What’s the difference between a good professor and a great professor? Is it magic? Is it charisma? Maybe, a little. Like a secret spice in your favourite recipe, Classroom Management can have a profound effect on learning in the postsecondary school classroom. Great professors aren’t just great teachers, they’re great classroom managers.
Classroom management means preparing and delivering your lesson in such a way that the unpredictable elements of the classroom setting have a minimal negative impact on your ability to engage students. Lectures and seminars pose different problems and demand different approaches in order for students to have the best learning experience. So how does one learn to manage a classroom like an old pro? Well, the disappointing answer is to become an old pro. The first thing established professors will generally tell you is that it takes a lot of practice to be an effective teacher and scholar.
Know the Terrain
In a seminar situation it is easy to learn student names and thereby make them feel less like part of some amorphous herd and more like individuals. The intimacy of seminar settings, with only 25-30 students generally means that you can establish a greater rapport. This usually means that students are able to interact more freely which encourages participation. Of course, this can also be a bit of a curse when it works too well.
If you have ever taught a class with a group of students who are already friends, then you likely know that their confidence can increase the likelihood of distraction. Classroom management allows for a maximization of the benefits of these environments while simultaneously anticipating distraction and minimizing its disruptive potential.
Lectures pose a whole host of other problems that require different strategies. Engaging the class is key to making sure that students don’t instantly turn to their phones when you start talking. However, the pressure of speaking in front of a large class can completely change the dynamic of student and instructor interaction. New instructors grappling with a high-stakes career environment are under a lot of pressure to provide a positive experience in difficult circumstances. Under all this pressure it can be nerve-wracking to pose a question and not get a single response.
From the student perspective, large lectures can be intimidating for those who don’t enjoy speaking in front of a couple hundred peers about something they may or may not understand. The limited interaction this generates can make instructors feel unapproachable, and limit their engagement with course content. In large groups you sometimes get a few regular students answering questions, just as likely you get a few regular students who come and spend the entire time talking to each other…the anonymity that comes with a few students progressing the lesson can give a false sense of progression that leaves many students behind.
Tips and Tricks of Classroom Management
Classroom management, therefore, isn’t so much a tool as it is a skill-set. Just as instructors learn what range of things can happen from their classroom experiences, they can equally learn to plan in anticipation of potential disruptions. However, every classroom is different, as is every instructor, so classroom management is as much about adaptability and creative problem solving as it is about lesson plans and lecture slides.
The following are three ways that you can develop your classroom management skills to positively affect learning:
Set the Tone You Want to Hear
The key to developing student engagement in a large and small setting comes down to establishing a productive working relationship with students. If it’s a large lecture make sure to break the fourth wall and speak to students candidly about your expectations, potential challenges content may pose, and willingness to answer all questions honestly. If you can’t learn names then find ways to engage the entire class individually through personal responses.
In a small seminar, check your voice and consider the kind of relationship you are establishing. Do you want them to speak over each other? Do they look to you for mediation? Depending on what you are trying to achieve, managing your interactions from the start lets students know where you stand and takes some of the awkwardness out of the air.
Over-prepare…and Know When You Have
Know the content you are teaching. Know it. Don’t just know how to teach it, don’t just know what your lecture says that day; know the content and how it sounds in translation, the directions it points students in, and where it is going in the context of the course. Most importantly, know how the content connects to the real world…does this feel preachy? It feels preachy, and it should, because chances are you already do all of the above. The reality is that most instructors know everything they need to be dynamic and effective teachers, they just don’t realize that they do.
The imposter syndrome is real for young professors and it can make the most confident scholar feel about as bright as an igneous rock. So how do you know when you are prepared, over-prepared? The simple answer is you know already. If you can go “off-book” during a large lecture, if you can engage with student questions and respond in a way that moves the lesson forward; then you already have the necessary preparation to adequately manage your classroom.
Fail and Look Good Doing It
I have never learned from any experience more than failure. Failure is the most effective way to learn and internalize a whole range of lessons from a single event. The key then is minimizing the destructiveness of failure. Learn in a safe environment and encourage students to do likewise. The key, in this instance, comes from being transparent about your level of experience with an exercise, unit, or assessment. But nonetheless, integrate room for failure into your lesson and use your classroom management skills to capitalize on success and downplay potential risk.
Everyone’s Got Their Own Style
Classroom management is part of the process of learning as an instructor, developing a set of skills that allow you to be an effective teacher in a sea of unpredictability comes with years of experience. However, being aware of the way you engage with students and the parameters posed by the class itself can help you to effectively apply your prepared content without fear of failure. When instructors are able to manage the classroom effectively students become more invested in the lesson and more engaged learners. In the end it’s the style you build learning to teach that will make you effective at classroom management, and like most styles, everyone develops their own.
Sources for Further Reading
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