Mean ’til Hallowe’en: Classroom Discipline and the First Day of the Semester

Yesterday I attended a small workshop, given by three members of my faculty, on classroom practices and strategies. It was an informal round-table discussion, in which each speaker spent about twenty minutes talking about some of the things they do to make their classroom a productive learning space.

There were a lot of suggestions that I will tuck into my bag of tools (making the final text in the course one that the student chooses from an approved list, for example, or concluding each class with individual writing and conferencing, or making the main point of each lesson clear to oneself and one’s students), but the points that immediately drew questions from the workshop participants concerned discipline.

In MEd classes, discipline is always a magnet topic as well. It seems that every teacher wants a chance to air their feelings about the things that go wrong in their classroom, and to have someone tell them something, anything, that they can do to make the problems stop.

Both speakers who discussed discipline emphasized the importance of the first days, perhaps the first two weeks, of the semester. They are both teachers who are known, by both faculty and students, to be positive, motivating, caring and inspiring. Nevertheless, they affirmed that during the first two weeks, they are stern and, in one case, mostly unsmiling. If a student is chatting in the back during the first class, that student hears about it immediately, and in front of the other students (none of this pulling people aside and gently reminding them of the rules of etiquette.) One speaker described his motive as being the setting of a “professional and disciplined mood.” When he eventually does relax, the tone of the class has been set, and it is a tone of respect.

Now, throughout my career I have heard this rule reiterated (“mean ‘til Hallowe’en” is my favorite formulation.) And I can’t quite tell how I feel about it. I’m giving a lot of thought to how I want to come across on my very first day with each of my classes. One of the workshop speakers described how he “makes his presence felt” from the moment he walks into the room on the first day, and the other described those first couple of weeks as a rather excruciating performance, because his natural tendency is to be relaxed and jokey. And of course, everyone emphasized over and over that every teacher is different, and we each have to present ourselves in our own individual way.

Tell me your thoughts. How do you approach your classroom on the first day of class? What kind of tone do you try to set? What do you do to set it?

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20 responses

  1. I’ve always been a proponent of consistancy. I treat the students the same way on the first day as the last. Usually, by the end of the first class, the students have a pretty good idea od what is acceptable and what is not. They’ll spend a bit of time fine-tuning – a week or tow, then things just go along. Of course, there is the occassional testing of boundaries, but if the boundaries are stable, and the kids know what they are, they expect the repurcussions when they cross them – and the rest of the class expects to SEE the repurcussions, so that they know the boundaries are still there too.

    I don’t think I’ve ever taken a student aside to deal with a discipline or disruption issue. I always do it right out in the open. If the kid is embarrassed by his/her behavior, social pressure is a great way to stop the behavior.

  2. Thanks, Sphyrnatude. The question of whether to address discipline issues openly in front of the other students is one I’ve been thinking about a lot. My usual procedure is to address the issue privately first, then publicly if it persists. I’m wondering if I should experiment with being more public, thus engaging the class, as a community, to deal with disruptive behavior.

    My main concern is with the possibility of miscalls. I have occasionally spoken to a student privately about a behavior only to discover that I had misjudged what was going on. I once spoke to a student I felt was being disruptive – stretching elaborately, yawning loudly, and squirming while I was speaking, for example – only to discover that he was entirely unaware that he was doing those things. Calling him out in front of the others would have humiliated him (it turned out he had a hyperactivity disorder), but after we discussed it he made a conscious effort to control himself and be more aware of me and the students around him.

    So I’m leaning more toward the public, “Will you please see me after the class?” and then the private discussion of what’s actually happening, but that doesn’t always work, either.

    Thanks so much for your input on this. Anyone else have any thoughts?

  3. In the classroom, I’ve tried to avoid against my nature (unless, that is, to control my misplaced or unhelpful anger at a situation). I guess I feel that if we treat our students with respect, they will, for the most part, respond in kind. I believe that being honest enough to be me is part of how I can respect them. In the first day of class, like all other classes, I am jokey. I am strict. I am caring. I am firm. I am pleasant. I am a workhorse who expects the students to work hard too. Interestingly, my worst discipline problems occurred years ago in my second term of teaching and were caused, I believe, by my over reacting to two students chatting in the back and my failure to treat them like adults who should know better. I was young and overly intimidated and tried to be authoritative in an artificial, heavy-handed way that didn’t, I now see, have any respect in it.

