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Classroom Management, Uncategorized   |   Feb 10, 2011

The X factor: self-control

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

The X factor: self-control

By Angela Watson

Picture it: Sicily, 1948. Okay, I’m not Sophia from The Golden Girls, but I do want you to picture a certain time and place so I can ramble a bit and demonstrate an important lesson. The scene: two middle schools within a few blocks of each other in the same Bronx neighborhood in New York City.

The stairwells at School A are littered with trash and students race down them at dismissal, yelling profanities and occasionally stopping to urinate in the corner.  Teachers struggle to get through a lesson in School A. Every few minutes, several students spontaneously burst out in off-color song or rap, stomping on the floors, thumping pencils and books, and dancing…in the middle of what should have been an engaging, collaborative, technology-infused, hands-on activity. They shout random insults to one another and conduct loud conversations across the room as the teacher darts around, trying in vain to focus the class. When corrected for their disruptive behavior, a riotous chorus of protests erupts. “I ain’t say nuthin! You always picking on me! Man! I ain’t do nuthin to nobody!” Anyone who works at School A will tell you the kids are out of control.

Five blocks away in School B’s stairwell, the middle schoolers file wordlessly into their classroom as the bell rings, the girls in plaid knee-length skirts and the boys in dress pants. They sit down immediately in the desks arranged in neat rows and listen for directions. The teacher sits at her desk and instructs the kids to take out a textbook and answer questions from it. Every student in the room does exactly this for forty-five minutes. The teacher addresses ‘misbehavior’ with a sharp look and firm directive: “Are you talking? This is independent work. Be quiet. And tuck your shirt in.” The students accept correction without as much as an eye roll. Penmanship is of equal importance as the content; messy papers with incorrect headings are trashed. Students use rulers to make chart lines straight and erase mistakes unprompted until their papers look perfect. At the end of the day, 100 middle schoolers walk in complete and total silence down six flights of stairs, a single teacher leading the way.

I assure you that School A and School B are each a sight to behold for their own unique reasons. And beheld them I have, because I’ve worked in both. These descriptions are no exaggeration; they show exactly what I experienced each time I stepped inside their doors.


Which school embraces better pedagogy? Which school is trying to train students to be 21st century global citizens? Undoubtedly School A (a public school under the DOE’s control) has embraced the latest educational trends. But there is no learning taking place because of student behavior. School B, which is a private Catholic institution, still embraces instructional methods from the 1950’s…but the learning environment is orderly.

The students in School B outperform the students in School A by double digits in every subject area. And that’s with large class sizes, a total lack of technology (even overhead projectors are unheard of), and few best teaching practices in place.There’s nothing innovative about School B: just worksheets and textbooks and round robin whole-group reading.

Which school would YOU say is more effective? I believe it’s School B, not just because of test scores, but because it produces students who have the ability to demonstrate self-control. This is the “X factor” that the Powers That Be refuse to acknowledge: students with the self-discipline to apply themselves to their school work will usually be successful despite the type or quality of education they receive.

You cannot learn unless you can discipline yourself to sit still, pay attention, read, converse respectfully, concentrate, THINK. And teachers all across America are shouting from the rooftops that most of our students aren’t demonstrating those basic, fundamental skills. Our achievement levels are being compared to Asian countries in which respect, compliance, and the good of the group are valued within the culture. No new DOE-sanctioned curriculum map or standards or ten-point rubric will fix that discrepancy.

So how do we instill self-control in our students? Do we need a complex set of lesson plans and activities, or a systemic movement to change the popular culture and home environments of our students? Both sound complicated and time-consuming. Let’s just start with classroom management. Let’s train students in routines and procedures that support positive learning habits.

Classroom management has been, and will always be, one of my top priorities. Not everyone understands this, especially when there’s so much testing pressure and so many competing agendas. Why do I insist on total quiet when I take my class to lunch? Why do I take the time to model and practice and reinforce clean desk procedures over and over? Why do I wait for every student to have their hands folded before I give directions? Why do I create routines for the classroom library that ensure every student has exactly five books in their reading boxes and every book is returned to the correct genre bin with front cover facing out, right-side up?

Because I want them to develop self-control. I’m teaching them to value the qualities of being detail-oriented, disciplined, orderly, and respectful of everything and everyone in their learning environment. The whole premise of The Cornerstone classroom management is to construct a self-running classroom that frees the teacher to teach. Self-running means the students are able to manage their own learning routines without constant direction from a teacher. I don’t want to control students; I want to train them how to control themselves.

I don’t buy the argument that teaching self-control will produce students who are better prepared for a rote-type factory job than a complex 21st century career in innovative fields. Why are people worried that expecting students to conform to teacher expectations will somehow produce robotic learners who obey every command without critical thought?  We are in no danger of producing a generation of students who wait mindlessly for directions and do exactly what they’re told. In fact, we’re faced with the exact opposite: children who cannot function under any sort of formal structure or authority at all. School B is far from the typical American reality; most children simply do not exert the self-discipline needed to learn, and teachers are not empowered with the tools and time needed to help them.

Sometimes this perspective makes me feel old-school, so I’m glad to see self-control leading some of the headlines this week. Let’s hope this starts a push toward getting students not only to innovate and collaborate, but to control themselves.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I am so happy to read this blog post today. I sometimes feel that I am very old school myself because of my classroom management skills. I expect my students to be quiet in the hall and have procedures for lining up, walking in the hall, etc. They are only first graders, but I feel self-discipline needs to begin early. Thank you for letting me know that my methods are not so old school!

    Teresa Williams

    1. Hi, Teresa! I’m glad this was encouraging. I think it’s high time for an old school backlash because the ’21st century’ approach is seriously lacking in common sense. Teachers need permission to teach their students to respect authority and do what they’re supposed to do (rather than what they feel like doing.) Giving teachers support in this area would make a world of difference in how much our students learn.

  2. Angela,
    This is a great post and a reminder that we really need to help our students become more self sufficient. I really needed that reminder today. I too insist that mine line is quiet and walking nicely despite the fact that even the principal does not feel that is completely neccessary.
    I find that when my students are walking with their hands behind their backs or in the pockets, lips zipped(or a bubble), and eyes facing forward they are more focused, better able to stay together, and we get where we need faster. Efficiency is key. It minimizes wasted time getting from point a to point b and prevents any of my students from getting injured, one of our 4 PBS expectations. 🙂 (Be Safe)

    1. Hi, Amanda! I used to look at classroom management primarily in terms of efficiency, too–exactly the way you see it. That’s a strong enough reason to justify things like walking quietly in the hall. And now recently I’ve been thinking more and more about how much it also benefits the students in terms of instilling good character and responsibility. It’s such a win-win. Keep up the great work with your students! 🙂

  3. You are so right. Self-control is the center of all behavior in the classroom. Since I have been subbing it is apparent to me that the good teachers model and make very clear the expectations for exercising self-control. I think it’s absolutely essential that children are taught how to exercise such self-control in AND out of the classroom. How many teachers really take time to ‘teach’/model/re-teach/re-model the appropriate behavior for when their students spend 40 minutes with their specials teacher, or when they meet a new teacher (i.e. me, the sub!). How many teachers set aside some time to prep their kids when they know they are going to be out? I know this is not always possible, (when an unexpected absence occurs for example) but it really surprises me when I am booked to sub at least a week in advance and the kids in the class are surprised to see me. I’m thinking of a class I had recently. We had a day of pencil tapping, leaving seats without permission, yelling at me, yelling at each other, angry outbursts, accusations of copying and stealing. This was a first grade class!
    How is self-control exercised when there is a visitor in the class? I used to talk to my class about this a lot; about the importance of ‘first impressions’, about establishing a good reputation not just as individuals but as a class community. I had them ‘rehearse’ how to greet the principal when he walked into our classroom. We talked a lot about manners in and around the school. I didn’t have the perfect class but I never forgot about the importance of all of these factors and my role as a teacher in this process. And you are so spot-on in your points about classroom management and maintaining an organized classroom.
    I feel now that many teachers and staff ‘blame’ ADHD/ADD for lack of self-control in *many* of their students. But what strategies are they giving these kids? How are they helping them develop some of the basic skills for self-control? Your post is great, this is such an important topic.

