How does growing our classroom environment to be more collaborative reduce the stress of classroom management and improve student achievement?
Today on the podcast we’re talking with Nancy Steineke, author of Classroom Management: Strategies for Achievement, Cooperation, and Engagement. Nancy believes that the path to reducing the stress of classroom management is through a student-centered focus by building community and collaboration.
Her book provides teaching moves and student activities that build strong relationships in the classroom, create a culture of positive classroom norms, and teach the lifelong value of what are often called soft skills, like listening, opening communication, and conflict resolution.
Below is a machine-generated transcript of this episode.
Brett: So what I love about the opening of the book because it was very humbling, but it was also great to hear your story and I think that's what I love is to hear your perspective about your first year teaching and just sort of how that sort of set the stage for the book, but also where your mind is at. So tell me a little bit about that first year of your teaching life.
Nancy: Yeah. The thing I remember about the first year of teaching is that it was really hard. In my pre-service training I distinctly remember that professor never addressing student discipline, classroom management at all. She said everyone has their own personal style and you'll develop yours. Which is nice in theory, but when you have 30 freshmen in a classroom and they have little self control, you need more than that.
Brett: Well, and you even said that when you first started your year, you weren't that much older than your seniors. It was a difference of four, six years?
Nancy: Not even that. I started teaching when I was 21 and the seniors were 17 and 18 and that was a challenge as well because they didn't want me to boss them around because I just looked like their older sister and they were not cooperative in regards to me telling them what to do.
Brett: And as you sort of opened the book, you sort of also share other teachers because you're certainly not alone in that-
Brett: ... difficulty of the first year. Talk a little bit about some of the other stories that you heard and that you decided to share with us.
Nancy: Yeah. Well as I talked with other teachers, most people struggle with how tough should I be?
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nancy: Almost universally everyone's told not to smile it depends, some say Thanksgiving, some say Christmas. And for one person I talked to, she was really a good authoritarian teacher. The principal came in, observed her first year and in a very complimentary tone said you certainly have your foot on those kids' throats, and he was thrilled. I mean he thought she had fantastic control of her classroom and she thought, geez, if I have my foot on everyone's throat, there's not going to be any kind of idea sharing or discussion. It's just going to be all me a hundred percent of the time with quiet compliant kids. And so she realized that she had to move in the other direction, the flip side is many of the teachers just found that they weren't good authoritarians, they were successful if maybe a third of the class were, where the other third might be compliant but just tuned out.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nancy: And then there were a few kids that just didn't like authoritarian attitudes and would be defiant.
Brett: And a lot of this is sort of what's considered the quote unquote traditional approach.
Nancy: Right. And that's why it's called control, are you controlling your classroom?
Brett: And it's just not working, why?
Nancy: You can only control yourself.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nancy: You can provide your students with tools to... I guess the term that's used now is self-regulation, but we only self-regulate ourselves really when there's some point to do so.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nancy: Students will self-regulate and choose to behave in collaborative ways when they see a benefit to themselves. And it's not necessarily just some sort of personal, I'm getting a grade out of this, but more being part of a community.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And really a good classroom management style, it can make good teaching possible. Right?
Nancy: Yeah, absolutely. Because for teachers when they try to, air quotes, control their students, it makes you a sheriff in the town and everyone else then becomes a potential criminal when you're trying to control. And that's not a way for a teacher to teach because there's tremendous pressure to be a sheriff and it offers students very little reason to buy in to whatever the sheriff is proposing.
Brett: And in the book you introduce… rather you speak to the idea of collaborative teaching or a more collaborative approach to classroom management. Can you talk a little bit about what the collaborative approach is?
Nancy: Yeah. The collaborative approach means bringing students into the decision making process. It's not putting them in charge, but it's asking them, "Well, what do you think? Here's a problem in the classroom. How do you think we should solve this?" And it's not necessarily you're going to do everything kids tell you to do, but you're asking them to be reflective with you and you might try something out that students suggest. And then the next question after a day or two is how's it going? Does this seem like it's working? They'll notice whether it is or it isn't. And it's recognizing that students are smart. They see what's going on in the room and I think one thing about humans is they don't like to see their time wasted. And students, as much as anyone else recognize when their time is wasted, when they see class that's really rolling along and productive, they realize it's enjoyable.
