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Classroom Management – You Can Do This!

Rob Shaver • CommentaryJanuary 2022 • January 19, 2022

Teachers just want to teach, and we would, were it not for the student discipline issues that derail our best laid plans.

Below is an email I recently received from a former student we’ll call John.  He is in his first year as the band director of a large 6-12 program, and he was asking for any practical advice I could provide that would help him get control of his classroom.  I hope my reply will be helpful to him, and others, too.

Rob Shaver conducting his class

Hello, Mr. Shaver,

This is John.  I have a really good group of app. 70 beginners spread across two mixed instrumentation classes.  They are out of control constantly, talking all the time, even while they are supposed to be playing, and just making terrible sounds, even though I know they can sound good.  I am trying to work through a piece of Christmas music, but we are going to be lucky if they can even perform at the concert because I have to spoon feed each individual student 2-4 measures at a time. They refuse to pay attention or practice, and then they whine in class that they cannot do it. 

I feel like I have tried the full spectrum of classroom management approaches, but nothing seems to work.  I started the year with a hardline approach, but the students did not seem to care; they just did what they wanted.  So, and maybe this is where I went wrong, I tried a more relaxed atmosphere, not letting things go, but engaging humor and letting the students lead the class more than I had before.  This seemed to work for a while, but then it just slipped into chaos more often than not.  I warned them that if we could not keep the class under control, I was going to lock things down. Not 10 minutes after this talk it was a madhouse again. So, for the last few weeks, I’ve been very strict.  But, as someone who I have never heard yell, even at me, though I deserved it, you can imagine how that is going. 

I feel stuck. My administration just keeps saying, “Make sure your expectations are clearly defined.”  I define them every single day, but it’s not making a difference. 

Any tips you are willing to offer would be much appreciated.

All the best.

Hi, John,

I feel your pain.  We’ve all been there.  I’ve had class sizes ranging from 15-75.  The one thing they all have had in common is the need for discipline.  It’s an on-going battle that never completely goes away, and frankly, it’s one of the most difficult parts of teaching.  I wish I could give you some quick fix, secret approach, or management technique that would solve all the discipline problems tomorrow and allow you to do what you love, which is teaching music, but I can’t.  However, I will be glad to share what ideas I have.

First, though, I must say that I am in no way perfect.  I’ve lost my cool with students way too many times to count.  But every bad day leads me to consider how I can better manage my classes and myself.  Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years.

Structured Classes – From the time students come into the room until the time they leave, they are on task in some way.  

They need to be ready for rehearsal by two minutes after the bell.

They need to have their music, instrument, and pencil.  

If a student doesn’t have their music or instrument, they are given an alternative assignment.  This can be anything:  a sentence-writing assignment (“Playing my instrument would be better than wasting time writing these sentences.” 40x); worksheets; a rehearsal report; or something else.  The main point is that the student is not sitting idly and getting into trouble.

Attendance is taken while students are setting up.  

They can only play their instruments when they are in their seats.  

The order of rehearsal is written on the board.  

Drummers need to get out the necessary equipment for the pieces we will be practicing. 

Rehearsal starts promptly.  

When I step up on the podium, or put my hand in the air, they are expected to get quiet.  

Students should raise hands and wait to be called on to ask or answer questions.

I don’t talk over them (or, at least, that’s the goal).  

When my baton is raised (or hands), their instruments come up.  When I put my baton down, they can put their instruments down, but they should be quiet and listen for instructions.  

When rehearsal is over, they have two minutes to pack up.  

When the bell rings, they are dismissed by sections or rows, but not until their chairs and stands are straightened up.  

To make all this work, I give students a participation grade of 300 points per grading term (3 grades of 100 points each).  When someone is late getting ready for class or doesn’t have a pencil, they lose three points.  No music or instrument? 5 points.  Talking without permission?  1 point, maybe 3, depending…  You get the idea.  Procedures won’t work without an incentive for students to follow them.

