My first grade teacher was Mrs. Ragsdale. The thing I remember most about her class was her classroom behavior policy, particularly the disciplinary aspect. At the start of each week, students were given a zip-lock bag containing four laminated smiley faces. Whenever a student misbehaved, he or she had to place one of the precious smiles in a plastic bowl on her desk. At the end of the week, students were rewarded based on how many smileys they still had left in their bag. Students with two or fewer smiles received nothing, those with three were given a certificate, and those with four were awarded with a certificate and a piece of candy. I remember once losing three smiley faces in one day (oh the shame!), but most of the time I was an all-star because I usually had all four of my smiling friends safely stored in my baggy.
Mrs. Ragsdale had a nice system going in her classroom. Her students understood what kind of behavior was expected of them, and the consequences students were given for their behavior came as no surprise. Thinking back on my elementary school adventures in the context of classroom management, I realize that my personal beliefs about management most closely align with methods of medium teacher control. I believe there should be a balance of teacher control and student independence in the classroom. There are important skills, abilities, and attitudes each teacher and student must develop to establish an effective learning environment.
First of all, teachers must establish clear rules regarding behavior in the classroom, as well as clear consequences. We learn in the scriptures that “if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin. And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, for [it] would have no claim upon the creature” (Alma 42:20-2). The same principle is true of behavior in the classroom. If clear boundaries are not set for appropriate behavior, what could stop students from behaving however they pleased? What right would a teacher have to discipline students for misbehaving if there was no guideline for their behavior in the first place? When teachers establish clear guidelines for behavior, students have the freedom to make their own choices but can expect specific consequences for their actions. President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “You are free to choose, but you are not free to alter the consequences of your decision.” Learning to follow rules and accept consequences are important life skills and will teach students to be responsible for their own behavior.
While it’s essential to have order in the classroom, students also need a level of freedom to make choices regarding their own learning. This freedom makes room for creativity and variety in classroom instruction. Giving students a voice in the classroom will enable teachers to make the learning process more fun by tailoring it to the interests of the students. William Glasser, a classroom management theorist, believes that in addition to control in the classroom, students need freedom and fun. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “without attention to those needs, students are bound to fail.”
In order for this system to function effectively in the classroom, teachers must develop the ability to lovingly, but firmly, enforce the consequences set forth for misbehavior. This is one of the key elements to Jane Nelsen’s approach to classroom management. Nelsen, another classroom management theorist, believes that “kindness and firmness need to be used at the same time when addressing misbehavior.” In the scriptures, the Lord teaches us that He “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). In congruence with the Lord’s methods, teachers need to be firm when they enact the consequences they have established because students must know that misbehavior cannot be tolerated. Glasser is also committed to this idea. He believes that “the teacher is to enforce the rules consistently without accepting excuses.”
In doing so, however, teachers must never act in anger or frustration. They must maintain feelings of mutual love and respect with their students, which is another key element to Nelsen’s management philosophy. In the Doctrine and Covenants we are taught that our influence over others must be accompanied by “persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, kindness, and love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41-42). So when occasion requires teachers to “reprove betimes with sharpness,” they must “afterwards [show] an increase of love toward him [or her] whom [they have] reproved, lest he [or she] esteem [them] to be [an] enemy.” Mercy is also important. Just as Heavenly Father, through His Son, extends mercy to the repentant soul, so should teachers show mercy, especially to those who are trying to improve their behavior. Disciplining students in this way will facilitate feelings of mutual love and respect and help teachers control their classrooms without sacrificing positive relationships with their students.
At the end of the day, it is those positive relationships that give purpose to everything a teacher does. Finding balance in all of those things is the surest way to a successful learning community. Having too much of any one thing, whether it’s control, freedom, or fun, never leads to lasting success. Based upon my own experiences, including those in Mrs. Ragsdale’s first grade classroom, I believe teachers will manage their classrooms most effectively as they firmly establish classroom rules, lovingly enforce consequences, and allow students to make choices for themselves.