    On day one, I tell my students that one of my most precious rules is that we all treat each other with respect. I explain I don’t appreciate them talking when I am talking but that I am much more upset when they talk while another classmate is speaking to the class. I remind them that many students are not used to public speaking and may feel very shy or awkward if others chat while they try to share in class. I make it clear that I want them to feel safe to talk, to share, to make mistakes, to ask questions. Invariably, right after that little speech, during introductions, someone does talk, and I use the opportunity to firmly, but kindly say, “remember rule #1? I want you all to feel comfortable and respected. Show So-and-so the respect she deserves by listening to her introduction. You’ll probably be glad of the same sort of respect when you have to introduce yourself.” The students invariably apologize, quite sincerely. I sometimes have to do this several times (not with the same people necessarily), but doing so on the first day or so seems to set the tone well. They know I care and because of that, I won’t tolerate this behaviour. They know I have their best interests at heart and that I am very concerned about ensuring an atmosphere of mutual respect in the class.

    I feel strongly about this and had to take my own medicine one day two years ago. Near the end of term, I growled at two students for coming in late during an oral, after I’d already asked that students not enter the class while oral presentations were being given. However, my tone was far too cranky and motivated by external issues not related to my students’ behaviour. These two kids had never been late before and had never caused any trouble. As the oral continued, I wrestled with whether to apologize in front of the class or privately. I dreaded doing the former, as I thought it might show a sign of weakness. And they both seemed so put out by my crankiness that I feared they might actually vent their frustration when I did speak to them. In the end, I got over my fear and publicly apologized. I explained it would have been best if they’d remembered to wait until the oral was over, so as not to distract the speakers, but that my chewing them out in that way was unwarranted and they deserved a public apology because I’d chewed them out publicly. To my relief, they freely accepted the apology. But what really struck me was how the rest of the class reacted to the apology–with increased respect for me, even approval for my being willing to admit to the whole class that I’d acted wrongly and by respecting them enough to offer a public apology. I even had one student (one of the sweetest young men you could meet) nod his approval as I began my apology, as though to say, “Yes, this is right. This is what you needed to do.” The incident brought home to more all the more forcibly how essential a genuine mutual respect is between teacher and student.

  4. This is all very substantial food for thought, PLK – thank you for writing about it at length, because it’s full of ideas I want to think about.

    I think what resonates with me most is the need to be entirely present with whatever situation arises, to be sincerely respectful and sincerely demanding of respect for oneself and others, and to wrestle with fear. A lot of my difficulties with classroom management have arisen from a fear of dealing with whatever was happening, a fear of looking someone in the eye and addressing their behavior or of making a mistake and living to regret it. I think the willingness to apologize when necessary or discuss one’s OWN behavior with the students goes a long way toward alleviating our fear of acting in the first place.

    Thanks so much for giving me all this to chew on.

  5. Food for thought indeed! I have read quite a lot about classroom management, and know I HAVE to be stern and strict tomorrow, yet I doubt whether I will be able to act that way I know I should. I hate myself for not standing strong, because it will give me problems for the rest of the year. But having a positive, easygoing and friendly nature makes it a real challenge to act ‘mean’. I guess it will take some years to get that right. Good luck to you!

  6. Thank you! The balance I’m always trying to strike is between being kind/friendly and firm/stern when necessary. It’s always a challenge. Good luck to you too – let us know how it goes!

  7. It seems that a lot of people confuse “strict” and “structured.” We must ALWAYS enforce expectations firmly and consistently – first day or forty-fifth. It’s also important to have expectations that are age-appropriate and communicated clearly.

  8. Fair enough, Clix. I think it’s important to point out, though, that the teachers that I discuss in the post above claim to be both strict AND structured at the beginning, and to loosen up as time goes on, and that this approach works very well for them, although I’m not sure it would for everybody. The students respond very well to it, and respect the teachers as well as loving them.

  9. Early in my career (over 12 years ago,) my boss at McGill Cont’Ed, David Levy, said something that resonates with me still: ‘Always remember that YOU are the master in your classroom.’

    I have a particularly rowdy group of 23 18-year-old farming students, 5 girls and 18 boys. Next week we will practice entering the classroom and sitting down quietly. I won’t start the class until they get it right. And if the rabble-rousing resumes, we’ll get up and try it again. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    By the way, I hate the Mean until Hallowe’en attitude. I believe it’s a survival technique for teachers more than a teaching strategy. I believe the opposite is true; you need to create a rapport with your students. If you are interesting AND interested, they will usually listen…Though I know I am lucky because I have relatively small groups and can build a rapport with each student individually overtime without getting too personal (tricky in ESL classrooms.) On the first day, I learn all of their names plus one other detail that I may ask them about at the next class. ‘Did they win their hockey game, pass their math test, get their car repaired etc?’ A little small talk can go a long way. I’m not trying to be their friend, just reminding them we are all human.

  10. Before I read all the comments, let me just say that, while everyone has this great ideal of being all cheery and such during the first couple of weeks in school, the problem is that some kids will immediately take your kindness for weakness, and that’s an issue. Kids want a teacher in front of them. They want high expectations badly. It’s been shown time and again. If we don’t set a respectful and serious tone from the beginning, then kids start to act funny. Even if you have a smile on, your demeanor should be a professional one. It’s something I learned early and quickly.

