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Automatic English For The People

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Class Management

by AJ

For whatever reason, "class management" was never an issue at my last job. I quickly established rapport with students and had no problem maintaining it. Not so at my current job. Here its been an ongoing learning process.

But Im slowly making progress. Ive done so by remembering old social work techniques... specifically, techniques I used when facilitating support groups.

Now, this isnt exactly rocket science... but I have learned a few principles.

The most important is that you dont manage a group, you help the group manage itself. And how do you do this? By directly discussing problems with the class.... and working out solutions together. This is not the "big boss" approach, wherein the leader lays down the law and (through guile, force, or skill) coerces the class into following his rules. Rather, the group facilitator helps the class reach consensus solutions.

An example: When running support groups for abused teens, I found that a few of them could be quite insulting to the other members. They assumed an air of "cool", and ridiculed members who opened up. Obviously, this is a very toxic situation-- that can quickly destroy the "safe sanctuary" feeling so necessary in such a group. I had to deal with this problem. What I didnt do is criticize the offenders. Nor did I try to cut them off or ignore them.

Rather, I stated my observations to the group as openly and calmly as possible, ex. "I notice that a few members of the group occasionally insult others when they share sensitive feelings. Im concerned this might intimidate some of you.. prevent you from sharing your feelings openly. What do you think?" Typically, that opened the floodgates. The other members were, of course, very frustrated with the "cool" ones. By introducing the topic, I gave them an opportunity to voice their feelings... and they usually did in a very forceful and direct manner. Discussions, sometimes heated, ensued. In the end, the "cool" members usually apologized... and the group usually established strict rules regarding respectful communication. Other than introduce the topic, I said very little. The group managed itself. The group established ground rules. The group found solutions and enforced them!

I dont know why its taken me so long to try this approach as a teacher. Actually, I do. Im conditioned to think of teachers as "king of the class"... and so believed I had to solve problems by myself. But it just doesnt work very well. For example, any group will have quiet members... and a few who are very dominant. This can be a real problem, especially when communication is so important. The more timid members need equal opportunities. The "education" way to handle this is for the teacher to cut off the dominant members, or ignore them in favor of the quiter ones. Ive tried this, but it creates a battle of wills. Ill ask a question, say a quiet students name, and look directly at them. However, my most dominant student will still attempt to answer. If I ignore them and continue looking at the quiet student.. they seem only to try harder to regain my attention. The quiet student remains quiet-- unwilling to compete.

Here's the (social work) approach I will try next week. Ill walk into class and tell them I want to discuss the class dynamics. Ill say something like, "Ive noticed that some students tend to dominate in class, while others barely speak. I want to be sure that everyone gets an opportunity to communicate. But I dont want to force people to talk who dont want to. What do you think? How can we guarantee everyone has a chance to participate?" Hopefully this will give them the opportunity to discuss their frustrations. And hopefully THEY will work out a solution to ensure more opportunities for everyone. Since THEY will find a solution, I can also rely on THEM to enforce it.

This is the "wu wei" approach to classroom management... by turning things over to the students, the class is managed more effectively, with less effort for the teacher.

Give it a try. Next time you are frustrated with the class, address it directly and openly. Dont complain or insult them... just say, "here is what Ive noticed, how should we deal with it?".

You may be surprised at the response.

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