This post is the second in a series about what makes a good, or great, high school science teacher and will focus on classroom management strategies in high school (or middle school). The first few posts are really applicable to all secondary teachers across the board. If you haven’t read through the first post, I suggest you start there. Here’s the link: What makes a good high school science teacher?
Teaching Strategies for Science (and HS)
Today, I want to share some of my favorite classroom management strategies for high school science classrooms. FYI: I’ve taught biology, chemistry, environmental science, and an integrated physical science class. My students have ranged from ninth to twelfth grade; I’ve taught the honors-level students as well as the students who struggled and just needed a science credit to graduate.
Again, these strategies are not specific to science. I just happen to teach science. 🙂
There are easy places to start when tackling an element of teaching that can often times seem so intimidating: classroom management. After all, most secondary teachers are hired based on their mastery of teaching content. But few are given mentorship designed to help them build positive classrooms cultures that nurture learning and meaningful relationships.
Most teachers I know developed their classroom management skills through trial by fire. I don’t believe that you must be thrown into the pool to learn how to swim. There are more humane ways to teach people how to swim, and analogously, there are ways to hone your classroom management skills that don’t involve days where you just want to pull your hair out and call it quits…
Ready? Here we go.
Classroom Management Strategy #1: Set up routines
Yes, they take a little bit of work to plan out. And then, you must also train the students, but in the long run, they will save you hours, if not days and weeks, of valuable instructional time.
In the last blog post, I urged you to think through a class period from the perspective of your students. Try to design routines that don’t make them dependent upon you (or your nagging reminders) to do everyday tasks such as turning in the homework.
Tip: Get a homework routine up and running
One of the first routines I set up has to do with turning in homework. I have 2 baskets: one is for the assignments that are due. The other is for any late work. As soon as the class starts, I take the contents of each basket and put them in the appropriate file folders for each class to help me stay organized: “Homework for Period ___” and “Late Work for Period ___”. (Quick tip: Keeping them separate helps you grade homework faster. Emptying the baskets also shows the students that you mean business—the homework is due at the start.)
Unless otherwise directed, students are required to turn in their homework when the bell rings or beforehand. I designate a student to take the basket to each row and collect the work. If I’m busy at the start of class, the homework collection still gets done as there is a student who is tasked (and trained) to do this.
Tip: Use bell ringers (or warm-ups) to structure the start of class
Here’s another routine I LOVE: bell ringers or warm-ups at the start of class. When students come into the classroom, they know that they will see a slide projected at the front of the class. The lights are off, and students have two jobs: 1. hand in their homework assignment and 2. complete the bell ringer.
The bellringers are usually 2-3 questions and they either review material from the last class period or they ask students to think creatively about a new topic. It takes students about 5-7 minutes to work through the questions individually. They copy down the questions and their responses in their binders on handouts that I’ve pre-printed. (In case you are curious, I collect all the handouts at the end of a unit, and they count as a participation grade.)
After 5-7 minutes (it varies depending on the day’s particular questions), I turn on the lights. That signals to the class that it is time to check their responses with their partners. They do a quick (1-2 min) check-in. Then, I randomly call on students to share their responses with the whole class. I like to use a think-pair-share format for the bell work because then I find that students are more confident in their answers when they share with the class. I always include questions that involve more than just a yes or no answer.
Here’s a peek at my science writing prompts (from my biology class)
I’m gonna move on to the next hack in a minute, but if you are a science teacher and wondering what my bell ringers look like, here’s a link to a 1-week back to school freebie that can be used in any science classroom. I also have many units (more than a year’s worth) of bell ringers related to life sciences and biology that are all editable in either Google Slides or PowerPoint. (Click on the hyperlinks to check them out!)
Classroom Management Strategy #2: Train, practice, train some more…
OK- if you are a new teacher, you might be thinking, “This sounds great, but how do I get the students to do these things on their own without constant reminding?”
Like any routine, with practice, it becomes automatic. And it is lovely once you no longer have to say a word and the students come into class quietly, turn in their homework, and get to work.
But it does take practice. You might be kicking yourself right now, wishing you’d set up these routines from the beginning of the year. Honestly, you can start them at any point in the year. If you are struggling with classroom management and wasted instructional time, then it is best to implement them now. Don’t feel like you must wait until next year or next semester to start over.
Some tips for training students to follow a new routine:
- Be honest with your students. Let them know that as a teacher, you want to create a classroom where learning time is maximized. Creating a routine at the start of class will help to ensure classes start smoothly and as a huge bonus, bell ringers double as formative assessment. This is why I love them so much: they help me see what students understood from the previous lessons, and if the questions are engaging, they can act as a great hook for our new content.
- When training your students how to go through a new routine, don’t forget to model. I like to walk through exactly what steps they will need to take. Then, I ask them to do it. You can also get some laughs by showing them what not to do (this is the fun part of modeling). It doesn’t take too much imagination to think through what a student not following the routine would look like. 😉
- Use a timer. Timers always make students more efficient. If you haven’t yet discovered these free classroom timers, check them out! They make even mundane tasks more fun.
- Acknowledge students’ efforts especially at the start of the training when routines are not automatic yet. Let students know they are exceeding expectations by handing in their work prior to the bell, for example. Feedback in the moment shows them you are paying close attention (and not only focusing on students who may not be meeting expectations yet).
Classroom Management Strategy #3: Let the students take the lead…
You may be noticing that all three of these strategies play off one another. They absolutely build on one another! Earlier, I shared that I make one student responsible for passing the homework basket around. I love letting students play important roles in classroom management for two reasons: 1. it really helps me out and 2. it empowers them. Yes, even high school students like to feel important and needed.
Many of the roles are assigned just based on seating (I change my seating charts a few times each semester). For example, the person seated closest to the door greets anyone who comes to the door and runs to the office to retrieve slips, etc. The seat closest to the homework basket oversees collecting the homework. Not everyone in the classroom will have a job at any given point in the year, but because they rotate seats, most will have a responsibility at some time.
I do have a couple of “special” jobs that I will just assign to one person for the entire year. I’ve noticed that a few students really need a job. It gives them purpose. One year, I had a student who just needed to get out of her seat during class—she had a hard time staying put.
I made her my plant person. I asked her to water the plants after the bell work. This motivated her to work quickly as she knew that after, she could take a walk down the hall to fill the watering can. I know it seems so simple, but it completely changed her demeanor at the start of class.
Before, I was constantly reminding her to get started on the bell work and she resisted. After taking on this role, she worked efficiently, and I could thank her for taking such great care of the classroom plants. It was also the beginning of a positive relationship… she ended up working so hard in my class and I know that other teachers struggled to get her to focus.
To summarize, these three strategies have helped me tremendously to build structure into my high school classrooms. They saved me loads of instructional time and served as the starting points for building a positive classroom culture. Routines, training, and roles.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. If something isn’t quite working out, don’t be afraid to create/modify the routine. Be sure to train students. And please, let students step up to the plate and help you.
If you are looking for classroom management strategies specific to lab days (yes, they can be chaotic!), check out this post: 5 Lab Safety Rules for Science Classrooms.
Keep an eye out for the next post in this series. I look forward to sharing more about what I think is at the heart of great teaching: building meaningful relationships with students.
Do you have tried and true classroom management strategies for secondary students that you’d like to share? Or are you still in experimentation mode and figuring out what works best? I’d love to hear stories from your classrooms. Feel free to share in the comments.