It’s all about control.

22 Mar

Some schools provide you with training before you get started. It could be an hour of watching teaching videos, or a month of shadowing an existing teacher. It might be a week in a classroom practicing demo classes with other teachers, or going to schools to watch Chinese classes. Training for what – how to teach? Can you seriously learn that in a week? How to handle the kids? Ah, now you’re getting it. See these kids? They look adorably innocent but they will EAT YOU ALIVE if you’re not careful. ^^

The big ticket item of discussion would most definitely be classroom management and how to handle these curious, insanely intelligent children. If you can get some semblance of control over your classroom, almost every other problem that appears on our ticky list o’probs will practically disappear.

Case in point – I walked into a classroom the other day to do an evaluation. I walked in, had a brief conversation with the coordinator there, sat down, rifled through my bag to pull out evaluation papers, and took notes. The kids were so enthralled with what this teacher was doing that they never took their eyes off the board once. In fact, the only reason they noticed me at all was because the teacher pointed me out for something (an opinion on their topic of discussion) and I answered. Twenty heads spun around with wide eyes and slack-jaws, all gaping and asking, “When did she come in?”

THAT is classroom management. Or more specifically, THAT is classroom PRESENCE.

I swear, the one thing you truly need in this job and it’s something I can’t teach, or bottle up and sell. Classroom presence. That feeling of walking into the classroom knowing you’re in charge, and imparting that feeling to the students before you even open your mouth. And when you DO speak to them, it’s with such confidence, such authority that the kids can’t help but sit up and listen.

I’ve seen some very shy and quiet teachers over the years. The ones who whisper, “Guys? Be quiet please? Please? Teacher needs to talk now, can you please listen? Please?”

Begging is for dogs and three-year-olds in the candy aisle at the supermarket. You do not ask for your students’ attention – you demand it, take it, and do not let it go. But for some people, that requires a major overhaul on their personality, and it’s not easy to do. And that’s fine – I respect that. That just means we have to find another way to gain their interest.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the boomers. You know, the ones that are so loud and enthusiastic they scare the heck out of those teeny tiny little first graders who are blown away by the volume. You may think waving your arms around is showing enthusiasm – they see flailing fists and think ‘threat’. But you know, I actually really enjoy working with these kinds if teachers simply because they have that personality that I can mold and channel into more positive gestures. They’ve got presence – we just need to work on delivery. 😀

The one thing I can’t do is demand someone just change their personality. I was giving a mini-workshop to Chinese staff members about effective communication – the best ways to convey their opinions and suggestions to stubborn, mule-headed foreigners, and as a solution for one of the problem-solving scenarios, one of the coordinators told me that he wanted to tell a teacher to change their personality.

….I had an instant vision of an angry teacher storming into the office and yelling about how unfair it is to expect a person to change a fundamental aspect of their personality and how psychologically impossible it is for them to do so. I nearly had a spontaneous migraine just imagining this encounter and told the coordinator that if that happened, I would be coming for him next to share the pain. 😀 Okay, okay, in reality we talked about what to do in this situation and I told him I was just joking about the threatening. But still, it was a valid problem.

There are so many ways to get around classroom management problems even if you have no voice at all. I know schools here in China like seeing active and enthusiastic teachers so for our shy guys, we have tricks to get around that. Things like games that are specifically designed to get students loud and involved – but require very little input from the teacher once it’s under way. And if you properly utilize the 80 x 20 rule – that is, the students speak 80 percent of the time while speak twenty percent – the kids basically spend the whole class being loud and active while you can be your shy violet self as much as you need to.

man⋅age⋅ment:/ˈmæn ɪdʒmənt/ [man-ij-muhnt]


1. the act or manner of managing; handling, direction, or control.

I have to repeat this – seriously, ninety-five percent of all classroom problems would disappear if people utilized proper classroom control. I can give ideas out the whazoo but it does absolutely no good whatsoever if the teacher doesn’t use any of them.

We hold the points system up as the total and complete sum of all decent teaching. You can accomplish anything if you properly utilize thy blessed point system, so sayeth the experienced teachers. And to an extent, this is true. Local Chinese teachers use points systems in their classes, and we’ve all seen how well the kids behave for them!

The way it works: regardless of how many students you have, divvy them up into teams or squads, and put those teams on the board – or on paper, if you’re really keeping track. Points are given for a wide variety of reasons – anything from completing homework to raising one’s hand during class – to giving a particularly witty answer during class and making the teacher laugh. In my case, I gave them points if they got the better of me, and since they were smarter than me, they racked up a fair number of stickers, curse them ALL. 😀  Anyway, you give points freely, and kids respond to this because they like seeing physical proof – marks on the paper or on the board – of them accomplishing things.

However, this is only half the battle. The real way to utilize points is to take them away just as aggressively. Someone didn’t raise their hand – take a point. Talking out of turn – there’s another one gone. And still, this is not the whole of what you do. The last part? You need to personalize it.

Seriously, I cannot stress just how imperative it is for a foreign teacher to utilize the concept of peer policing. You want the kids to govern themselves, and their teams instead of you. So you personalize the point system: “I’m giving Team 2  three points because Jackie gave such a great answer. But I’m taking 2 points from team one because Tommy spoke Chinese instead of English.”

If you do this properly, you are pretty much guaranteed much better classroom behaviour then you had previously. But the real kicker is the rewards. Kids need proof that they did something well. Parents don’t always believe them because kids are prone to exaggerations and lying just to see a proud look on mom and dad’s faces. So you reward the teams at the end of the day or at the end of the week with stickers in their book, showing that they worked together to score the highest points in the whole classroom. Kids are highly competitive, and taking something home to their parents as proof of their success is sure to help gain their attention in your classroom.

