What Isn’t The Challenge

A Stephen Downesian cross-posted comment, here in reply to a post by Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year who writes:

So many of my concerns about the nuances of classroom management can be addressed most effectively if I simply focus my energy on making my classroom fun, challenging, and engaging.

I don’t have your experience or acclaim but I share your revelation. Here, at the start of my fourth year, I’ve realized that what seemed the essential challenge of my first three years was largely a fool’s errand.

The challenge, I’ve decided, isn’t in establishing an airtight and comprehensive system for dealing with misbehavior (that pyramid of discipline: verbal warning, written warning, parent contact, detention, suspension, etc.).

The challenge is in creating a classroom environment so supportive, so engaging, and so respectful that misbehavior doesn’t intentionally cross a student’s mind and when it crosses her mind incidentally, as it inevitably will, its correction involves a civil, straightforward conversation outside.

Reading your description and then describing it to myself in this comment makes me feel like a dope for realizing it only this year. But, to my credit, the revolution that’s brought me here has been intensely personal and only a little bit professional. Pent up in my desire to control was a lot of fear, I think.

Unfortunately I’m not sure how to describe that release to myself, much less anyone else.

[Updated: ’cause I botched the link to the TOY.]

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. There’s no doubt that you’re right on here. Why don’t most people realize it? Well, I think because it’s so much easier to yell or call home or be reactive, rather than proactive by planning dynamic engaging lessons.

    Just a week into the school year. and I’m realizing all over again just how hard teaching is. So many factors, so many variables to take into account. Creating a lesson that will engage 25 kids for an extended amount of time is not easy.

    I guess I can’t offer any more insight than that.

    Teaching. Is. Hard.

    And important.

  2. Yelling and screaming would never work for me. It’s not in my character (unless I’m driving), and I can’t do “phony” in the classroom. Kids see straight through it.

    I guess I was lucky that I learned this lesson fairly early in my career, and I came about it more as a defense mechanism than anything else. I knew I’d never be able to rule with an iron hand, so I turned to creating (or trying to create) fun and interesting activities and projects (I even tried to keep the lectures fun by illustrating the lives of Geoffrey Chaucer and Henry VIII in stick figure form using nothing but MS Paint, my mouse, and a lot of Mountain Dew – crude as hell, but they’re the only times I’ve gotten applause after what is essentially a history lecture).

    It’s not a laff-a-minute in my classes, but I do like to keep the smiles and laughs coming, both from me and my students. When it works, it sets a really nice tone that allows for a very collaborative environment, and my kids respond well to that sense of “we’re all in this together.”

    One of the nicest compliments I ever got was from a student who told me, “You’d make a good cartoon character” (though I’m still not sure if she meant I was really animated or just one-dimensional).

  3. See Alfie Kohn’s “Beyond Discipline.” You share his philosophy about classroom management (though probably not about rewards and punishment).

  4. I wrote something similar, although not quite as nicely written, last week after starting my second year. I just felt a great change in the atmosphere of my classroom and I think this has a great deal to do with it.

  5. For whatever it’s worth to Messrs. Damian and Matt, I’m not talking about the loud, iron-fisted, bulging-veined type of discipline here.

    In the past, I’ve been an effective disciplinarian in difficult populations. I kept a very counterbalanced system of rewards and punishments. I doled punishments out with a minimum of personal animosity – no sarcasm, no yelling, just a quick “step outside, I really need to talk to you for a sec” – and gave rewards with a maximum of enthusiasm. I rarely raised my voice.

    It took a lot of invested time and lot of reflection on what hadn’t worked to get my management to that state, a lot of rumination on the question, “How can i discipline these kids while maintaining their dignity?”

    What I’m trying to say is that it’s easy to pitch this as an either/or proportion but I’m worried about the area in between the extremes where it feels like you’re doing right, where it’s easy to dismiss Alfie Kohn as a salesman of feel-good.

    I’m not sure at which point I became confident enough not to flinch when a student disrespected me, to laugh more and stare less, to cede the classroom back to the students and watch as they gave it back to me.

    In other words, if either of you two + Frank and Miss! have any ideas how to take a good disciplinarian to a great one, I’d love to hear it ’cause I got nothing.

    I oughtta check out the Kohn; maybe he does.