Brett: As you talk about the collaborative approach as you set it up for us, you sort of list a variety of things, the benefits essentially to the collaborative approach. You talked about interpersonal skills, social and emotional learning, brain development and empathy, including executive function, which I was excited about. But can you speak to really any of the things that you list in the book about those benefits?
Nancy: I don't think you develop empathy... As matter of a fact, there's research that backs this up. You don't develop empathy unless you're working with other people that are different than you are. And a collaborative environment enables students to get to know others as they work academically, but you're also creating structures for them to get to know classmates beyond just we have to complete this assignment. They know them as people as well. One thing that's kind of interesting about the empathy is that it seems like in many respects we're moving away from that. When they interview students, 80% say that the most important thing is for them to be happy, but only about 20% say it's important that you care about others. One of the things that a collaborative classroom works to do is enable students to move from a me focus to a we focus. That sounds kind of cliché, but it's true. We need to start thinking beyond ourselves and in so many ways I think ultimately for our society to function and be successful.
Brett: You talked a lot about social and emotional learning and the interpersonal skills and a lot of that. How does that... In terms of the relationship building with students, how does this help you as a teacher manage to sort of to strengthen relationships with your students?
Nancy: Right? Because the focus is on how are you affecting others, versus just me, me, me, me, me. But the teacher is thinking about that too. How are my choices affecting others as well? We're thinking about collaboration skills, something as simple as listening. How do you listen in a truly meaningful way?
And one of the things you have to do to listen is to ask others to speak and then be quiet. And that many times doesn't happen with a teacher, teachers talk all the time. We're really good at talking. But then when we put students in groups, there's always that one talker in the group and without them realizing they need to listen to what others have to say… I think part of it too is dropping the idea that just because you have a thought, it's not always accurate.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nancy: You can only speak from your own perspective and you need to be open to other people's perspectives because you're going to learn something.
Brett: Oh yeah, absolutely. Oh that's great. I want to jump into what the difference between compliance, which we talked about a little bit before and this collaboration and the collaborative environment that you want to kind of create?
Nancy: Yeah, I think the classic compliance is the clip chart, everyone starts on the green light and you either clip up or you clip down to the point where your parents are getting a phone call and students quickly learn where they rank in the clip chart, and it's pretty easy then to learn. There's two ways to beat the clip chart, just to tune out and be quiet because you'll just stay in wherever you started at the starting point or you're just going to be disruptive because eventually you know you're going to end up clipped down to the bottom anyway. The kids that can conform, they do fine with the clip chart. The kids that don't conform learn really quickly that school isn't for them and that attitude about oneself develops pretty early and it continues through high school. By high school students have a really clear sense of whether they're students or not.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative). In the book you sort of talk about the short term and longterm effects of a collaborative management style. Let's talk a little bit about what the benefits are to that longterm versus the short term.
Nancy: Yeah. First of all, it's one of the reasons why we focus on compliance is it's expedient.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nancy: If you have students being a little frightened, you can maybe get them to be quiet. Whether they're learning or not is another question. To teach people how to interact successfully requires some time but it saves time later on because students know how to form groups, they know how to talk amongst themselves. You become a facilitator, you develop relationships with students as you talk with them one-on-one, but also as you listen in on students as they're working in conversation groups and once again, as students work together, they're better able to reflect on how the interactions are taking place.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nancy: How effective they are, what maybe they need to do more of.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Let's talk a little bit about how this collaborative management style can really benefit teachers. How it can help them sort of grow in their management style.
Nancy: Yeah. Well it takes the stress away. That's one of the most important things. I think teaching is very stressful. I think it's more stressful now than maybe it was 25 years ago considering high stakes testing and just all the other things that are occurring currently for teachers. And if teachers and students recognize that they're on the same team, they're working together to create the best learning experience possible in a way that's enjoyable for everyone. It saves time because... And I'm thinking of this off the top of my head, but I remember reading an article about classroom discipline and this was a study from awhile back, but it was something 30% of the time teachers spend in the classroom it's managing behavior, basically disruptive behavior.
