I learned very quickly that classroom management is nothing like department management if you are coming from the professional world into the academic world. It is funny how a paycheck can motivate people and grades are not quite the same thing. While my BA in k-12 art education partially prepared me for the post-secondary classroom, there are definite unique challenges to managing the college classroom.
They are the number one distraction for students while at the same time, they are also a learning tool. They are a student’s encyclopedia, calculator and creative app supplier as well as a constant pest, pulling them from their work and interrupting engagement. The challenge is building a phone policy that supports the learning and avoids the disruption. Be clear when phones are acceptable and when they are not. Build in some sort of consequence for them ringing or being used during times they should not be, like when you are presenting information. Something that has worked well for me is instituting a consequence where they contribute to something that also benefits their peers. For instance, I have created a dollar jar that helps pay for treats at mid-term or finals time.
There will always be forces outside the classroom that can disrupt your students’ ability to focus or take a chunk of your time to manage and catch those students up who are behind. One thing you can do to help prepare is to get to know your students, ask them why they are in the program and what their goals are. Get to know an interest or hobby that will help you relate to them. How much are they working? For example I have a student who has a hard time staying awake in class because he works 3rd shift and then comes directly to school. Given his situation, I would probably fall asleep too. We have worked together to build in some activities he can use to keep himself more physically involved during lectures, like running the slides or handing out my materials.
Have your students fill out a little survey, your first day of class that has a mix of questions about what they expect from the class as well as some questions about hobbies, movies or music they like. It will bring you insight and build a sense of trust that will allow them to talk to you when things are getting a little rough. The proactive approach is always better than reactive.
Lost or Bored?
Two big reasons students act out, miss class or do not engage is because they are either not being challenged, or they can’t keep up and are lost. When you have smart students who are not challenged by the curriculum, they will disengage and be a distraction for other students. They also feel they don’t need to come to class because they can figure it out on their own, but they can often miss valuable information that comes out of the spontaneity of an engaged classroom. It is our job as educators to challenge them and get them involved in the classroom. One option is to have them work with your students who are struggling a little as peer tutors. This gets them involved and gives them some ownership in sharing their knowledge and talents.
Students who aren’t understanding the information often have the same reaction. They disengage, rarely speak up and miss class.
Be Relevant, Be prepared, Earn Respect.
Students want to feel that what you are teaching is relevant to their goals and if they don’t think it is, they will challenge, drift away on their phones or stop engaging. If you see this happening you can reel them back in by relating what you are talking about to something that can be tied to either their everyday world or the design community in a tangible way. This is another good reason to learn a little about them.
Be organized and prepared. If you are always scrambling to find information, losing papers students turned in or taking your lecture down a rabbit hole with no real point in sight, your students will look at it as a lack of expertise. Everyone thinks the absent-minded professor stereotype is endearing, but it also builds a roadblock to students learning and success. They will act out against this at times in frustration, taking the class off track or they will start constantly challenging your direction getting you on the defensive. Stay focused, confident but flexible in your approach.
Relevance also means understanding the current changes in design technology and staying on top of your craft. Your expertise should come through in your interaction and lesson plans, but make sure you are open to new ideas from your students. Being a leader does not mean being a dictator. Strong-arming your class will not build a collaborative and engaging environment. Do not expect respect simply because you are the professor, you have to earn that respect as much as they earn yours. Listening may be one of the best skills to building respect and trust in your classroom. Once you have established mutual respect, things will fall together and your classroom will run much smoother.