Clear Expectations – Your administrators are right.  Make sure your students know what is expected of them (all of the above, or whatever works for you).  But expectations don’t mean anything without…

Consequences – I follow a four-step discipline process for students who become consistent behavior problems or disruptions:

• Step 1 – Conference with Student; Warning.  This usually takes place after class.  I explain the problem or identify the behavior change I’m looking for.  I also explain that continued problems will result in…

• Step 2 – Parent Contact.  This is usually a phone call.  I explain the problem to the parent, and I explain what will happen next if the behavior continues.  I ask the parent to address this with the student, and sometimes I ask the parent to suggest things I might try that could help the student improve his or her behavior.  If you do this, be prepared to listen.  Parents are often as frustrated as we are, so they might want to vent a little.  Occasionally, however, a parent might be angry and blame me for the problem.  I have found that it is best to let them talk until they have said everything they have to say.  I don’t argue with them.  When they are done, I might try to explain the steps I’ve taken to make the situation better, and again, I might ask for suggestions.  

• Step 3 – After-school Detention.  I explain that this is a detention with me that is separate from any detention system the school might use.  It takes place in the Band Room from 3:15-3:45.  The student should bring homework to do, or be given work to do when they arrive (worksheets, sentences, other…).  

• Step 4 – Office Referral.  If the behavior continues after these steps have been taken, it might be time to involve the school administration.  When I write the referral, I document the steps I›ve taken.  This way, the administrator knows that this behavior has been ongoing.  Administrators appreciate having this info., and they like to know that the teacher has taken steps to improve the behavior instead of just sending every little problem to the office.

Consistent Follow-through – It’s easy to overlook behavior issues when you are focused on a lesson.  But behavior must be a top priority because, as you know, disruptive behavior makes teaching impossible. 

When you need to address an ongoing discipline matter with a student (I don’t mean the little reminders to be quiet or pay attention), it is best to talk with that student one on one.  This way the student is not “on the spot,” and isn’t able to perform for an audience (his or her friends in the class).  Most students are much more cooperative one-on-one.  

During this conversation:

Clearly identify the problem. 

Ask the student why he or she is having trouble behaving properly.

Ask for the student’s help to correct the problem.

Offer something positive.  Tell the student that you are glad he or she is in your class; compliment their playing or their progress; tell them you hope their behavior will improve so that further steps will not be necessary.  In this way you are letting the student know that you like them and that you are not their enemy.

When I feel like I’m going to lose my temper with a student, I often find it helpful to mentally review my discipline options.  Knowing that I have a system of consequences in place helps me to feel more “in control” and less desperate when things get frustrating.

Reviewing what I’ve just written, I’m certain there is more I could say.  Every situation is a little different and might require a unique solution.  But generally speaking, the approach described above has worked well for me.

As I said at the start, there is no easy fix.  Lasting change will take time.  Don’t give up, because it will be worth it.  Please keep in touch and let me know how it’s going.  I am happy to help in any way I can.

Best wishes,

Rob

Discipline issues stop us from doing what we love.  But, when we begin to think of classroom management as an invaluable opportunity to teach our students lessons that may, for many of them, be far more important than anything we might teach them about music, we will begin to see it as an essential part of the job.  And, as classroom issues improve, we will get to share with our students more and more of our passion for music.

Rob Shaver has been a middle school band director since 1993, first in Frederick County, MD, and since 2000 at Tipton Middle School in Tipton, IN, where his duties have also included teaching general music classes and directing the middle school choirs. His ensembles have earned 43 gold awards at ISSMA festivals, including 10 “with distinction” citations. He earned a BA degree in music education from Anderson University in Indiana, and an MM degree in piano performance from the University of Maryland. He has conducted regional honor bands, worked as a clinician for IMEA band festivals, and judged piano solos for ISSMA and IMTA. He also helped coordinate the IBA Junior All-State Band for five years. His articles have appeared in Bandworld magazine, Conn/Selmer’s Keynotes magazine, IMEA’s INfORM magazine, and KMEA’s Bluegrass Music News. He has presented clinics on band and general music topics at the IMEA state conference and the IMEA Southern Symposium. Under the BRS Music label, he has published a collection of beginner clarinet solos called Three Adventures for the First Year Clarinetist, and a beginning band piece called The Cadet Band March. He is a member of IBA, IMEA, and Phi Beta Mu. Shaver lives in Alexandria with his wife, Cynthia. He can be reached at rkshaver@outlook.com.

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