classroom management is crippling students

“If your students aren’t behaving, it’s because your lesson isn’t strong enough and your instructions aren’t clear enough.”

This age old wisdom for managing classrooms is doing our students a disservice.

It implies that students can only behave “properly” when we are managing them. Otherwise, they are incapable of managing themselves.

Schools, especially no-excuses charter schools, build their entire disciplinary approach around this idea — that students, especially poor students, need to be managed. That they haven’t had enough models of studious behavior and self control, so they don’t know how to manage themselves. As a result, the school must surround them with the tight structure of discipline and regulation that they lack internally.

If school is a microcosm of society, what does this teach students about where they fit in society? That simply because they are poor, they will forever need an external authority to help them stay focused in life and achieve anything meaningful?

How will they ever learn to self regulate if we are always the ones in control of their actions? If we are always the ones telling them when to think, when to talk, when to stand up and sit down, how will they ever learn to do these things on their own? At what point, do we pull back this scaffolding?

Some say wait until high school or even college, but by then it’s (almost?) too late. They’re so used to being told what to do that the transition to autonomy will be painful and confusing. The regulated environment, for many, will seem the more comfortable choice.


Recently, I was working with a group of middle school students on independent projects. As long as I was telling them what to do next, they were comfortable and on task. As soon as I gave them some freedom to make decisions about managing their time, they shut down. Instead of being on task, they chatted with friends or stared at their phones. They had no clue what to do without clear directions from me.

One boy tried watching a Youtube video to learn more about his topic, but a few minutes in, he realized that the content was over his head. He turned to me and said, “This video sucks, I guess Youtube’s not going to help me”, and sat staring at the screen. Wait, what? You give up after one video? Do you know how many videos there are on Youtube? How many other useful resources there are on the Internet? Do you know how large the Internet is?

But, in his mind, any kind of school work, even this project designed to allow him to explore the topic that he chose for himself in a program that he opted into, is for the teacher not for him. It’s the teacher job to make his time successful and worthwhile, not his responsibility.

He and I will continue working towards self regulation and self direction next week. But, as an educational community, we have to do better for our students. It doesn’t matter how many content standards we can cover, if students depend on us to learn anything new.

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