Say Hello Outside

Back in my back to school post, I left a footnote that should’ve started a fire:

90% of my classroom management takes place outside my classroom, seven minutes before class starts.

I thought for sure those who knew what I was talking about would’ve chimed in huge and those who didn’t get how class management could hinge so tightly on seven minutes outside and before class would’ve raised a hand. Neither group did so I’m forced here to call my own bluff. Thanks a lot, people.

Now see here: unless I’m swapping rooms and stuck scribbling an opener on the board during passing period, greeting students at the door is now my default and primary classroom management technique.

Not just because …

  1. it kicks tardiness in the head. (Kids get to class quickly ’cause only in those seven minutes do they have anything close to autonomous control over their classroom. During those seven minutes they don’t have to censor themselves, their speech, or their behavior in the same way they do once I walk inside and get it going.)
  2. it lets me differentiate my relationship with each kid. (I’m not sure which is harder. Differentiated instruction or differentiated relationships.

    I pointedly ignore the too-cool-for-school crowd until they’re right at the door, at which point I issue an unhurried, hey, what’s up?

    However, the sort of kid who adores her teacher, learning, and school, craves affirmation. I see her coming from a distance, smile, say, hey, how are things? how was lunch?Anyone horrified by such a calculated rationing of affection is urged to speak up. This technique (commonly called “personality mirroring,” I think) has had a profound effect on my teaching. The cool kids who want a cool teacher think I’m cool. The nice kids who want a nice teacher think I’m nice. In fact, I’m neither but that’s why they call this a “job.”)

  3. it starts class on a casual, informal note (letting them know I’m not just about the backbreaking, start-to-finish labor).

rather because …

  1. when we’re the middle of a disciplinary situation, the knowledge that tomorrow I’ve gotta look you in the eye and exchange pleasantries forces me to take my finger off the trigger.

Way off the trigger.

Knowing I’ll say hello to you tomorrow means I’ve gotta find a solution that dignifies both of us.

You get in the pattern of addressing the students in your plus-sized class socially as a group (“hey, guys, really good to see you today, hope lunch treated you well”) you can go days without interacting socially with individuals. Then, suddenly, you’re mixing it up in a disciplinary situation with nothing friendly to fall back on.

I’ve got three high-impact classes this year. Zero referrals, zero after-school detentions, zero disciplinary phone calls home.

We didn’t do a syllabus. We didn’t talk about rules.

I just say hello outside.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Awesome. Perfect. Glad to hear it works in high school too.

    I’m not teaching yet, but the more I observe (for school and in my own kids’ schools) the importance of having a positively oriented classroom is SO clear and seems like the last priority for far too many teachers.

    You should always have in mind the positive goals, the way you want things to be, where you are aiming. I see too many teachers scanning for the bad, jumping on things pre-emptively, greeting kids with things like “today better not be like yesterday!” or a personal favorite of mine from this week “don’t make me mad.” Lordy, what an invitation for the sort of 5 yo that’s making a teacher crazy already.

    In a parenting book I was scanning for teaching ideas one of the anecdotes was actually about an elementary school teacher. She’d gotten *that* kid, the one no one wanted, who couldn’t behave, blahblahblah.

    She greeted him every day by putting her hands on his head, leaning in forehead to forehead and saying how glad she was he was there and how glad she was that he was in her class. That’s it. He never mentioned it, he never sought it out, but he did do better in the classroom (and I imagine at least 50% of that was from the teacher having to have a better attitude toward him, you can’t express that sentiment without realizing you *should* feel that way and well, those sorts of things affect behavior). The last day of school, in all the hubbub, she didn’t greet him this way and he sought her out to do it — he certainly had noticed and he certainly had liked it. A few seconds of personal attention for who knows how many hours/days/weeks of better learning seems a good price.

  2. This was good. I do the same thing. I do call houses, but I find myself having to do it less when I stick to my routines in class. Essentially, kids don’t want to have that happen to them, and there will be someone to try and test your hand when you make those threats.

    Good post.

  3. Yeah, the whole positive expectations is soaking up pounds of gray matter in my head nowadays, particularly how to explain it to the cynical noob teacher I was three years ago who woulda heard “positive expectations” and connected it to “unstructured touchy-feely learning.”

    There’s something here. Something about figuring out what’s worth giving a damn about and then only giving a damn about that.

    Like, how important is it that a student call you by your surname? (I’ve got students who call me “dawg” which woulda driven first-year-teacher Dan through the roof.)

    Like, how much of a damn should one given if a student steals a pencil sharpener?

    Like, if a student chews gum in your class and sticks it to the bottom of a desk, how big of a deal should that be, really?

    The number of rules I established on the first day of class plunged from a dozen to two by my second year and then, by my fourth, none at all.

    I give a damn about very little nowadays and I think my classes are all the better for it.

  4. I think if a teacher’s avoiding confronting an issue *just* to keep things going smoothly, then it’s likely that things will escalate and at some point will have to be addressed and chaos will develop.