….but no matter how many times I stress this, I can’t tell you how many classrooms I’ve walked into just to see complete chaos erupt with no management in sight. Sure, the points system is on the board, but maybe the teacher forgets it’s there. Or they give points all the time, but never take them away. That’s nearly as bad as the teachers who threaten to take points away all the time but seldom do. What you end up with then is a class full of kids who will call your bluff in a heartbeat.  You can’t just take one portion of this system and expect it to work perfectly unless you’ve got a classroom of complete angels – and do you know often that happens? There are no atheists in foxholes and there are no angels in classrooms.

So yeah, the point system is our keystone, our load bearer for classroom management. That’s not to say that’s all we rely on, but it is the main one.

I also like the ‘keep them moving’ option. This is where you come to class so well prepared, that everything flows smoothly – one activity moves directly into the next, you’re never left floundering for things to do, you don’t have to go rummaging through your bag to get stuff you need because you set it all up in advance; you’re not constantly turning your back on the class to write stuff because you got to class early to write it before class began. These kinds of teachers rarely report problems with the class, and why? Because they keep their students motivated and involved and not giving them a chance to get bored. Before they get a chance to throw that pencil box, these teachers have already called upon them to stand up and recite something, or take part in the game already underway. Adding to this is a decent use of the points system, and you’ve got the perfect class – and yet 1 or 2 teachers still stand there, scratching their heads and asking me why they didn’t get such a great class to work with.

I rarely blame students. Dude, when I was in school, the teachers who bored me got the brunt of my boredom. My French teacher from grade 6 to grade 8 – I think back on the hassles we gave her back in primary school and I find myself wanting to look up Mademoiselle Ineo to apologize for the gray hairs I’m sure we gave her. But in our defense, writing down all those verbs, conjugating them and listing whether this noun was male or female – it was dull. DULL. If we could have done more speaking games, more interesting dialog scenarios, maybe we wouldn’t have been such brats.

Same thing here – kids who are bored are not going to be even remotely interested in paying attention, much less acting like they respect you. And if you come to class with little to no preparation, you’ll get eaten alive. Little kids are like sharks and coming to class while displaying bouts of forgetfulness or unpreparedness on your part is like chumming the water.

So no, the kids, I rarely blame. If the foreign teacher was truly taking their job seriously and doing more than the bare minimum in prep work, they wouldn’t be having so many of these issues.

And yes, I can tell. I know darn well who is treating this like a real job and who is not, over the years. I can see it in the faces of the kids who happily greet their teacher or the ones who barely notice he or she’s there. I see it in the lesson plans – from the ones typed up neatly, to the ones scribbled down on ripped out sheets of note paper in point form and in handwriting so messy I can barely figure out what they’re doing. The teachers I meet at bars telling me how they have time to get a buzz going between classes – really guys, you’re not impressing anyone.

That’s the big problem with ESL teaching. There are definitely good teachers out there. I do see a lot of them, and I’m fortunate to work with so many professionals who take their job as seriously as I do. However, for every great teacher out there, there’s at least 2 or 3 who treat teaching as something fun to do to earn cash so they can move on to their next destination. Or even better – they teach to make money to support themselves until they manage to land their dream job – their entire focus is on the future and looking forward to that magical day they can quit. What do they care about the day to day running of their classrooms? They have no investment here.

But yeah, back to classroom management for teachers who actually care. You know, the hardest thing to do? It has nothing to do with points and systems and bribes. The biggest boon to teaching, the best way to captivate students attention is… something that can’t be taught. I repeat: it can’t be bottled, sold or passed along. What I’m referring to is sheer classroom presence.

I didn’t actually understand the importance of this for the longest time. I could never figure out why I had no trouble gaining the attention of my students while other teachers reported no one listening to them, or having to fight to get their attention. I just didn’t get it.

When I go into a classroom, I go in there with the attitude that it’s MY classroom and we’re gonna have fun today. We ARE going to accomplish everything on my list and we ARE going to this, that and the other thing. Everything I do is exciting because I make it that way – I wave my arms, I join in, I play with those kids. I have a naturally loud voice which can boom across a room and get that attention back in a heartbeat but that’s not the only thing – if that were the case, teachers would simply solve all their problems by investing in a microphone and speakers.

I have this saying that I pass along to teachers, primarily Primary teachers (though it does kind of filter along to most kinds of ESL training, save for adults):

Check your dignity at the door.

Seriously. You are working with KIDS – if you aren’t enjoying yourself, then chances are, neither are they. You need to act as though everything you do is the most exciting stuff in the world. Wave those arms of yours, act out songs as campy as you can. Change your voice, sing along with the songs, boogie along with the kids or conduct them with the pointer. Laugh at them, laugh WITH them and let them laugh at you.

When I go into my room, I am the most interesting thing in there. They don’t want to take their eyes off me because they don’t know what the crazy foreigner is going to do next. Maybe I’ll have them dip balls of toilet paper into water to make snowballs to throw at my snowman target on the blackboard. Maybe I’ll let them throw paper airplanes to measure distances in English. Maybe we’ll sit on the desks and wave our hands in the hair singing ‘YMCA!’ They never know what I’m going to throw at them – they only know it’s going to be interesting and fun and man, they don’t want to be left behind.

If you are having fun, then so are they. Keep that in mind, and your class will go so much easier. ^^

Leave a comment

Posted by on March 22, 2011 in china, shanghai, teaching


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: