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Want more meaningful classroom management? Here are 8 questions teachers can ask themselves.

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 (Alisa Zahoruiko/ iStock)

The first days of school usually include going over ground rules for the classroom as students return from nearly three months of summer break. All teachers approach this process differently, from posting rules on the board to co-creating norms as a class. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with coming up with all the rules by yourself or deciding all the rules as a class, said Detroit-based educator Carla Shalaby, author of the book “Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom.” But she also encourages teachers to consider how norms are carried out and what they communicate to students. 

“Classroom management in itself is a curriculum,” said Shalaby about how teachers – often without knowing – are teaching young people through rules. “We think we’re teaching math; they’re paying attention to how we’re teaching power, authority, use of control, definitions of safety, who gets to belong and who’s good or bad.”

A former public school teacher, Shalaby now trains educators at the University of Michigan’s School of Education. She helped open a partnership school with the Detroit Public Schools Community District where she’ll be working with novice teachers who work with kids from infancy to graduation.

When she trains teachers, Shalaby provides a list of eight questions they can ask themselves to guide how they think about classroom management.

1. Do I use power to manage people in a space or do I use it to hold and make space?

Children are not born knowing how to talk through what to do when someone breaks a rule or causes harm. So they’re looking to teachers as models for how power is used. 


“[These skills] are hard to teach and learn at home because home is not a democratic community. It’s a private space,” said Shalaby. “School is kids’ first exposure to the problems of the community.” 

Shalaby encourages teachers to try out new models of power that feel fair and democratic. For example, teachers can opt to not kick kids out of class when they misbehave.

“Give kids practice in the problems that come up when you really try to take care of every single person without removing people from your space,” said Shalaby. Kids who violate rules will also develop the skills needed to take accountability. “We’re all human beings in this project together and in this space together, and we’ve got to figure out how to do it for 180 days.”

2. Am I serving kids by having a comprehensive set of rules that eliminates all potential conflict, harm and drama?

Sometimes rules are used to get ahead of any possible issue that might come up in the classroom. But disagreement and conflict can be generative for children and in the future when they’re adults.

“Solving all problems takes away kids’ opportunities to practice how to solve problems,” said Shalaby. When teachers eliminate the possibility of conflict, kids don’t learn essential basics, she said. For example, students might have a hard time working well in small groups without an adult because they don’t have the skills to find solutions on their own. 

“Kids grow to understand that the person in power gets to do that,” said Shalaby.

While it may seem like more work to deal with problems collaboratively than it is to decide and enforce rules, Shalaby said it takes more time in the long run to constantly redirect kids when they fail to comply.

3. If a student asks ‘Why?,’ will your reason for having the policy stand up to the uniquely smart and relentless scrutiny of 30+ young people collectively seeking freedom? 

Saying “because I said so” can lead to the “nightmare of an un-winnable power struggle” against students, said Shalaby. And it’s not worth it.

“The main way that time gets wasted in classrooms is power struggle,” she said. “It’s exhausting. It’s driving teachers out of our profession. It’s pushing kids out of school.”

4. Does this classroom rule exist only because I happen to have a personal pet peeve?

Teachers can tell students that a rule is based on a personal pet peeve, but they have to be prepared to accommodate everyone’s pet peeves because teachers are just another member of the classroom community, said Shalaby. 

It’s difficult for students and teachers alike to make space for each person’s unique quirks when everyone is used to deferring to a teacher. Students discover how to deal with the tensions and questions that come up when they are trying to make everyone feel like they belong.

“It’s the space and the time to skill build around harm, how we treat each other, how and whether we take care of each other and what the real challenges are in balancing what I need against what a group needs,” said Shalaby. “Those are really hard democratic problems that kids need many years of practice with.” 

5. Are my actions grounded in cultivating safety or control?

A common misunderstanding is that more rules make classrooms safer, according to Shalaby. 

“Those are efforts to try to avoid bad things happening by exerting more control over human beings, constraining their rights more and more so that they can be trustworthy,” she said. 

Shalaby admits that safety and control are tricky subjects these days in light of recent school shootings. In response, schools monitor students’ movements around campus, limit what they are allowed to bring into school and even restrict what they’re allowed to wear

As an alternative to counting on increased security to keep students safe, Shalaby points to research saying that young people are less likely to commit community violence when they join pro-social activities such as mentorships, arts programs and after school sports. Providing access to practices and activities that foster belonging increases safety without relying on rules to control students’ bodies and behavior.


6. Am I defining safety in a way that requires control or freedom?

When schools use restrictive regulations, security and surveillance to make schools safer, they operate on the idea that taking away students’ autonomy will lead to safety. According to Shalaby, freedom is an essential part of safety.

“Safety is the practice of freedom responsibly,” she said. “In order to learn how to do that, students need to practice being accountable to others.” 

If rules are too constraining, students don’t have the opportunity to make decisions to keep each other safe. Instead of relying on restrictions as a means to safety, Shalaby recommends a “We keep us safe” mentality. “We mind our actions in terms of how they affect and impact other people. We learn to take accountability for the harm that we cause and set things right. Those are the things that increase our safety.”

7. Does enforcing this rule require me to behave like a police officer or an educator?

If a student is on their phone during class, a teacher might tell the student to put the phone away or even confiscate the phone. And they’ll likely have to do this several times a week. “It’s the one policy that no matter how hard they enforce it, kids break the rule,” said Shalaby

Recent studies show that the temptation to look at cell phone screens is powerful for young people, who can get hundreds of notifications during the course of a school day. Instead of getting mixed up in a power struggle with her students over policing their phone use, she turns it into a conversation. 

“Nobody tells me when or how I’m allowed to use my phone,” said Shalaby about the complex decisions she has to make around using her phone as an adult outside of school. “What’s the real and genuine and authentic opportunity to teach and learn something about freedom?’” 

She shifts away from trying to get rid of phones completely to helping students make safe and healthy decisions about screen time and responsible phone use. They can discuss how to change settings to receive less notifications, understand the addictive nature of phones and how their phone use may impact other learners.

8. Why do I teach?

Teachers make decisions that align with why they teach. 

“If the reason I teach is to deliver instruction in a content area, then nothing else is going to matter,” said Shalaby. “If the reason I teach is because I want a safer, freer and more beautiful world than the one that we have now and I believe in young people as stewards of that possible future, then I’m going to make different moves in my every day as a teacher.” 

Historically, educators have played an important role in freedom movements and at the forefront of struggles. They registered people to vote, promoted literacy campaigns and organized students to advocate for civil rights. Teachers today can continue the work of teachers who came before and give students the opportunities and skills to practice and build a better world, said Shalaby.

At the same time, it’s hard to be a teacher right now. 

“Teachers are abused, mistreated, disrespected and disinvested in, so asking people why they teach now is such a hard and painful question,” said Shalaby.

Envisioning a new world with students keeps her from feeling demoralized because she’s actively working towards a future where everyone, including teachers, are valued. 


“Teaching is not for everyone and I think anybody who has the privilege of doing it ought to ask themselves every day, ‘Why do I do this?’ And, ‘Are my actions aligning with my purpose?’”

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