Classroom Management Through Classroom Culture

Are You Managing Behavior or Building Classroom Culture?

When starting a new year, it’s important to make the right first impression. Many teachers start with a strict approach to classroom management. Others focus on classroom culture.

But which is best for our students? And do we have to choose one?

There is a strong argument for focusing on management. One teacher, 30 kids? How on Earth would we survive without a few tricks up our sleeves? 

Some educators will tell you, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” This advice is becoming less common, but some veterans still hold this belief. The thinking is that you can always become more friendly, but you can’t get more strict. 

Other teachers take a relationship-first approach. They believe that leadership isn’t about scaring students into good behavior. It’s about showing that we care. They believe that when students know we have their interests at heart, they will do right to make us proud. 

Rules and Relationships: Can You Have Both?

Regular readers know that I usually come down on the progressive side of education issues. But I’m honestly torn about this one.

In online teacher communities, these questions come up all the time. In one group, a teacher posts that students are throwing things, calling him names, and outright refusing to follow directions. A flurry of comments will come back,  “Build relationships!” “Plan engaging lessons!”

On another board, a teacher complains that her class is too “chatty” and can’t sit still for her 45 minutes lectures. This time, the opposite recommendations roll in. “Show them who’s the boss,” “Call the parents,” “Send them to the office.” 

As with most things, the reality is somewhere in the middle. Apply a strict approach when students are eager to please, and you’ll turn them off. Come across as too soft with students who are testing you, and you’re left with chaos. 

The Demand for Classroom Management

When I first started teaching, classroom management came pretty naturally. I cut my teeth as a substitute in an inner-city school district — one day I would be teaching pre-K. The next, high school seniors. I quickly learned how to read the room. How to interact with different age groups. And how to project confidence. 

A decade and a half later, when I moved into teacher coaching, I never expected to focus on classroom management. On paper, my role was 21st Century Learning. This meant planning interactive lessons, modeling inquiry-based learning, and using technology. Classroom management wasn’t on the menu.

But in school after school, principals wanted help with student behavior. Like most educators, I wanted to work with the best of the best. In my vision, I would help successful teachers get even better.

But like most school leaders, my principals needed help putting out fires. They rarely wanted me to work with their most passionate and innovative team members. Those teachers were “doing fine already.” 

What they really needed was help for their struggling teachers. The ones who were sending students to the office all day. The ones whose test scores lagged.

But by this time in my career, I rarely even thought about classroom management. I would teach, and the students usually played along. I soon realized, though, that even though management was easy for me, it was incredibly difficult to teach.

When Management Comes Up Short

I still remember the first time I walked into Mr. Ryan’s 4th grade class. Mr. Pretto, the principal, had warned me that Mr. Ryan needed serious help. They had been working closely together on classroom management for over a year. But Mr. Ryan still couldn’t control his class.  

“4th grade?” I wondered, “How is this even an issue?” 

When I walked in, Mr. Ryan was standing at the front of the room like a deer in the headlights. 

Students were shouting across the room at each other. “Don’t look at me, stupid!” “Your momma’s the stupid one!”

Mr. Ryan gave me a look that said, “Thank god you’re here. Can I go now?” He handed me the textbook he was teaching from and told me he couldn’t get them to listen. He was eager for me to demonstrate how to control the class.

But first, I needed to see how he was interacting with his students. There was no point in modeling something he was already doing. And maybe these students were just tougher than the ones I had taught in the past.

As I watched Mr. Ryan interact with his students, I started to realize all the things he was doing that were different from what I would do. 

He gave vague directions, to no one in particular. “Guys stop it!” I couldn’t tell who was supposed to stop, or what they were to stop doing. 

He waited too long to address disruptive behavior. By the time he did, it had ballooned out of control. His anger and frustration were palpable.

But what concerned me the most, was that I wasn’t sure he wanted the students to listen. He didn’t seem to know what to say if they did.

Modeling Classroom Management

After a few minutes, I had seen enough. This wasn’t some deep mystery. And these students weren’t hardened delinquents. There were clear and obvious steps that would get this class back on track.

“Good morning boys and girls!” I announced in a loud voice. “Good morning” a few answered back. “Whoa, that wasn’t even half of you. Let’s try that again.” The next time, most of the students responded. “Ok, that’ll do for now. Next time I want to see if we can get 100% participation for call and response.”

I asked the students what they were working on. One explained that they were adding fractions. Another interrupted, “But you’re too stupid to get it.” Someone else, “He never explained this to us.”

So many layers of issues to be addressed. I couldn’t not address a student calling another stupid. But I knew that this type of name-calling is a cover. The students hurling the insults felt stupid. 

I told them, “The only stupid one here is me.” That got a few giggles. I’m always happy to give students a laugh at my expense. But I also told them that I wouldn’t tolerate any put downs.

The rest of the lesson went pretty smoothly. At the end of the class, Mr. Ryan thanked me. He said he’d learned a lot and was eager to put what he’d seen into practice.

The next week, I came back to his classroom. I saw Mr. Ryan at the front of the room. Textbook in hand. Deer in headlights look. Students calling each other names across the room.

Building Classroom Culture

When I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Ryan, I asked him how he thought things were going. He said he tried everything I showed him, but none of it worked. I sincerely believe that he tried some of the things he had watched me do.

But the experience highlighted why classroom management “tricks” are so limited. There was nothing magical about what I did, or what I said, in his classroom.