  6. When I got my first ‘part-time’ teaching job in Rice Lake, WI, I was taking over midyear from another part time teacher. When I was interviewed they were concerned that this group of kids had gotten used to the discipline style of the other teacher and that was largely based on the fact that the guy was huge, tall and imposing. That description couldn’t have been farther than the desciption of me… I was 5’3″ tall and getting yelled at in study hall when I tried to help some students with their work (mistaken for a middle schooler). Maybe it was because of that situation that I realized that control of a classroom by force is a farce. It is my job to get them onboard with the learning program, not forcibly control the situation. I make the classroom about the students and not so much about me. It is a challenge some years when I have a tough crowd, but the best classes are those that settle in for the learning in a cooperative, collaborative manner. The other thing they know is that I treat them as respectfully as any other person that walks through the door, including the principal and superintendent of schools. It’s the little things…

  7. “How can i discipline these kids while maintaining their dignity?”

    Have you read Teaching With Love and Logic? That question made me think of it instantly, as if it was one of the tag lines to get someone to purchase the book.

    I don’t want to bore you with the details of it if you’ve already read the book, but I wish I had tossed out every other classroom management book I bothered to buy and read this one first.

  8. This has been the cornerstone of what I try to work with my new teachers on and you’ve explained as succinctly as anyone. I’ve said for years that structuring your class for high levels of student engagement will minimize potential opportunities for misbehavior.

    And for Pete’s sake — don’t take yourself too seriously! I have worked with teachers whose syllabi consisted of a few lines about the course and two pages about rules and consequences. As if anyone has enough time to deal with enforcing all those rules and doling out ever more severe consequences.

    I’m a big Alfie Kohn fan and one of the things I tell my newbies when I’m working with them is that you can’t look at his stuff as absolute. But between Alfie and Harry Wong and the others who focus on relationships over the traditional rules/consequences structure in the classroom, I am confident that the right tools and literature are out there for those with the interest in creating a more student-centered environment.

    Here is a LeaderTalk post I wrote on this issue from an administrative perspective.

  9. Discipline is something that you can not learn in a classroom as a student, it is only something that eventually comes as a teacher in a classroom. Don’t beat yourself up for not realizing this out of the gate, you probably had so many people telling you need that perfect pyramid. (yuck!) I wished someone took me aside and told me it was going to be super hard and you will not learn classroom management until you have done it, done it again, messed it up and tried again and then did it one more time. Then what works changes, what works with one student doesn’t work with the other.

    I know in most cases the talk outside or the low voice to correct behavior is the most humane, however it does not always work – especially in the school I taught at for five years. This was a school were niceness is confused with weakness. At this school I never called home (mainly because no one cared what I had to say) and I NEVER held a detention because it seems like more of a punishment for me! Instead I created boundaries of how I will be treated and what is acceptable in the classroom. This kills me to admit but it works with middle schoolers and into high school, I over react, I use drama to reinforce these boundaries. It makes the infraction into a joke instead of me having to yell or take them aside and take up more time. A wide eyed loud, “OH YOU DID NOT!” usually got the “my bad Ms. Hull” response and then we got back to business. But there were times when I have gripped kids up or bent them over my desk and whispered in their ear, “if you ever throw anything else in my classroom again I will stick my foot so far up your ass it will come out your mouth.” This little bit of crazy in that school kept them guessing and also made them realize I will do what it takes to keep my classroom safe.

    What it this creates is a space between the boundaries where it is okay to have fun, be silly, be serious about work, or put yourself out there with your own opinions. Students know they are safe in my classroom, I am the adult in control in every situation. This makes it possible to hand the classroom over to them and they begin to police each other, I don’t even have to do it. You know that you have this working when a look in their direction with a raised eyebrow corrects behavior. I am still working on this and have yet to perfect it. I have made BIG mistakes!

    In my new school I come on too strong and look like a bully. I am trying to learn the balance at my new school. I will never forget making kids jump in there seats with a “YO!”. This made me feel bad, I don’t want to scare kids to death.

    At the other end of this spectrum, each child knows that when they are in my care or my classroom, they are “my” child and I will do what I can to protect them and have a good experience. So underneath the gruff no nonsense they know I am a softy that has their best interests at heart.

    Oh yeah, also an apology when I messed up in the past goes a LONG LONG way with kids.

    Sorry this got so long! I think about balance and boundaries and powerful lessons all the time.

  10. I was just about to comment on Teaching With Love and Logic. I love that book. I read it at the beginning of every school year. I really believe that a good teacher is a good person. That is, that teaching will teach the teacher all those traits we associate with people we’d like to be around.

    TWLL isn’t a book to read once and toss. It’s not even a management “system” — but a way of thinking about the classroom that I have found so helpful. I too often fail at having the right stance, but it’s something to shoot for.

    If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.


  11. I love the idea of “creating a classroom environment so supportive, so engaging, and so respectful…”

    But has anyone documented any examples in video clips, showing positive teacher-student relationships and interactions in a classroom? Especially with hard-to-reach students?

    Video clips…What a great way to teach teachers about classroom management!