Better than carrots or sticks: restorative practices for positive classroom management. Chapter 3 takeaways from the depths of decision fatigue.

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This post is in a series that reflects on Better than Carrots or Sticks based on observations in my classroom.  Don’t forget.  The best classroom management starts before students enter the room.  I highly recommend Lee Jenkins Optimize Your School to implement practical strategies based on continuous improvement that will engage students to take responsibility for their own learning progress.  Reviews of each chapter of Better than Carrots or Sticks found below:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

In my situation we are about to complete 1st quarter.  I am continually amazed at how fast this year is moving.  A large part to this feeling is that overall this has been a fantastic start to the school year.  Even so, as October winds down into November there seem to be recurring issues within the classroom.  Students are comfortable.  Teachers are comfortable.  I find myself less enthusiastic in respect to daily decisions revolving around classroom management.  Decision fatigue is a real live thing!  This is a major reason why I decided to move on from the Daily Engagement Assessment as a practice.  It simply created too many decisions for me to process objectively.

Chapter 3 in Smith et al’s, Better than Carrots or Sticks, focuses on procedures.  Finally, I can explore pragmatic procedures and routines to use in my classroom.  But before I get there, this quote sticks out to me from the introduction to chapter 3.

“But too often, teachers’ classroom-management skills are considered individually, without thought to their effect on the larger organization.  An unruly classroom doesn’t only affect a few dozen people – it affects the entire building and undermines efforts to nurture a more positive climate across the school.”  – Better than Carrots or Sticks by Dominique Smith, Dough Fisher and Nancy Frey.

My first reaction to this quote was anxiety.  Are the management procedures or pedagogy in my room negatively affecting anyone else in my building?  Further reflection leads me to realize that I do not completely know what my building values in respect to classroom management.  We have a student handbook.  Overall, the atmosphere seems to look toward engagement and student work.  But I know that may look a lot different to to the variety of staff members in the building.

We are a large building with over 120 teachers and 6 administrators.  Multiple philosophies are present and often expressed in large group kind of meetings.  Plus, there are so many rumors to what is actually happening in classrooms.  It’s difficult to discern what the building values.  This further reflection brings me out of anxiety to a place of calm.  A huge part of teaching language with a focus on comprehension involves being present to the human beings in front of me.  A large part of that is adapting to how the energy or lack of energy in the building affects students.

I’ve always adopted the idea that engaging and comprehensible lesson material sets the table for an effective classroom environment.  But last year, I found myself almost burned out while I attempted to out plan some difficult behaviors I was facing in one particular class.  Engaging and comprehended content is important but there are still human beings in the room making decisions every moment of the lesson.  There are so many variables that can influence how or if a student decides to engage in content.  Many of those variables are out of my control.  Fast forward a few years and I’ve found strategies for students to track their learning progress effectively creates routines and allows me some space to recharge teaching energy to continue to search for the novel that students crave.  If you haven’t checked out Lee Jenkins, Optimize Your School, make sure and do so soon!

Therefore, this year, my focus is on the people in front of me and on the variables that I can control.  When decision fatigue sets in I hope to reflect through the lens of my role in the building.  So what are the things that I can control?

  • Clear procedures in my classroom.
  • Frequent review of procedures.
  • Consistent expectations that students follow the procedures.
  • Aligning procedures with our handbook and building values.
  • My attitude toward the content and human beings in front of me each day.

Notice that the things in my control exist in my environment.  Immediately my goal is to work on my attitude.  It is far too easy to focus on the negative and to focus on the things that I think others are not doing.

Early in chapter 3 on page 53 of Better than Carrots or Sticks Smith et al say, “Effective classroom rules should mirror school wide values and be short, positively phrased, a reasonable number, and posted somewhere clearly visible in the room.”  Smith et al suggest broad and simple rules.  My classroom expectations are:

  • Look (at the speaker of Latin or Latin text)
  • Listen (to the Latin message)
  • Ask (about the Latin message)
  • Relevance to curriculum (references technology use expectations from the student handbook)

Secondly, Smith et al suggest focusing on rules that promote self-regulation among learners.  The authors recognize the complexity of guiding students to self regulation.  From page 54 of Better than Carrots or Sticks, “But self regulation is the product of trial and error – missteps are essential to its refinement.”  Another powerful quote that seems to hit me right in the face when I read it.