    Kermit brings up a good point about how classroom management: building a rapport with students goes a long way. For Kermit, that works because that’s part of Kerm’s persona. It’s part of mine, too, but I try to find that balance between cordial and strict. They’re not adverse to each other either.

    And not to say anything that might contradict good sense, but it’s OK to misjudge as long as you misjudge correctly. What I mean is that, if you catch a kid yawning and acting out, regardless of whether or not he / she meant it, as long as you call them on it, that’s perfect because it lets everyone know that if they plan to do it intentionally then they’re going to get a nice talking-to.

  11. Your last comment gives me food for thought, Jose – although the particular student I spoke to privately, who was stretching and yawning in class, was a perfect angel after our discussion, some other students in the class were not. I wonder if that was because they saw him “getting away with” stuff at the beginning.

    And I think the theme that comes through in all these comments is that, although a firm hand is necessary, we need to be true to ourselves. I think one reason I’ve been having difficulty these last few years is that I’ve been trying to shut down my natural tendency to be warm and enthusiastic in the classroom, in favour of being detatched and a bit cold, because I hoped that would help me maintain better control. It hasn’t worked, so this year I’m trying a different tack. I’ll let you all know how it goes.

  12. Also: Kermit: the idea of learning one detail about them other than their names is a terrific one. I don’t think I could do it right away – it takes me a couple of weeks just to get 100 names straight – but through individual meetings and other interactions, I do try to get to know a little something about who they are (but, as you say, without getting too personal…)

  13. In reality I don’t learn all the details in one week and I only have about 70 students total…and I often forget the detail and ask them again (Do you raise dairy or beef cows?)

    I just watched To Sir with Love (again) yesterday on Mpix (love that channel 216 or 217 if you are with videotron). I think maybe most of what I believe about teaching can be found in Sir’s (Sidney Poitier’s) approach…

  14. I’m reading this entire blog in chronological order, so it’ll be interesting to see the progression of your success in this! lol

    From what I’ve always observed of my teachers, and from my experience as a retail manager (most of my 100s of staff over the years were around this age) — you can be strict, and be funny/relaxed/comfortable/yourself at the same time. Being strict just means that if you say you’re going to do something, you do it. You make the rules clear, and then you follow them. I’ve had some teachers who had strict rules, but their actual manner was relaxed. In high school we had a teacher who spent the first day going on so much about his rules about EVERYthing that we thought he was going to be terrifying–we were scared s***less. His actual teaching manner was very quiet and kindly.

    But those first days, from what I experienced, were always crucial. I once asked a Cegep teacher who has long been teaching Arab-Israeli issues how he keeps discipline in his class, with a topic that is notorious for eliciting the worse kind of class disruptions. He said it’s all in the first weeks of class–you have to set clear guidelines for discussion, and how people are allowed to interact, and really enforce them.

    Back to my reading!

    • Yes, I think firmness is key – as I grow more comfortable with being firm I grow more relaxed in my general manner (although, to be fair, I haven’t been tested much in the last year or so…)

    • That’s exactly what I have found in my teaching–I have taught (and continue to teach) students in multiple grades from elementary through high school, but this principle has been most clearly demonstrated in my second-grade summer enrichment classes. The key has been to enforce the consequences I say that I will enforce and to thereby allow the students to choose what happens to them. The more I have been able to see the consequences as things my students are choosing, the less personally I have been able to take it when I have to do the unpleasant action of enforcing the rules. Occasionally, even after I have relaxed my guard, I find I have to return to a stricter stance, and I admit I find it somewhat annoying to have to “be mean” again; still, it helps me to remember that more than imparting knowledge to them I am imparting skills for life, teaching them how to treat people around them and how to face their responsibilities . . . in the classroom or in the work world. =)

      • Ah, consequences. It’s always amazing to me that so many of my students arrive in college without an understanding of them. Generally, though, I feel most students appreciate knowing the consequences and having them enforced in a fair and consistent manner. And the idea that they are “choosing” these consequences is a good one for me to keep in mind.

  15. Thank you for redirecting me here through today’s post. I am a secondary school teacher of English in the Netherlands and since last year I’ve applied the ‘be mean for the first two weeks’ rule. I’m a relatively young woman of insignificant height. I feel like it’s easy for my pupils adolescents of the lowest educational levels to not take me seriously. I’m mostly relaxed and jokey by nature, but it doesn’t help me if I come across as such at the beginning of the school year. So, in order to have a relaxed school year, I have to deny my true nature and ‘act’ strict – at least it feels like acting.

    • bvulcanius: I entirely understand that impulse. I’m not a particularly smiley type anyway, but my classroom demeanour, which is pretty deadpan anyway, tends to be especially so at the beginning of term. I try to strike a balance between energy and seriousness, but I lean toward the stern and I do find it helps.

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