One of the characteristic differences you will notice during your first weeks in on of Madrid’s secondary or bachillerato classrooms is the noise. Indeed, there’s always somebody talking, and you may not be able get the culprits in your crosshairs because there are too many of them. The utterances “Silence!” and “Quiet!” are no longer magical imperatives but instead become magical or leviathan concepts, like a unicorn or Moby Dick. Some days you may even think the Pequod, Capitan Ahab’s ill-fated whaling ship, would be an accurate metaphor for your classroom and drowning in a violent whirlpool —ship, whale and all— might seem more attractive than facing your Friday-afternoon class.
But don’t worry. Whether or not the above analogies speak to you, we’ve all felt this way. You’re not alone (no hint of metaphor here: during your practicum you should always have another teacher with you) and it’s not always bedlam. 95% of the time neither is it your fault nor is it personal.
In Madrid, the incessant talk doesn’t mean that they don’t respect you or don’t like you. Most of the time, it’s a complex mix of social variables and time of day, day of the week, time of year, proximity of exams, recess, the weekend, et cetera and so forth.
This week, I “sat down with” Marita to talk about classroom management. Marita is one of my many partners in crime at Gredos Las Suertes, a cooperative school in Vallecas. Marita has also worked as a native Spanish teacher in Scotland and teaching English to groups at academies in Northern Spain.
Margaret Malmquist-West Marita, you’ve taught in three very different locations in Europe. These locations have vastly different cultures. Can you tell me the most shocking differences in behavior and how that affects classroom management?
Marita Díaz: The further south you go, the louder it gets. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you might as well embrace it. The students are also more active and less likely to listen to you quietly while you’re talking. Each school and each class is different of course, but you should be ready to adapt your activities to the students in front of you. There’s an upside to having a “rowdy” class though: these kinds of students tend to be quite participative, and that can be a lot much fun if you plan accordingly.
People in Spain are also very familiar. They use your first name, they ask about your personal life, they demand things from you instead of asking, never use the words “please” and “thank you”, and for foreigners they appear *quite* rude, although they don’t feel they are impolite or intruding. Personal space doesn’t really exist, so younger children asking for hugs or kisses shouldn’t surprise you, nor teenagers touching your arm or even absent-mindedly bumping into you in the corridors. That’s all considered normal and a non-issue, more so if you’re a woman.
MMW: In Spain, especially in cooperative schools, teachers have many different responsibilities that teachers in other places don’t have. For example, at Gredos San Diego Las Suertes, each class of 30-32 students has a “tutor,” the teacher who is the contact person for parents and is responsible for the majority of behavioral issues as well as running the weekly tutoría class, where students talk about everything from study skills and stress management to school business, such as school trips, rules, and behavioral problems. But that isn’t the only responsibility that every teacher has.
First, what is a cooperative school and second, can you tell us what responsibilities you have and how they may affect your classroom management or performance in class in general?
MD: A cooperative school means that most, if not all, the people who work there are members, or partners of the company, and not just hired staff. On the one hand, this means that we are very enthusiastic about what we do and we really care about doing things right. However, this also means a lot of extra work because we’re always trying to innovate and learn new ways to teach, as well as making sure that our families are satisfied.
Unfortunately, this means that we’re always very busy, and don’t have as much time as we’d like to talk to you about what to do in our classes. As regards class management, we strive to find a balance between keeping the students motivated and learning as much as they can.
In a cooperative school, classrooms might be organized in a different way: students are seated together in groups of 4-5, and they’re meant to be working together, helping each other. In this setting, the teacher is thought of more as a guide, or an aide, who walks around the class talking to each group individually while they try to work on their own.
MMW:Every teacher has a different classroom management style and will put up with different degrees of noise. What’s your style? How do you like the ambiance in your classroom to be?