That's a tremendous amount of time. And if you can eliminate most of that disruption because students are choosing, as I mentioned earlier, to self-regulate and work together in positive ways, it creates tremendous opportunity for more learning time. The other thing too is when you're angry or you're afraid or you're distracted, you can't learn, your brain just can't focus on the content area. Even if students maybe are compliant, that still doesn't guarantee they're going to learn anything at all.
Brett: Yeah. It may not be landing the things that you're trying to teach.
Brett: Yeah, no, that's a great point Nancy. Certainly there will be times when there are situations that are starting to escalate and how can we address those issues in our classrooms sort of before they escalate? Or how will this help us sort of manage some of that?
Nancy: People can think more rationally when they're calm. The more opportunity for students to work in calm environments, which is one of the main goals of collaboration that you can work successfully is going to enable them to make better behavior decisions. But the other thing we have to remember is that when we work with teens and tweens, their brains are literally reshaping themselves before our eyes. Their brains work differently. Teens and tweens are far more emotional and that's because of their brain structure at that given moment in time. People don't mature cognitively until the ages of possibly 23 to 25. One of the problems that we have as teachers is when students are disruptive, we take it personally and it's difficult not to, but the more that we can step back from that and remember that students are going through a different period of time in their lives cognitively than we are as adults, it's helpful in working with that.
The other thing that I found very helpful, I read an article once, and this goes back to brain development again, is that teens and tweens have difficulty accurately reading facial expressions. We might be angry and they might think that we're happy or we're laughing. It sounds very odd, but it's part of this cognitive development and so that's one of the reasons that students if you'll say something like, "Be quiet and get back to work," they might laugh or respond in a way that seems inappropriate. The other thing too that we always have to remember is that we never want to embarrass students or call them out publicly because just as humans don't want their time wasted, we also do not want to be embarrassed. We don't want to be ridiculed publicly and kids will do anything to save face and many times face saving is something that escalates the problem.
Brett: Yeah. Yeah. That's a great point. Now, what about parent and guardian communication, that can sometimes be a bit tricky in our classrooms, what's your best thinking there?
Nancy: Right. Yeah. One of the things that I think we want to think about is just as we want to lay up a foundation of collaboration with students so that when the going gets rough, we have a relationship that we can use to solve a problem rather than escalate it. We want to do the same thing with parents. A couple of things you can do with parents. First of all, when you have back to school night, that open house night rather than lecture them on the class, you can... So many things you can share via email and I mean, electronic ways now. The most important thing you could do was teach parents a quick lesson and have them collaborate, see the fun of it.
Another thing that you can do is actively send positive emails home. Be a kid watcher. Every time you see something positive that happens. A quick note, just a couple sentences but specific, not just it's so great to have Susan in class, but something specific. And then the last thing is when you do have to make that difficult phone call always start by really discussing the strengths of that student and there might be a problem, but the student also has a lot of wonderful things to bringing to the class as well.
Brett: I think that's something to reiterate too. You write a lot about the importance of positive reinforcement. Can you just sort of elaborate a little bit more about the importance of that?
Nancy: Yeah. In the book and I can't remember the statistic off hand, but it's something typically teachers offer negative reinforcement maybe out of 10 things we say to students, seven out of 10 are negative and we need to turn that around. We need to notice the positives rather than telling someone be quiet and do your work. Just notice that they got down to business. Notice how they're working with other people. Say, "Hey, you did a great job explaining that to John." Noticing the positives, greeting kids at the door saying as they're leaving, once again, just saying, "Hey, you did a great job when he read that piece aloud." Anything you can do that offers those positives. When you do have to maybe give a redirection, that's not the only communication. That's the rare communication you're giving to the student.
Brett: An important part of the school year is certainly the beginning of the school year and by the time this podcast airs, we'll probably be coming to the end of the school year-
Brett: ... so many will be thinking about ahead to the beginning of the school year. You have some really great advice in the opening of the book about how to start the school year off right. Can you just sort of talk a little bit about some of the things there?