    1. Hi, Becky! I love hearing your perspective as a substitute teacher. I’m sure you COULD write a book on the things you’ve seen–maybe you should start an anonymous blog?

      I hate to blame students’ lack of self control on the teacher, but you’re totally right that in many cases, teachers are not teaching kids the strategies they need to be successful. Obviously the parents need to be doing this first and foremost, so that we teachers can just refine the expectations for an educational setting.

  4. Hi Angela–

    First of all, I am long time reader of your website, but this is the first time I have felt moved to contribute! For the first 8 years of my teaching career I taught integrated dance in public (mostly Title 1) elementary schools. Now I teach in a general education 2nd grade. When you teach dance (or any other movement-based subject, for that matter), control is an absolute necessity or someone will get hurt. Being that keeping students safe is my number 1 priority, I actually wrote my rules to be reflected as the folllowing “controls”:
    I will be in control of my voice,
    I will be in control of my body,
    I will be in control of my space,
    I will be in control of my equipment,
    I will be in control of my kindness.

    Although, I teach in the regular setting now, I still keep these controls as the basis for my classroom management. But like you and the other posters, I don’t just have the “controls”, I also have to teach the kids what does “control” look like. Is it shouting out when it’s not your turn, getting into someone else’s personal space, or playing with the math manipulatives when I am teaching?
    Once I model what “control” looks like and the students practice and practice some more, generally all I have to do now is ask, “Are you in control?” and usually that does that trick.

    Thanks Angela so much for your thought-provoking blogs!

    1. Hi, Katie! Thank you for taking the time to comment. Your words really made me think about how empowering the idea of self-control is for children. They don’t want to be controlled by us anymore than we want to control them! Showing them how THEY can control their voices, their bodies, their spaces, their equipment, their kindness…just beautiful! I love the idea of asking “Are you in control?” This is a great positive spin on the concept of self-discipline.

  5. I hope it didn’t sound like I was blaming teachers for everything. And I also know that there are times when as a teacher you can prepare your kids really well and they will sometimes let you down. I know that my classes did from time to time, and I would end up devastated if I got negative feedback.
    It is definitely a partnership between home and school…however at my last school there was minimal parental involvement. There WERE some great parents, but they were in the minority. So the pressure was really on us to provide good role models. I love Katie’s ‘Control’ rules. These make class rules more explicit and could really help kids think about the nature of taking responsibility for their actions.

    1. Not at all, Becky! I think it’s helpful to examine our roles as teachers in this matter, rather than just lamenting “kids are out of control, parents don’t do their jobs.”

      Regarding the whole substitute teacher thing: the last 2 years I was in the classroom, I found that my students were absolutely terrible for subs. There were a handful of kids in each of those classes that were just maniacs when I wasn’t around: disrespectful and even violent. The same problem happened at lunch, recess, special classes–anytime I wasn’t there. I used to dread coming back to school after being out because I knew the report wouldn’t be good. I tried all sorts of methods to encourage and even outright bribe the kids to behave when I wasn’t around, but for some of them, it just didn’t work. Very frustrating and I always pitied my subs.

      Expecting students to demonstrate the same level of self-control with a stranger as they do with their regular teacher is sometimes unreasonable. I wish it weren’t that way, but for some extreme cases, the classroom teacher is the only thing preventing a troubled child from acting out. Tough stuff.

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