MD: I have a couple of rules: if I’m explaining something, you pay attention to me, and you don’t interrupt while I’m talking. I’ll try to keep it short but you need to focus because what I’m saying is important. Then, if you’re working with your group I’m willing to play some music, but if you can’t hear it, it means you’re talking too loud.
I’ve learnt to pick my battles though: there’s not much you can do on a Friday afternoon. Just think of something that will keep them busy while not going crazy, and use the classes in the morning to try to teach them something complicated. You need to assess the situation when you enter the classroom and see what you think you can get out of them that day. Learning to adapt is key.
I think the reason why I normally have a good relationship with my students is because they feel that I’m fair and I only get angry or upset when they’re truly misbehaving or not working as they should be. I’m quite patient for everything else, so I can repeat myself a million times if I need to and I talk to them and explain my reasons for doing what I do, so they know that them learning is my top priority.
MMW: In the past, how have you dealt with a particularly difficult class?
MD: Normally, a class is not difficult per se. There are three or four students who are the “negative” leaders. If they like you, the class will be easy. If they don’t, you have a problem. So you need to play with that: you talk to them individually, you let them be the center of attention once in a while, you think of activities or topics that they will be interested in.
When the whole class is misbehaving, you need to be firm, stop whatever you’re doing, and talk to them. But you should never lose your temper because you need them to know that you’re the adult, you’re the one in control, and they do as you say. So if you decide that the class is over and they will start doing boring exercises individually, that’s it. They need to know you’re serious, though: no empty threats. If you give them three chances, that’s all they’re getting. If you say “next time you interrupt this activity will be over”, that is what is going to happen. You don’t need to be angry, but it’s imperative you follow through.
MMW: What school-wide disciplinary measures are there when in-class discipline fails and do you use them? Are they effective?
MD: Each school is different and has different rules, so ask the teacher you’re with or the head of the Foreign Languages department. You can write a note to their parents on their school diaries, for example. That is quite effective because they really don’t want their families to know what they were doing. You can expel a student from class. In my school, if a pupil is expelled three times, they go home for a day, so they know they’re in trouble if you ask them to leave the classroom.
You should never engage in an argument with a student, especially in front of the whole class. That never ends well. If, for example, he wants to change seats and you say no, that’s all you’re saying: you don’t need to justify your decision, you don’t need to change your mind, and you should never ever give in. Be nice, but firm.
In any case, you should never be alone in class, so if a particular student is being troublesome, the teacher should intervene.
MMW: What recommendations do you have for native teachers who want to improve their classroom management? What has been effective and what has not been effective?
MD: The first step is to plan the activity well. Think of something interesting and fun where they get to be the protagonists. The day you come is the “fun” day for them, so try to make it so, if you can. As I have said above, try to keep your instructions for the activity clear and short (write them of the board!). If the activity is divided in several parts, give them a time to do each one (we sometimes show a countdown timer on the board). If there are rules to be followed, make them agree to them from the start. Write them on the board as well.
In some schools, students know the “zero noise” signal, which can be really useful. When you want them to be quiet, you raise your hand. If a student sees you, they go silent and raise their hand as well, until the whole class has their hands up. By then, you should be able to start talking. If your students have never heard of this, you could teach them!
Finally, talk to the teacher who is in class with you. They’re responsible for the class, so they need to help you with class management.
MMW: To end on a more salacious note, can you tell us a horror story and/or a hero story from your years of working as or with a native teacher in the classroom (in relation to classroom management)?
MD:I don’t remember any horror stories, but I remember a teacher being horrified! This teacher was in class once with the 16-years-old when one of the girls started stretching, so the teacher commented on how rude that was, at least for Americans. That lead into a conversation on what Spanish students didn’t consider rude at all, such as swearing, being late… next thing we know, the girls are asking the teacher about typical methods of hair removal in America, to talking about menstrual periods and teenage pregnancy. They were genuinely interested (the boys as well), but the teacher didn’t know how to stop the conversation, she was terribly embarrassed. Typical conversation in Spain, though!