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How Do You Get Them To Do That?- Real Talk About Secondary Classroom Management

At least once a school year a teacher will come into my classroom to deliver a message or ask a question, whatever. Then later, they will ask me, “Were your students in trouble?” “No.” “Then why were they so quiet?” “Because I asked them to work silently.” “That’s it?”

Yep. That’s it.

Until recently I didn’t realize the problems that some teachers have in their classrooms. For example, I posted a picture of the coffee bar I created in my room so that the teachers can come in on Friday mornings for a little fellowship and java. A lady on Instagram asked me how I kept the kids out of my refrigerator.

What? What do you mean, how do I keep them out? They wouldn’t freakin’ dare.

I was so flummoxed by this that I even shared it with some of my students, 8th and 9th graders, a couple of days after I received the question. They were aghast. “We would NEVER touch your stuff, Mrs. Johnston!”, and then that one kid, “You have a fridge?” That one killed me.

Just two days ago a lady asked for classroom management advice from a FB group I belong to. She said she needed help with things like students who were tardy, students throwing things across the room, students getting out of their seats while she was teaching, etc.


I’m not trying to be rude or facetious. I truly cannot imagine these things happening. So I started to ask myself why. Well, the tardy one I can. But then you just note it and move on. Why do I not have these other issues? Why do kids behave for me? What am I doing differently? Well, I can’t answer that last question because I don’t get to visit other classrooms very often. I can only speak to how I run mine. After 20 years of this, there must be some kind of formula, right? Well, I’m going to try to put my philosophy into words that might help someone out. Heck, even if I help just one teacher, that’s enough for me. Teaching is too hard as it is, so if I can throw out some ideas that might work, that’s what I’m gonna do!

  1. Readiness- My students know that they need to come to my class prepared to work every day. They know that I have crafted and planned a lesson that will help them move ahead in their education. They know that I’m going to explain its relevance to them. They know I don’t give busy work. They know that I genuinely care about preparing them for the next step in their educational journey, whatever that might be.
  2. Rules are rules, all the time, for every student- This one is important because I have found that students shut down really quickly if they feel they are being treated unfairly. I hear them talking all the time (because they think I can’t hear them when I’m behind my desk) about teachers who punish them for doing something, but not someone else who was doing the same thing. By the end of the first couple of weeks, my students know that I hear and see everything, and I will bust anyone, anywhere, at any time. Period.
  3. Relevance- Make sure your kids don’t feel like you’ve created every assignment just to make their lives miserable. Throw in contemporary topics and themes. Have a bit of fun with your group work. Make stations that address your content, but also give the kids the feel that they are in charge of their learning. The more buy in they have, the better they’ll behave all on their own.
  4. Respect- Back in the day, I was taught to respect my teachers because they were my teachers, not because of anything they had done. From the first day of class, I was supposed to do what they told me, when they told me, or face the wrath. And the wrath at home was way worse than anything I got at school. Well, not all of those teachers deserved my respect. In fact, I still use some of them as models of what NOT to do in my own classroom. I tell my kids that I will earn their respect by being prepared for them, not wasting their time with unnecessary work, and being fair while holding them to high expectations. At first they seem skeptical, but by about the 4th or 5th week of school, they get that I’m serious. I tell them we can’t play until we work. I’ve done my work by preparing these lessons and activities for you. Now you have to do your work. They learn that respect is a two way street. Not doing my assignments or disrupting the learning environment doesn’t earn them any points in my book. You should also apologize when it’s called for. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve apologized to students. I know when I’m wrong whether I say I’m sorry or not, and so do my kids. If I’m wrong, then the best thing I can model for them is a sincere apology. And I’m human, so I make mistakes all the time. Once the students know I’m not going to stick to my guns and pull the adult card, they start to realize I’m just a person and not out to get them.
  5. Rigor- I think this idea comes from the fact that I was a sub for 3 years before I became a teacher. If you’ve ever been a sub, you know how important it is to let the kids know you mean business without alienating them with rudeness. The fact is that you need to start out with extremely firm expectations, and you need to uphold those rigorously until the students treat them as second nature. It doesn’t work to start out friendly and try to become hardcore. You have to have your game face on from minute one. And keep it on until they know you won’t crack or back down. My students know I hold them to standards that they probably aren’t used to, but nine times out of ten, they rise to the occasion.
  6. Routines- My kids will know by the end of the first week of school exactly how my class will work every day. First 10 minutes: Sustained silent reading in a book of their choice. Once they enter the room, they are silent so that others aren’t interrupted. If they want to talk, they need to step outside to finish their conversation. If they are tardy because of their talking, so be it. Next 5 minutes: They do their Do Now (bell ringer). Next 5 minutes: I do a book talk on one of the books in my classroom library. The next 65 minutes (we are on block schedule) is devoted to the lessons and activities planned for the day. These are listed on the board via That way they know exactly what they need to accomplish. The last 5 minutes: I read aloud from the first chapter of another book in the library.

Those are my pearls of wisdom. Obviously the above list doesn’t cover all the nuances of personality, pacing, class make-up, etc. but these are truly my golden rules when it comes to how my room works. Throw in some sarcasm, and that’s it.

Full confession, I wasn’t always as smart as I am now. When I was younger, I tried to be cool. I tried to be friends instead of friendly. Even then, I didn’t have many problems, but I didn’t have the student/teacher relationship that I wanted. I’ve never been one to send kids to the office. I think I could count on both hands the times in 20 years that I’ve written a kid up. It just doesn’t happen. The kids know I’m going to deal with whatever happens in my classroom, and I’m not going to give them the easy way out by sending them to the office. And by the end of the first grading period, I often don’t have to say anything when something happens. The students will correct each other’s behavior before I can. Basically they say, “Are you crazy? You can’t do that in here!”

And they are absolutely right.

2 thoughts on “How Do You Get Them To Do That?- Real Talk About Secondary Classroom Management”

  1. Apologizing is a big one. Kids are SHOCKED when I apologize to them. I tell them that I mess up all the time and that I am just doing my best. It is a great way to build a relationship with students.

    Also, routines are so key. When students are acting up, its often because they don’t know what is expected of them.

    1. I see that shock sometimes too, and I wonder why they are surprised. It makes me sad, but it also lets me know how important it is to let them know that everyone makes mistakes.

      I agree about routines as well. I always say that every kid wants boundaries, and they will push until they find them.

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