    BUT, otherwise, I’d be inclined for the dawg kid, well, it would depend on the tone, if it wasn’t obnoxious, I’d likely let it ride.

    The gumchewer, I’d likely catch him either before or after, mention that I find gum chewing slightly annoying but that I find gum under a desk truly disgusting. Then a knowing raise of the eyebrows and a chummy, it won’t happen again, right?

    Stealing, that’s worse. (Well, unless it was one of those tiny little plastic things!) I might try the stern version of number two, the I don’t want to have to make a big deal out of this, I’m sure you can make a good choice, why don’t you fix it and we won’t speak of it again… sort of thing.

  5. Not much more to say here, other than that I am yet again astounded by you. I’m in my 10th year teaching and it has taken me a lot longer to figure some of these things out. And, I think they’re more obvious in elementary school than high school.

    Every teacher at my school greets the kids at the door first thing in the morning. It’s an interesting change from when I started there. No one mandated it, we just watched it happen with some of the best teachers and all began adopting it.

    Thanks again for proving how well these types of strategies can work in high school.

  6. Preface, this is coming from the noob teacher trying to figure out my school.

    I’m trying to do the door thing. I believe in it. Just keep getting dragged back in the class by wanting to follow up with a brand-new student or the frosh who keeps wandering in. (He says he wants to be in Algebra II. I hear he’s having trouble in math, but I gave him a copy of their assignment anyway.)

    But from the comments. Tell me about the gum thing.

    During our four-weeks-of-sitting-around aka in-service, the administration had the high school teachers come up with Seven Universal Rules. We have a handbook. We assume different classes have different rules. But these, these are THE rules that MUST be there in every classroom. One of them, “no food, no drinks, no gum, no seeds.” (This one was debated for better part of a day because it means that teachers aren’t supposed to be able to drink anything, including water, in front of students.)

    So at this point, when someone comes in chewing, I say, “Go ahead and spit it out.” If I notice it in class, I bring the trashcan around. I’m trying not to make it a big deal. But at the same time, what do I do with the rules forced on me?

  7. One of the things that has worked for the past decade, in my classroom, is that the students know that they will be treated no better or worse than anyone who walks through the door. I won’t interrupt a conversation with a student to answer the question of a colleague and vice versa. There are some things that go a long way and treating people like human beings, not automated machines on an assembly line, is one of those things. Everyday I stand in front of 130 middle schoolers and the goal is to have them not only learn content, but how to learn how to intereact in the world with humanity. I try to model that everyday.

  8. Funny, I’ve always heard it referred to as “the Golden Rule.” And I assumed most people followed it (or some other mutation) until I left Alaska a few years back and moved to new states, new schools, with new colleagues. “Oh God, she’s one of those **nice** ones” was usually the greeting I received.

    I’ve often asked colleagues why they would speak to children in a way they’d never allow another adult to speak to THEM. Why they’d treat students in such a way that would set off their Grandma or Grandpa-Alarm if their own grandchildren came home terrified of school, parents aghast. While some lightbulbs did flicker back “on,” it has concerned me how many have NOT.

    I enjoy your blog and attitude- and will stay tuned.

  9. I actually enjoy hanging out in the hallway between classes. It certainly helps maintain some rapport with my students (and even former students), and it also helps me get an idea of what is stressing my students out – what big test is coming up, etc., by hearing the conversations about what to get out of their lockers…. And it’s often worth getting a piece of candy from a generous student (which means that I, too, have to look the other way with our rule against eating in the hallway).

    As far as in my classroom, I have only one “rule:” respect each other, including me. That probably sounds cliche, but to me every other (reasonable) rule stems from that one.

  10. I started doing this last year in my fifth grade class. It seemed to make the start of the school day less chaotic. In fact most of the days that started poorly I could track back to not being there in the morning. This year all of the teachers in our building (grades 4-6) are stationed at the door as the students come in. I find that you have to greet every student that comes your way (There’s only three classrooms along both sides of one hallway. My classroom is in the middle). Its great for maintaining connections with last year’s class and establishing relationships with the current students. Also, I find that I have fewer discipline problems than other teachers.
    Keep up the thought provoking posts!

  11. At this point, my high school kids know how to behave in a classroom, so all I put on my syllabus thing is “The usual rules apply.”

    I used to have selections from Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues up on my wall, but I had to take them down for the summer and have forgotten to replace them.

    Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

    Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

    Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

    Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

    Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloths, or habitation.

    Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

    Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

    Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

    Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

  12. It’s a scary step, taking this path that you’ve been on and that I’m dabbling with this year, crediting your students in advance for the knowledge of what the class needs to be great as well as the motivation to make it happen. That’s a lot of credit, but they seem to respond, particularly if you keep your positive expectation consistent. This is really strange territory.

  13. It lets them know that you are a human, and that you see them as human. Many teachers are NOT human in the eyes of middle years students. I think there needs to be a connection that extends beyond the classroom hours. I personally like to play some football or basketball with them on the playground or just go and join in on one of their conversations. They love to tell teachers about their lives and loves…

  14. It’s important to spend time with kids talking about non-academic things, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day. As always, good stuff here, Dan.