For the past three weeks I have been observing different religious and day school classrooms on Sundays and Wednesdays. While I was supposed to be observing the teachers’ ability to teach a particular lesson, I found myself focusing instead on how the classrooms were managed. Some teachers raised their voices, some were calm and stern, some used a point system, some even used a stuffed animal to attempt to control their classrooms. All of these methods I deemed both effective and ineffective for different reasons.
When the teachers raised their voices at the students, the students would sometimes rebel and further disrupt the classroom or shy away from the teacher. One teacher in particular would use phrases such as, “Why would you do that, Mark? Why are you still speaking?” These questions seemed to embarrass and alienate the student, making the situation even worse instead of alleviating the situation. But embarrassing the student should not be the goal of discipline. In this example, I witnessed the teacher’s frustration—she repeated her instructions multiple times, each time with a louder and more agitated voice. But the student didn’t seem to understand her frustration, he continued to talk loudly in the background.
So how can this be remedied? Perhaps by addressing the whole group? I assumed this strategy would end up blaming those students who were not being disruptive for an action they did not perform. But I witnessed another teacher addressing the entire group in a raised voice, yet this proved effective: the students immediately backed down and stopped what they were doing. But this still didn’t help the students who were sitting quietly in the corner chewing their thumbs.
Another option is the stern but calm method. This approach seems to make the students step back and consider the immediate consequences of their actions. When confronted by their teacher in a stern manner but with a calm voice, it can be much more intimidating for the student. Perhaps the student doesn’t realize the discipline is coming in these situations. But do we want to catch the students off guard and surprise them even though they know their actions are potentially wrong? In one lesson I witnessed, the teacher got down to the student’s level and talked to him privately while the rest of the students were working. The teacher was strict but kept his voice at a normal register. He calmly asked the student if he thought his actions were the wrong or right actions to be performing at that time. After some thought, the student responded and agreed to stop misbehaving. Even if it was an uncomfortable interaction, it was effective.
What about a reward system? Is bribery and substantial motivation the best alternative for classroom management? How does one choose how to reward a student: through points, candy, or a stuffed animal? In a classroom that doesn’t have grades per se, it can be difficult to give the students motivation to act appropriately. This is perhaps why teachers turn to candy and point systems. But the points often don’t amount to anything in the end, taking away the students’ motivation to behave at all. And so, students see it pointless to work for the virtual reward.
I saw one classroom conducted by two teachers, one was teaching while the other seemed to be evaluating the students by giving them points on the board. Everyone could see points being added or docked from their classmates as a result. The students were not embarrassed by the deduction of points because they knew the points didn’t amount to anything, so they weren’t motivated to change their behavior. Using a stuffed animal that is passed from one student to another in the classroom is just as ineffective: because the reward is not theirs to keep, they don’t seem to be motivated to behave well. In a different classroom, I saw a teacher giving out Hershey Kisses as a reward for good behavior. This method did seem to be effective. But do we want out students to participate or behave properly only when they get a piece of chocolate?
What do we as teachers do if none of these methods are successful? How do we control our classrooms? Maybe a proactive strategy is better than a reactive one. Perhaps this strategy can inspire us to make the material we are teaching relevant and meaningful to our students and, as a result, prevent unpleasant behavior.
When we do need to discipline students, perhaps our methods need to be based on creating a relationship with each student. As Pirke Avot says, “Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend” (Mishnah, Nezekin. Avot 1:6). And so, perhaps we need to be more friendly and relatable to our students in order to discipline them. More importantly, we need to be friendly with them in order to teach and guide them. A relationship with students allows the teacher to respectfully discipline his or her students and for the students to respectfully respond to the teacher’s instructions. In doing so, we can combine all three methods described above into one. We can be serious and respectful, explaining the consequences of our students’ actions as motivation instead of using candy or stuffed animals. We can be confrontational but in a calm and understanding manner to control our students.
Ultimately, we have to put ourselves in our students’ shoes. Yes, we would love a lollipop, but we know that growing and adapting our personalities and behavior is the lasting but hidden reward.
Natalie Shribman is a second year fellow at Rockwern Academy and Wise Temple.
 Name has been changed.