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FALL 2010 - SEYS 562

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Queens College/CUNY
Education Unit
Fall 2010

Classroom Management for Science Teachers

by Brian Murfin

Drop into any staff room and you will immediately hear them.  Certain teachers complain incessantly about student behavior and will say such things as "So and so is totally hopeless!"  Unfortunately these are some of the first people a new teacher notices in a school.  The complainers tend to be loud and forceful and it is hard to challenge them.  The same teachers will then go on to say, "I can't do group work or labs with these students.  They are so badly behaved those types of lessons won't work with them.  Inquiry doesn't work with those students either.  An old-fashioned curriculum with lots of vocabulary work, reading of textbooks and well prepared lectures works best."  These sentiments are also much more common in schools that are "high needs" or that have large numbers of "at-risk" students. 

The situation I have just described is a major factor that makes classroom management difficult for all teachers, not just new teachers.  What the complainers don't seem to understand is that 

  • Times change.  Students are products of their culture and teaching methods that worked generations ago may not be as effective as they used to be.
  • Expectations are extremely powerful forces.  

After teaching for many years and observing many classroom situations, I have come to a conclusion.  When I see a classroom that is out of control, where students are misbehaving continuously, I immediately start to examine the attitude of the teacher and how the teacher is teaching.  In many of these cases, if the teacher would make some fundamental changes in their methods of teaching, class behavior would improve.  This usually doesn't happen in these problem classrooms.  Instead, the teacher is determined to teach using the same ineffective methods and concentrates on finding ways (punishments) to force the students to conform to the situation that is causing the problem.   

I like to relate a story of an experience I had when I was a new teacher in a school.  It was my third year and I had just started at a new high school.  I was being given an O-Level Biology class that had previously been taught by the Head of the Department (HOD).  The HOD was a very strict, and always went by the book.  As I started my class, he looked into the lab and saw a student with a black cap on.  I hadn't noticed the cap and woe to me and the student.  The HOD rushed into the room and smacked the student in the head, snatching the cap off of the student's head.  He shouted to me in front of the entire class "This student is a criminal and troublemaker.  If he does anything else wrong, let me know and I will get the Administration to expel him."  Whew!  I was stunned at first and then became angry and a bit determined.  I spoke to the student after class and told him, I didn't care what happened with him and the HOD previously.  If he worked hard and passed all of the exams, he could get a good grade and pass the O-Level Biology exam.  After that talk, I never had a single problem with this student and he did very well on the O-Level exam.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt and he turned out to be a respectful, well-behaved and hard-working student in my class.  

Here is another story.  There was a student named Nonoka.  Unfortunately this name meant "Slowly" in the local African language.  Almost all of the teachers and students believed that this student was hopeless academically.  However, there was one teacher who really believed in Nonoka and encouraged and helped him.  He was the Geography teacher.  This teacher told me and the rest of the teachers that Nonoka was quite good in Geography.  No one really believed this.  Nonoka did alright in Biology and managed to pass, but lo and behold, he got the top examination score in the school in Geography!  

Another important idea that all teachers should be familiar with is the "self-fulfilling prophecy," also called the "Pygmalion Effect".  This has been well documented by psychologists in many research studies.  An example of how this might work is when classes are "tracked," "streamed" or put into classes or groups according to ability.  For example, we could take a random sample of students and randomly assign them to two groups.  One group would be labeled the Advanced Science class, and the other we could call the Intermediate Science class.  If we tested the students before teaching them we should find that there is no statistically significant difference in performance.  An attempt would be made to control all important variables.  Both classes would be taught by the same teacher, in the same way, for the same amount of time.  After a given amount of time, say two weeks, we would test the two classes again.  We would almost certainly find that the "Advanced Science" class would perform significantly better than the "Intermediate Science" class.  What do you think would happen, if now, we told the students "Oops, we made a mistake!" and switched the students from the Intermediate Science class into the "Advanced Science" class and vice-versa.  After a similar period of time we would find that the "Advanced Science" class would still have the highest score.  Labels are powerful things and they should be used very carefully for individual students, classes or schools.   The self-fulfilling prophecy not only affects academic achievement, it can also change behavior as well. 

Let's get back to classroom management.  

The important point is that students will perform academically up to your expectations.  

They will also behave according to your expectations.  Of course, behavior is influenced by other factors and we will discuss those soon.  Here is the big problem.  When a teacher is cynical about student behavior and believes that change is impossible, the students will behave even more badly.  I don't know exactly how this occurs.  It may be an unconscious reaction by the students in most cases.  I hark back to the story of the horse "Clever Hans".  This was a seemingly magical horse.  It could perform arithmetic with uncanny accuracy.  Later scientists discovered what seemed to be happening.  The horse was able to pick up cues from the human who was counting to the correct answer.  These cues were almost imperceptible but there were definitely the cause as controlled experiments showed.  In the case of the cynical teacher, students are very capable of picking up all sorts of cues from their teacher and these influence their attitudes and behavior.    

