Relationship Building as Classroom Management
I think it is important to know your strengths, so what I’m going to say next is less of a humble brag and more of a pragmatic reflection on my practice.
I have always been a personality people are drawn to. I’m a bigger guy with a loud voice and good communication skills. I’ve got a distinct laugh and dress a little weird. I love what I do, so I’ve got a lot of passion and energy for it.
In my three years of teaching (more if you count subbing), I was able to use these character traits as a classroom management tool. Through my own engagement with life, I found that I was able redirect students with humor, weirdness, and relationships. By letting my teacher guard down from time to time and sharing a personal anecdote or being a little goofy with a class, they saw me as human and were much more willing to play and go along.
This was not always a foolproof classroom management approach because kids are kids and they don’t always know where the line is. It is a system that allows for a little more independence. I want to provide a classroom where students feel safe to question and push back and that doesn’t always make for the calmest of environments. I believe teaching is working through those moments, so I will never make a classroom where those opportunities don’t exist for students. They have to have a safe space to make decisions and learn the consequences.
As I started this inaugural year at Riverdale Ridge, I took the same approach; play creates structure. I figured out very quickly that a classroom with the freedom to choose was not going to work. Operating an English classroom where, for all of my play, structure is inherently built into the layout of the room and the tasks at hand is a far different experience than a Theatre classroom where structure is a bit more flexible (that’s putting it mildly).
A theatre classroom, requires an extra level of management that I was not prepared for. A technical theatre classroom requires even more. My first few weeks were rough. Better to call it out and acknowledge it than keep wondering why students were behaving the way they were. After a few key events and recurring experiences with students, I could feel myself, and by extension my classroom, into a much less fun and much more punitive space. There were a lot of hallway chats and redirects and tough conversations; normal tools, but being used far more frequently than I am used to.
A new school, a new community, is susceptible to a lot of outside forces and lack of cohesion. Our school is in the midst of this struggle to come together. These last six weeks have been, hands down, the hardest of my relatively short career as a teacher. Every week though, through my quick and rushed hallway conversations with other teachers, I’m hearing a slow sigh of settling in happening. We are all starting to feel like we’re getting the hang of this. There is still a lot to handle and a lot to direct our community towards. I just keep saying, “we’re getting there.”
In my own theatre classes, I felt a major change for myself this week. I finally felt like I could get back to a place where I could stop and have a bit of frivolity or sidetrack into a weird story or anecdote about who I am without it devolving into total chaos. I’m starting to feel my students’ willingness to play and their understanding of my terms. We’re making headway. I’ve still got a long ways to go, but I am finally feeling after a few very tense and testing weeks, that I can breathe again.
In the moments that I’ve been able to stop and have a bit of fun with my students, relationships are being built. Not everyone will like me and what I do, and that’s ok. For the majority though, I am finding that I have student whom I can rely on to be willing to play with me and demonstrate what I’m trying to do. I believe that the single most important tool for classroom management is relationship building. Relationships does not mean friendships, but rather a structured and mutual understanding of where two people are at in life. As teacher, I have to be willing to bend and flex and meet students where they’re at. The magic is when I can get students to do the same for me.
A few shoutouts for the week…
Lindsey Solano, for continuing to be a support for me, a leader of vision, and a thoughtful and reflective dean.
Susie Forsyth, for being a gentle guide and willing partner through the perils of my first show in this space.
Deanne Romero, for always digging into our school’s systems and asking the great questions out of the pursuit of excellence for her students. She continues to work with what we’ve put out there in a way that keeps me processing. I’m so glad she’s my teacher neighbor!