Sometimes even the most experienced teachers inadvertently make mistakes that create discipline problems. We can inaccurately assess our students’ needs, fail to plan daily activities adequately, misread our students’ reactions, or make any number of other blunders. The result is that instructional time is lost, students are off task, and everyone is frustrated. However, when we accept responsibility for those mistakes and for our role in establishing a productive discipline climate, then we can use mistakes to grow. To improve. To move forward.
Many educators agree that it is impossible to be an effective teacher without taking the time to consider the impact our classroom leadership has on students. As you reflect on your teaching practice, the following list of common teacher-made mistakes may help you recognize some of the reasons why you may have experienced discipline problems. With each mistake listed here, you will also find a way to avoid making it into a discipline problem.
Mistake 1: You don’t have a good answer ready when students question you about why they should learn the material they are studying.
Solution: If students ask why they need to know the material, then you have not made the benefits of doing their work clear. At the start of each new unit and frequently thereafter, review the purpose for learning the information in the lesson so that your students are motivated to do their work instead of just complying with your directions.
Mistake 2: You present yourself in too tentative a fashion. You are too easily sidetracked, too uncertain, too permissive.
Solution: Present yourself as a capable classroom leader. Set limits and take a positive approach to your students and the expectations you have for them. Have a positive framework of classroom rules, policies and procedures in place so that students can focus on what is expected of them and how to meet those expectations.
Mistake 3: You spend too much energy focusing on the difficult students who challenge your authority and disrupt class.
Solution: Although it may seem contrary to conventional thinking, giving challenging students too much attention is not productive. What works best is for challenging students to be treated matter-of-factly as if they are valued, capable and productive members of a class—just like everyone else. They need to belong. They need a sense of self-worth based not on how they are different but, instead, on how they are like their peers.
Mistake 4: You are unclear in the limits you set for your students, resulting in a constant testing of the boundaries and of your patience.
Solution: Be as specific as possible in setting limits when you establish your class rules and procedures. Students need to know and understand just what they should do and what will happen if they choose not to follow these directions. Projecting a calm, matter-of-fact expectation that students will comply with classroom rules, policies and procedures is crucial to making sure your students are cooperative.
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Mistake 5: You give too many negative directions. This sets an unpleasant tone for your students.
Solution: Replace your negatives with positives. While it would be wrong to unfairly praise or encourage students for behaviors that are not acceptable, negative attitudes are destructive. Although it is natural that we should spend so much time dealing with the errors our students make or with the things they should not do or with what’s wrong, we do need to balance this negativity by focusing on our students’ successes or strengths as well. Be positive!
Mistake 6: You try to solve discipline problems without trying to determine the underlying causes.
Solution: Keep in mind that most misbehavior occurs when students are not sure what is expected of them, how to do their work, or have found a gray area to exploit. Spending time trying to figure out what caused the problem will not just allow you to resolve it successfully, but will also make it clear to your students that you care enough about them to take a thoughtful approach.
Mistake 7: You react to a discipline problem by becoming angry and upset.
Solution: Instead of spending your energy in anger, examine the problem objectively and adopt an approach to really deal with it. When you view discipline issues as problems with solutions, then you are on the way to managing them successfully. Anger is a short-term reaction that will not lead to a successful resolution.
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Mistake 8: You neglect to command attention by talking even when students aren’t listening.
Solution: Wait. Allow your students to get their materials ready before you begin talking. Establish a procedure for delivering instruction or giving directions to the whole group and teach it to your students. There are many techniques you can follow for commanding attention: setting a timer, asking a leading question, holding up something unusual, and standing in the front of the room are just a few.
Mistake 9: You are inconsistent in enforcing consequences. This will lead students to a steady testing of the limits of good and bad behaviors.
Solution: You will find it easier to be a consistent teacher if you are prepared and organized so that you will have more energy to make sound decisions under pressure. It’s also important to teach and reteach the rules and procedures you have established for the smooth operation of your class. Finally, be careful to enforce the rules for all students every day. This is particularly crucial for difficult classes.
Mistake 10: You don’t spend the time necessary to create an environment where students are comfortable taking a risk.
Solution: Students who are comfortable enough to take a risk are students who are not afraid of being ridiculed by their classmates. They have been taught that it is OK to make mistakes and that it is OK to laugh at themselves. To make it easy for students not to be intimidated, try these options when someone makes a mistake:
- Encourage students to write out their answers before speaking.
- Offer to come back to the student later.
- Tell students that it is OK to say, “I am not sure, but … .”
- Ask for clarification by saying, “Did I hear you say … ?”
- Say, “Almost. Can you add a bit more?”