parts into a pleasing or orderly whole,” which is also essential.

That’s why I always emphasize the “we” and maintain an inclusive environment in my classroom. Use “we” rather than “I/me” when establishing points of classroom culture. This increases the sense of belonging and expectations. It also creates positive peer pressure. There is more power in the statement “We need you to do this” over one that starts with “I.”

The encouragement of others is magical — other than music classes, where do students receive regular applause for getting something right? In what other classes is the well-being of their classmates directly affected by their performance?

Help spread this positivity and harmony by always speaking of “us.”

I is for Inspiration

Whether it’s in music or something else, we must inspire our students. Inspire them to be their best every day by being your best. Teach them to be great humans.

We have a mantra in my classes that the kids learn the first day: “Great musicians come from great bands. In order to be a great band, we must first be a great class. In order to be a great class, we must first be great people. Our first job then is to be great people.”

We refer to it often, especially when things start to go astray or to point out examples of things that are done right.

Now, I realize that being inspirational every day takes some work, so …

J is for Jokes

Let’s face it, folks, being a music teacher is like putting on six or seven shows a day, and you’re the one on stage. You have to be engaging.

Monitor and modulate your tone (recording yourself can be painfully helpful in doing this). Break things up once in a while and tell some jokes. They don’t even have to be good jokes. It makes you more approachable. And, the best way to make an annoying thing even more uncool to kids is for adults to joke about it continually!

During one of my classes a student squealed that there was a bee on the floor. “Is it dead or is it B natural?” I asked. “Better hope it’s not B sharp!” After I squished it, she finished the pun: “Now it’s B FLAT!!” Find humor in the moment when you can.

K is for Knowledge

Share yours. Grow yours. Encourage your students by modeling the curiosity of leaning.

Honor knowledge in your classroom by teaching students to figure things out. Tell them that if they don’t know it, seek it out. They’re smart enough but often just not motivated. When you catch a student using a fingering chart, adjusting for wrong notes, correcting pitch, looking up a term, etc., point these out as positive examples.

An environment where seeking knowledge is valued leads to greater knowledge overall!

young female laughingL is for Laughter

Laughter is one of the keys to longevity in this business. For goodness sake, have a sense of humor about what you — and your students — are doing. Always remember that “it’s just band.”

While you’re at it, step back and take a look at the self-imposed deadlines you put on yourself — do you always have to play five tunes? Does everything have to be a grade 4?

Laugh with your kids, laugh at your kids (okay, maybe inwardly) and laugh at yourself.

M is for Martians

Let’s face it, sometimes it seems like students are Martians! What I mean is that they are from a different place in time and speak a strange language — one you might understand but shouldn’t try to speak because you cannot be like them. Use their colloquialisms for fun. Joke with them but don’t ever make the mistake of assuming you’re as cool to them as you think you are.

N is for Noise

What do you want your rehearsals to sound like? What you accept is what you’ll get.

Refuse to speak over the noise because you will be creating more. Learn to wait for the silence you want. I’ve noticed that classes seem to get noisier when you’re unprepared, so …

O is for Organization

Have things prepared ahead of time if you want your rehearsals to go smoothly. Your preparation allows you the freedom to just teach. Never wing it!

Think about some of the best cooking shows you’ve watched. The secret to their smooth production is preparation. Everything is already cleaned, chopped, measured and ready — which allows the cook/chef/host to focus on presenting the material to you.

P is for Parents

Parents are your allies — they just might not know it yet. Parents are assets. Repeat that phrase. In this day and age, having anyone else who can exert any influence on your students is a gift, right?

You need back up. So do parents. They will help you as soon as you convince them that you are on their side in a partnership to help their child navigate the rough waters of middle school and high school. What parent can say “no” when you start off by saying, “Let me work with you to help make your child’s school experience better.”

Don’t avoid “problem” parents; instead, get to know them. Learn what bugs them, what gets them riled, what they complain about. Use that knowledge to your advantage. Preempt their issues by giving them a heads-up on things that you know will raise the hair on their necks.

Eventually, these parents will become some of your biggest fans because out of all their child’s teachers, you showed them understanding, consideration and respect. When another teacher or a counselor asks, “Do you ever have problems with these parents?” you can say, “No, we work really well together. Their kid is great in my class.”

woman holding index finger to lips Q is for Quiet

Appreciate it. Learn the value of silence at the right time and use it effectively. Stop speaking mid-sentence to get students to listen. Consider holding a totally silent rehearsal (sometimes we do this out of necessity).

We employ a “magic minute” — one minute before the bell rings, the band president stands in front of the class and everyone stops playing and is silent before the announcements start. It allows things to settle.

Also consider the environment that your students just came from — how many other students did they pass in the hall? At my school, they’re going to pass at least 650 other noisy, active students before coming into my room. Sometimes your students need to walk into quiet to appreciate it, and sometimes they just physically need it.

R is for Routines

Kids thrive on routines despite what their reaction to them might be. Establish a routine for everything from Day One. How they enter the room, where backpacks go, where they place their cases, when they can ask questions, when to get instruments, when to put them away, etc.

Re-establish these routines mid-year, if necessary.

female teacher standing in front of white board

S is for Systems

Systems go hand in hand with routines. Have a place for important things, and an order of operations for your daily business. If there is something that gets done regularly in your classroom, then there should be a system for it. Establish “what to do if…?” systems for situations like no instruments, absences, lost music, missed handouts, etc.

T is for Time

We work best when we know the right time to do things. Using nonverbal cues in rehearsal saves tons of time, as does breaking the habit of counting everything off. Think about this: If it takes six seconds to count off, and you can easily count off 30 times in class, you’ve lost 3 minutes a day. Three. Minutes. Do you know what a band director can do with 3 minutes? That’s losing 15 minutes a week!

Respect time — yours and theirs. If you say you’ll end in an hour, be done in 57 minutes. Expect them to do so as well. By teaching kids how to break things down and practice efficiently, you will help them manage their time and learn a valuable life skill!

U is for Understanding

We can mold a child’s behavior better if we understand why they do things. You may not always see immediate results, but take the extra few minutes to ask them about things at home, in their other classes, their friends. The answers may provide you with a better picture of why they are acting out, and at the very least will show them that you care about more than what they’re doing in your class.

V is for Village

We are part of the village surrounding each child as they grow. You cannot raise a child on your own — as the African proverb says, “it takes a village.”

Even in ancient times, people knew and understood the value of having a child surrounded by safety and positive influences. Be an integral part of the raising of your students and in helping their parents. I always tell parents during orientation, “Welcome to our village.”

field of weedsW is for Weeds

Weeds grow as a process of nature in even the most beautiful flower gardens. In the same way, even your best students will eventually find distractions — the weeds of behavior. That blossoming mind of students must be cultivated with activity and fertilized with the ideals of excellence, teamwork and leadership to keep it from being infested by weeds. Be proactive and weed out bad behaviors, bad habits, instrument issues and classroom drama.

X is for Xenagogue

This is a word most people aren’t familiar with — in fact, it’s not even listed in some dictionaries! But I found several sources that define a xenagogue as “a guide, someone who conducts strangers.”

That’s what we are! We are musical Sherpas, leading our students through the hazardous pathways of school and life. Remember to teach beyond your rehearsal hall and be concerned with what your students do elsewhere.

Y is for Yelling

Yelling is never good. Why do we do it? Because it’s fast and effective. Sort of.

Try the opposite and address the worst things in the quietest ways. You might be surprised at how effective it can be.

There may be a time and place for your students to know the full force of your voice, but it is a rare occasion. And, always choose your words wisely because you can never redact them.

Z is for Zeal

Be passionate and zealous. Your enthusiasm is infectious. But do not be a zealot. Realize that there are exceptions to every rule, and that today that student may need a mulligan.

It’s Your Turn

Did you find something you can use? I hope so. Here are some suggestions for putting new ideas to use in your classroom:

  • Implement only one or two new things at a time; don’t attempt to change everything at once. Pick your targets — students, habits, messy areas or routines — and write down a timeline of when you want to address them.
  • Start small. Try 10 minutes of silence with a noisy class, then tell them how nice that was. Then ask the class, “Can we go five more?” Encourage every step of progress!
  • Keep parents in the loop! Use “promptness points” to encourage quick return of a “parent receipt” on important information sent home (point values decrease each day).
  • Start weeding. Try starting with the “won’ts” — those kids who are capable but just are not doing things. I deal with them by being relentless.
  • Maybe just start by considering your vocabulary and using “we” more. Because you, the kids, the parents — all of us — are in this together.

Thanks for being part of my village!

Please share your ideas and suggestions for the ABCs — email and put “ABCs of Classroom Management” in the subject line. I look forward to reading your tips.

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