Classroom management can make or break a classroom. The year my mother passed away, my father was staying with me for a few weeks. I wanted him to come visit my class and see me in action. My dad, who at the time was in his early sixties, got a kick out of it and couldn't believe that I could keep the attention of 25+ kids and teach them things he long forgot about. To this day, he still gets a kick from getting to see me "in action."
Teaching is the Easy Part
I've always said teaching is the easy part. Any adult can learn the content we teach kids in elementary school. All one needs to do is go to the library, book store, or internet and learn about the subject. Knowing content doesn't make for a good teacher, but how one executes that content to their students does. Part of executing a good lesson is having strong classroom management, my number 3 teaching non-negotiable.
Over the years I've been a teacher, I've observed dozens of teachers teach. Some of these individuals were brilliant, but their lessons lacked passion or what some call the "it" factor. I've also been included in lots of interview panels for new hires and am shocked time and time again how genuinely disappointing a candidate can be when he or she gets in front of a group of students. I can usually tell within three minutes if the person will make a good teacher.
It's not about how well-written their resume is or a well-designed lesson plan filled with all the catchwords; it's about the person and how they interact with kids. I've told administrators time and time again that all the other stuff can be learned, but having that authentic repour with students can't be. When a school finds someone with the "it" factor, they should do whatever they can to keep them. If they aren't a good science teacher, send them to a science conference; if they need help with writing report cards, sit down with a veteran teacher.
As I have said before, kids will not learn unless they want to. Any human who can manage to get kids to want to learn should be valued at all costs. Take care of these people, because they are the game-changers. Celebrate them, respect them, and help them grow into veteran educators. Handle them with care.
I believe teachers either have classroom management or don't. I don't mean to say that a teacher's classroom management can't grow and develop, but it's a skill that most people are born with or without. The best schools and classrooms I have visited are ones where classroom management is stellar. In those classrooms, magic is happening every day. Learning is exponential. Parents are happy. Kids enjoy school.
The House System
I get asked about this all the time. Over the seventeen years of being a teacher, my classroom management has evolved, but the biggest game changers to the way I run my classroom has been the incorporation of the house system. Think of Harry Potter. While I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan, the house system has been revolutionary in the way my classroom runs itself.
In 2009, I visited the Ron Clark Academy for the first time. The Ron Clark Academy in a private middle school located in Atlanta, Georgia. The co-founders, Ron Clark and Kim Bearden, created a real-life version of Hogwarts. Before visiting RCA, I had never seen (or hear of) the house system. I already had my classroom management system and liked it. But after seeing the house system in action, I immediately implemented it in my classroom. I took what I learned from the Ron Clark Academy and tweaked it for my own class.
The first thing I did was to have my own students research names for houses. I didn't want to use the names of the houses from RCA or from Harry Potter. I also wanted my students to believe in this new system. I created a lot of mystery around what was happening and stretched it out for a few weeks. I began by challenging my students to find words that had a special meaning behind them.
After a week or so, we narrowed the choices down to five words. Amicus, Bellator, Coragem, Gakusha, and Phoenix. A few days later, students were magically sorted (by means of a sorting hat and colored necklaces I purchased at a party store) into 1 of 5 houses:
Amicus—The Purple House of Friendship
Bellator—The Red House of Warriors
Coragem—The Green House of Courage
Gakusha—The Yellow House of Scholars
Phoenix—The Orange House of Determination
Since then, each year, on the very first day of school, students are randomly placed into one of five houses, which serve as their home base for community building and academic challenges.
The best thing about the house system is there is no physical prize. At the end of the year, the winning house is celebrated at the end of the year house banquet. During the house banquet, the entire classroom is decorated in the winning house color. Every member of the house receives a small trophy and performs their house chant for one final time. Parents bring in a potluck lunch, and we feast and celebrate together.
The house system doesn't just teach students to collaborate and work together but builds a strong sense of belonging. Similar to what happens at the Ron Clark Academy, each Friday, House Members meet together and perform a house chant in front of the class. The chant representants their house spirit and gives students another chance for them to earn house points. On occasion, we bring in guest "judges" to provide praise and constructive feedback. The guest judges are members of our school community, such as administrators, classroom teachers, and specialists. At the end of each house's chant, each house gets to spin the house wheel for an opportunity to win bonus house points.
In addition to the wheel, students earn house points for:
1) Earning 100% on tests.
2) Demonstrating sportsmanship.
3) Outstanding citizenship.
4) Winning House challenges.
5) Being recognized for making a difference.
Points can never be lost. Once earned, they are there for good.
The entire House System creates a sense of positive peer pressure. From early on, students learn the power of choice and learn ways to contribute to their house and class positivity. It reduces behavioral issues and increases school spirit. I spend a lot of time teaching kids what it means to be part of a team; we practice what collaboration looks like and how competition can be healthy. I emphasize that, while we may be broken up into smaller houses, we are still one big family and share a common goal.
House challenges are a fun way I trick students into studying. Most of my house challenges are based on the academic content we are studying in class. For example, halfway through the year, my class always takes a vocabulary midterm. To encourage my kids to study and prepare for their midterm, I create a house challenge based on the definitions, typical references, antonyms, and synonyms for their words.
I call it the Bucket Ball Bounce. For two weeks, my students study their vocabulary words. Houses often create their own study guides and study groups. On the day of the challenge, students sit with their house. One by one, a definition, typical reference, antonym, or synonym for one of their 80 words pops on the board. Every house that answers the question correctly gets a tennis ball. Then, they must bounce their tennis ball into a bucket. For each tennis ball that is bounced into their bucket, the house earns a house point. In theory, a house can win 80 house points. While this game seems easy, I promise you, it isn't.
Later in the year, houses compete in the Amazing Race. Students race around the school, solving clues based on academic content in the hopes of being the Amazing Race Winner. Houses practice collaboration, patience, and communication, while putting the content they learned over the course of the year into action.
After years of having the House System contained to my classroom, it began to spread around my school. Then, my last year teaching in New York, my entire school adopted the system. It can be a lot of hard work if you don't have all the constituents buy into it. I've seen a lot of schools around the country implement similar systems and love how it's changing outdated classroom management systems.
My advice for anyone interested in doing a house system is that it takes time to plan carefully. You must take it seriously and be willing to put in the time it takes for it to be magical. I recommended checking out how other schools have implemented the system in their school and tweak it accordingly. Setting it up to be successful is key. No one system is one size fits all. Make it unique to your school. Involve every single person who interacts with kids. Take suggestions and feedback from everyone. Plan together. Be open to suggestions and constructive feedback.
I believe that a successful management system can run itself. Once up and running, it should be something that takes little time away from teaching.
Reflection Questions For You:
1) Has your management style evolved? If so, how?
2) What makes someone have the "it" factor?
3) Could your class run itself? If not, what can you do to improve it?
4) Do you think your classroom, grade-level, or school can incorporate a system like team houses?
5) Can you think of a teacher who has stellar classroom management? If so, what does their classroom culture feel like?