What was different was the way I saw myself. And more importantly, the way I saw the students. Everything I did, from my choice of words, to my tone of voice, to the way I looked at the students, sent a message. It said that I believed in them. That I believed they wanted to learn. That it was my job to help them believe in themselves.

This is what is meant by ‘classroom culture.’ While culture has a number of definitions, I think of culture as a way of life tied to shared beliefs and values.

In many football locker rooms, teammates push each other around and call each other names. In a team with a strong culture, this isn’t problematic behavior. They have a shared belief that being “tough” is important. They trust each other and believe these actions make them tougher.

In a Buddhist temple, people are more likely to speak softly, or not at all. People sit quietly for long periods of time, seemingly doing nothing. But they have a shared belief that everyone is connected. They seek to achieve inner peace by contemplating oneness. This very different way of behaving honors that different system of beliefs and values.

I had to figure out a way to help Mr. Ryan understand the importance of classroom culture. Clearly he had seen me lead the class effectively. He tried to imitate my behaviors. But it wasn’t working, because he didn’t have the beliefs behind the actions.

PRESTO: Classroom Culture and Leadership

When I searched online, I found endless resources for classroom management. There were even quite a few on classroom leadership and culture. But most of what I found focused on one or the other. I couldn’t find anything that put ideas and strategies into a coherent framework.

With PRESTO, approaches to management and culture are viewed along a spectrum. They range from teacher-centered on the left to student-centered on the right. The model can be a tool for educators to reflect on our current habits and practices. Then, we consider whether moving left or right on the spectrum will benefit us and our students.

PRESTO inforgraphic classroom culture, classroom management, classroom leadership

Rewards and Punishments

On the left are the “old school” strategies of rewards and punishments. Together, they’re known as behavior modification (or operant conditioning), and are based on the work of BF Skinner. Prior to Skinner, schools relied largely on punishments to discourage unwanted behavior. Skinner proposed that combining rewards with punishments could be an even more effective motivator.

But many psychologists and educators have raised concerns about rewards as well. Over time, use of these extrinsic motivators can reduce intrinsic motivation. Many educators believe that giving students candy to do their homework eventually leads to students wanting to do homework for its own sake. Unfortunately, the opposite is usually true.

This doesn’t mean that rewards and punishments should be avoided entirely. In many school settings, that’s just not realistic. But both rewards and punishments are forms of manipulation. We’re getting students to follow directions, regardless of what they want.

Rewards and punishment should be seen as a “foot-in-the-door.” Once we get students’ attention, we use the opportunity to start building intrinsic motivation. If we rely too heavily on rewards and punishments, they eventually lose their impact.

Encouragement and Support

In the center of the spectrum are encouragement and support.

Encouragement is similar to rewards and punishment. We are still using external motivation to improve effort and behavior. But the key difference is we are not using items with tangible value. Instead of giving candy, we’re giving high-fives. When a student misbehaves, we hold them after class for the “I know you can do better” conversation.

Surprisingly, encouragement doesn’t decrease intrinsic motivation the way rewards and punishment do. Some psychologists argue that even praise and disapproval are harmful. While I see their point, my guess is that these folks have never been classroom teachers. I just don’t see how this thinking could apply to a school setting.

Any time a student doesn’t meet our expectations, we need to know whether it’s because of willingness or ability. This is central to the Situational Leadership model. I completed this program as a manager for Starbucks Corporation. When I returned to the classroom, I found the model incredibly relevant and useful.

Rewards, punishment, and encouragement are all designed to increase students’ willingness to meet our expectations. Too often, we assume that students don’t want to do their homework, follow directions, or sit quietly. In fact, it’s just as common for students to be unable to meet our expectations.

Motivation requires that students feel they have control over their outcomes. When we set expectations that are out of reach, students lose motivation. Supporting students means letting them know that success is within their reach. It can include scaffolding, or even modifying expectations so that students can achieve success.

Trust and Ownership

As students feel encouraged and supported, we can move away from extrinsic motivators. Using trust as a motivator means that students because they believe we have their interests at heart. If we tell them learning the parts of speech is important, they do it because of the relationship we have with them. 

Ownership means they are motivated by their own long-term goals. They see how their behavior and achievement contributes to the success they want for themselves.

Establishing trust means that we come through on our commitments. When we tell students we’ll have their test back on Friday, we deliver. It also means creating engaging learning experiences. When we ask students for their attention, they believe that we have something fun and important to tell them.

Through trust, we can begin to build ownership. As students see the value in learning and in what we’re teaching them, we don’t have to fight them. It also means offering students choice over what they learn and how they learn. Inquiry-based and personalized learning can offer students a voice in what they learn.

Build Your Classroom Culture

When students take ownership of their learning, it’s a beautiful place to be. But it can be extremely difficult to achieve. 

If you feel like you need candy and detentions to get students motivated, don’t lose heart. Keep doing what works for you. You can move towards ownership by working through each of the middle stages. 

And if you’re focusing on relationships, but your students are out of control, start using rewards and punishments tomorrow! You need to create an orderly environment before you can cultivate your class culture.

If you’re ready to improve management or build your classroom culture, start with reflection. Reflective teachers understand their strengths and those of their students.

If you are ready to take ownership of your professional development, our free Guide to Reflective Teaching is a great place to start. It includes self-assessments, planning guides, and other resources to help you grow as an educator. 



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