After all this digression we now come to the first important principle of classroom management.  

Never give up on students.  

You as a teacher need to believe that the students can and will behave better, that things are not hopeless.  This positive attitude by the teacher will be detected by the students either consciously or unconsciously and if the teacher is persistent and makes other important improvements, classroom discipline can improve.  I know that this is hard as people are not all compatible with each other.  There will be some students who you may dislike for a variety of reasons.  You cannot let this show.  You must try and be positive towards all students.  

Now before we go on, I want to make perfectly clear that I am not advocating coddling students or being a lax disciplinarian.  No!  On the other hand, I believe that a teacher who does not have a secure and safe classroom environment is not doing her or his duty.  When students are rowdy, noisy and disrespectful in a science class, it is not only dangerous, but it inhibits learning by those students who want to do well. 

OK, you are going to have a positive attitude and believe that every student can improve their behavior.  As a new teacher it is easier for you.  You have not been in the trenches and have not had to put up with out of control classrooms and students.  I am advising you not to let those few old complainer veteran teachers influence your attitudes towards the students, but that does not mean that they do not have a reason for their complaints.  On the contrary, those veteran teachers probably have very good reasons for their complaints and you should be sympathetic to them, their having toiled for so many years.  It is not always their fault.  They were taught and trained to teach in traditional ways and these probably don't work very well with a changing population of students.  You have a chance to bring skills and attitudes that will complement their vast experience, knowledge and toughness. If you work as a team with veteran teachers and don't give up, you can make breakthroughs and improve student behavior in ways that were not possible before.  

So, you are new in your school and you politely listen to everything that veteran teachers have to say about your soon-to-be students.  You enter your first class with trepidation and observe the students cursing, not listening to the teacher, and not following instructions.  You are appalled at the behavior and after watching the teacher deal with this, you think, "Well, there is no other way. I could never do labs or group work with them.  I can see why the teacher is so strict."  What should you do first?

First of all, learn as much as you can about your students and the community.  

Talk with individual students, give them a survey to complete to find out as much as you can about them.  What TV shows and movies do they watch, what music do they listen to, what sports and games do they like?  What languages do they speak?  What are their hobbies?  What problems do they have with school?  What do they like about school?

Observe the students in a variety of classes.  Pay special attention to the methods the teachers use.  Which methods are successful and unsuccessful?  Ask other teachers for their advice and experiences with the students.  Ask what seems to work and what does not work.  

The next important step is preparation.  

Prepare detailed lesson plans well in advance.  

During the first few years of teaching, you will probably have to do most of your preparation on the weekends and during vacations and breaks.  When you are preparing make sure you know your science.  This will have several benefits including making you more confident and also capable of dealing with more questions from students.  Another key point to remember is to plan a motivation for each lesson.  In order to do this, think back to all you have learned about your students.  Try and link the day's topic to things the students are familiar with.  You should also vary your approach while also establishing a comfortable routine for the students so that they know exactly what is expected from them as soon as they enter the room.  

Preparation is one of the most important techniques to establish a safe and supportive classroom environment.  Your lesson and unit plans should enable you to keep the students actively engaged for as much time as possible.  This will prevent the majority of discipline problems if you keep the students engaged in learning activities.  

The minute students have nothing to do, or when they run up against an obstacle that frustrates them, the potential for trouble increases.  

In addition to preparation the teacher must spell out exactly what type of behavior is expected and the consequences for misbehavior.  

There are many ways to do this but the most effective technique is to involve the students in the development of class rules.  This should be done on the very first day.  The reason for each rule and the consequences for breaking it should be discussed.  Once this is complete, the rules should be posted in the room and also given to the students in the form of a contract that parents can also be asked to sign.  

So far, so good.  Now comes the hard part.  A teacher needs to maintain a safe and supportive classroom environment day in and day out.  This does not happen automatically.  A new teacher will be tested and the students' respect is earned over time.  Most experienced teachers advise new teachers to be very strict from the first day and this is sound advice.  When a teacher loses control it is very difficult to get it back.  

When a student breaks a rule, the teacher should never ignore the misbehavior.  

You must be seen to enforce the rules.  However, you also need to use your judgment.  Some students want attention and if you challenge them in front of the class, they will misbehave even more in order to perform in front of their audience.  In a case like this, you might tell the student that you will meet with them after class to deal with them.  Don't back students into a corner, especially if they are angry, emotional, or frightened.  It is better to defuse the situation to maintain your safe classroom, and handle the problem outside of class, when there is less pressure.  

As you encounter violations of rules, be consistent and fair.  

OK, now you have your class rules posted, and the students have taken safety and classroom contracts home to their parents and returned the signed copies.  Now you have to make it through the next three to five years.  After five years of teaching, if you have worked hard at improving your classroom management techniques, you will have established a reputation in the school and the community.  Hopefully this reputation will be that you are fair and strict teacher who really cares about the students.  The students who are in your classes, who work hard, also succeed in life.  