Nancy: Well, a couple of things that I think are important are first of all that you need to have your room be welcoming. But sometimes I think we go overboard with the bulletin boards and the decorations and ideally I think the decorations and the decor of your room come from the students. When students walk in, they see their own work displayed. Another thing that I think is really important is that first day, once again, so many teachers they spend the hour passing out textbooks, going over the syllabus, going over the class rules things like that, that pretty soon kids glaze over, by the third hour of that it's a problem.
Instead, start with teaching something, enable kids to begin to know each other. One of the things that I recommend you start the very first day with is teaching students how to interview each other because this is the basis of listening and listening and then asking follow-up questions based on what someone said, which actually is the same foundation for any kind of academic conversation students are going to have later.
Brett: Certainly you've just finished the book, you must be excited to get it out into the world. What are you kind of hoping teachers will take away from this? What are you hoping that they'll really dive into with this?
Nancy: Yeah. Well, I'm hoping that teachers will, as they read the book, see that they don't have to be the sheriffs. It's impossible to control your class, it's impossible to control others, and try something that's going to work better. That's going to benefit everyone. When students leave your room having worked collaboratively, those are skills they're not going to drop. They're going to take them elsewhere and they're going to be able to work with others without your guidance. The other thing too is that as far as the way the book is set up, I like to think of it as a cookbook. There's certain essential recipes that you need to have mastered and then you can pick and choose based on the needs you see for your students.
The way the book is set up is in a series of what would be called strategies or we thought we would be clever and call them moves instead. But think of each move is a recipe and the way it works is it offers you some sound logic as to why this might be a useful thing to try in your classroom. It offers you practical language as you're working with students to achieve a specific goal. And it also offers you ideas for variations as well as a way to look at a specific strategies you've tried to think about how effective it's been too.
And at the end of the each chapter it does give you a chance to self assess and offer yourself some feedback, how am I doing? What things have I tried? And then with the very last chapter, which deals with kind of getting it back on track and problem solving, it offers a list at the end of that chapter, if you're having this problem, maybe try this. If you're having this issue, this would be the move to try they'll help get you back on track. Because that's the goal, we wanted to build relationships and even if there's sort of an obstacle, both teacher and student need to admit it. Notice yes, this is a problem but let's work together to solve this.
Brett: It really feels like to me that what you've done with this book as you've really strengthened the communication between teacher and student, but also it really reads to me that you've entered in some ideas with the moves of certain transparency that a kid always asks, "Why are we doing this? Or why does it have to be this way?"
Brett: And you've really sort of taken that right on where you have sort of given that through these moves, it sort of helps kids understand why we're doing this.
Nancy: Right. Yes, absolutely. Yeah, students need to understand why we're doing something. And I think probably one of the things teachers need to be clear about with students is if you don't understand why we're doing something, ask.
Nancy: Don't be rude about it. But definitely, if you're not understanding a direction we're going in or something, an action I'm taking, please do ask. It's important because when we don't understand why we're... Once again, back to human nature. When we don't understand why we're doing something, it's difficult for us to value it or be invested in it. And that's what we want with students, we want students to be as invested in the learning and their classmates and the teacher as the teacher is invested in the learning in the students.
Nancy Steineke consults nationally as a keynote speaker, workshop presenter, and literacy coach for K-12 teachers. She specializes in content-area literacy, nonfiction writing, purposeful close reading, literature circles, and student engagement. Nancy keeps the focus on manageable teaching strategies that best benefit students.
A published author and accomplished teacher, Nancy has been featured in classroom videos for Best Practice and Comprehension and Collaboration. Her groundbreaking work with book clubs and student led discussion groups is captured in her books Assessment Live! and Reading and Writing Together. A frequent collaborator with Harvey "Smokey" Daniels, they have co-authored Mini-Lessons for Literature Circles; Texts and Lessons for Content Area Reading; and Texts and Lessons for Literature.
Nancy presents annually at the National Council of Teachers of English, International Reading Association, and various state conferences. She is also an Illinois Writing Project leader. Along with Harvey Daniels, Nancy has organized and led over 50 multi-day residential institutes for teachers in locations around the United States.