Leading students to self regulation is much harder than I imagined.  The last couple years I’ve been trying different versions of my procedures that are based on the idea of Daily Engagement Assessments which I found at Bob Patrick’s Latin Best Practices site and refined versions at Lance Piantaggini’s magisterp site.  I made a lot of mistakes in my first renditions of these DEA agreements and I really struggled with an idea that I never dreamed would happen in a classroom.

One of my DEA tenets revolved around respect of others or in Bob Patrick’s words, “have a good attitude toward others in the room.”  One group of students had smaller groups within the larger group that had outright hostile feelings toward one another.  As I reflect, I’m certain some of this had roots deeper than just Latin class.  I’ve always used my relationship with students to talk these short of situations out but with this group it didn’t work.  I was caught off guard and I didn’t respond quickly enough nor consistently enough.  The overall attitude within the group became extremely negative.

I didn’t have a clear and concise plan for a response to such a situation.  Self regulation wasn’t going to work with this group, but I kept trying to offer students chances to regulate.  It didn’t work.  The attitude with this group didn’t start to improve until I met with a principal and developed an extremely specific plan that was aligned to the student handbook and administration values.  The legalize type of policy didn’t fit my teacher personality but over time it started to turn the overall atmosphere around, which I owed to the students who were responsible even within the confines of a difficult attitude.  In the end, I ditched the DEA process for more simple rules that are connected to our school’s expectations.

Chapter 3 of Better than Carrots or Sticks continues by expressing the importance of consistent procedures in a building to offer consistency to students.  This isn’t something I can control on my own but I can start to look for opportunities to offer suggestions at a building level.  As the chapter continues it discusses the importance of procedures to celebrate successes.  This shouldn’t be an idea that surprises me but for some reason developing consistent ways to celebrate always seems difficult for me.  In the past I have tried a few things such as giving out a “Latin geek” pencil to high test scores and semester Latin superlative awards based on student performance but I find myself dreading the extra work these things create.  But what are some simple ways to create these celebrations?  An example found on page 59 is to have a Success jar.  Once a week sit around comfortably with students to share the successes and celebrate.

The chapter continues by address multiple ways that students crave for their teachers to interact with them.  Most of this can be summed up with the idea that students want teachers to be present and responsive to them as human beings.  This section leads into the importance of analyzing problematic behaviors.  Page 67 of Better than Carrots or Sticks includes a strong reminder, “Behavior is how we communicate our wants and needs to the world; we use facial expressions, movement, and words to convey how we are processing all the information that’s coming at us.”

Think back to a recent teacher professional development meeting or day.  Even teachers use behavior to demonstrate our needs, feelings or wants in the moment.  We are highly trained individuals who make decisions about how to react to these types of behavior by the minute.  Yet even we communicate in a way that is not direct or always respectful.  Our student behaviors are communicating to us about the moment more than they communicate anything else.

So how do we interact when situations set us off or we are having a bad day?  The ABC of behavior is suggested.  The antecedents to the behavior, the behavior and the consequences of the behavior is found on page 67.  I know for me I find myself caught up in moments where I assume the antecedent to a behavior just happened in my classroom but the reality is most of the time the behavior started earlier in the day.  This explains why many times afternoon classes seem to have more behaviors pop up than morning classes.  There is much more time for antecedents to begin the process to set up the behavior in your class.

When behaviors arise and our procedures do not work, the most important thing that we can do is realize that de-escalation is more powerful than escalation.  Eye contact, using student names, asking students what they should be doing are powerful strategies to employ before moving toward commanding students.  We also need to take care to comment on behaviors and expectations instead of commenting on the student.  It is critical that we calmly communicate to students clearly about behaviors so that students do not interpret our response as a judgement of their character.

Chapter 3 of Better than Carrots or Sticks has much more to unpack.  3 things are clear to me that I can begin improving on right now.  1:  Focus procedures on things that I can control in my environment.  2:  Offer chances for self-regulation within procedures.  3:  Communicate clearly and calmly when de-escalation needs to occur.



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