It's not easy building up a reputation as a good teacher.  Along the way you will be challenged by an almost infinite variety of situations.  It really isn't possible to prepare a new teacher for this.  Instead, a good teacher will constantly consider what he or she will do if something happens in the class.  This is not hard to do.  All you need to do is think back to your own classes and to classes you have observed.  Here is a short list of some situations that you might encounter:

Classroom management scenarios - What would you do?

  • A student comes late to class on a regular basis.  Prevention and follow up:  Find out more about the individual student.  Why are they coming late?  Once you find out the cause, you can discuss possible solutions with the student.  This can be coupled with a reward system.  Each student might start out with a certain amount of attendance points that they lose with each tardiness or absence.  Students could earn rewards through good attendance.  The rewards could be individually designed using the Premack Principle.  Briefly, this involves studying student behavior and finding out what activities they enjoy and engage in most frequently.  The opportunity to engage in these activities is then used as a reward. In general, intrinsic rewards are usually much more powerful than extrinsic rewards such as paying students for good grades, or giving them cell phones or candy.  In some cases, point systems can be carefully designed to help students move to a state where intrinsic rewards replace the extrinsic rewards.  There are behavior modification techniques that have been used successfully such as classroom economies where students can accumulate "currency" as a reward for desired behavior.  You might set up a system where students are rewarded with "Science dollars" for good behavior and achievement, and then the dollars could be used to obtain rewards.  
  • A student is cursing at another student in front of you.  Prevention and follow up:  Have class rules that prohibit cursing and that also specify potential consquences.  Talk with the class as a whole and with individual students about why cursing is a problem, i.e. that it could lead to fights, it is disrespectful, it is not tolerated in the workplace and that it is bad habit.  Work with the class to come up with strategies to deal with cursing such as substituting benign words that can be used when frustrated or angry.  
  • A student pushes another student during a science laboratory experiment.  Prevention and follow up:  Make sure rules and consequences are well known to the students and point out why it is very unsafe to engage in horseplay in a science lab.  It could start a fire, break expensive equipment, cause serious injury due to broken glass, or chemical burns. 
  • A student continues talking and not listening while you are giving instructions for a lab.  Prevention and follow up:  Don't be boring!  Make sure your directions are clear and that your voice is loud enough to be heard in all parts of the room.  Move around the room. One of your class rules should concern talking in class.  Explain clearly that everyone is going to have an opportunity to talk during class.  For example students can talk while doing a group activity, or when called on by the teacher in a class discussion.  When the teacher is giving instructions for a lab, everyone must listen carefully.  The most important reason for this is safety.  If students do not hear critical instructions they might use equipment incorrectly or mishandle potentially dangerous materials such as chemicals.  A second reason is that students may have difficulty carrying out a lab and understanding what they are supposed to do and this will result in the lab being a waste of time and resources for both students and teachers.  If a student continues talking during lab instructions they can be asked to sit during the lab and do an alternative activity at their seat.  Another preventive technique could be to ask the student who is not paying attention to read or repeat the directions for the lab to the class.
  • Two students start fighting in the science lab.  Prevention and follow up:  Make sure rules and consequences are well known to the students and point out why it is very unsafe to engage in horseplay in a science lab.  It could start a fire, break expensive equipment, cause serious injury due to broken glass, chemical burns etc.  If students are fighting during in a science lab, you should call for help from a teacher next door, school security and the administration.  Sometimes just shouting Stop now! in a loud clear voice, can cause the combatants to pause, so that you can get their attention.  If you can do it safely you should separate the students and immediately lead them out of the lab.  Move chemicals, bunsen burners, glassware and hazardous equipment, and other students out of the way.  The students should be immediately reported to the administration.  It is important that you do report all incidents of fighting since the fight could continue in other classes or outside of school and someone could be seriously injured.
  • A student steals lab equipment.  Prevention and follow up:  Make it difficult to steal items or to get away with stealing.  I used to count items out in front of the whole class and then count them back in at the end.  For valuable equipment, sign it out to individual students or collect student ID's.  If lab equipment is missing, give the students a chance to return it with no penalty.  If this does not work, you must have everyone sit down and call the administration.  Do not let the students leave.  You should not try to search the students yourself, that is a job for the school administration and security officers.  If the equipment never turns up, it really isn't fair to punish the entire class.  I would just tell the class that they will not be able to do that lab activity or ones with expensive lab equipment until the item is returned. Instead we will do an alternative lab with less expensive equipment.  In many cases, most students will actually be on the teacher's side in this case.  The peer pressure from fellow students sometimes succeeds in getting a thief to anonymously return a stolen item. 
    • A dangerous item such as a scalpel is missing at the end of a class.  Prevention and follow up:  Methods of prevention are similar to those for any type of lab equipment.  Count out all equipment.  Have students sign out equipment or leave their school ID.  The teacher can point out how dangerous an item such as a scalpel is.  In certain cases you might want to have one station where the students will come to use potentially dangerous items like a scalpel under the teacher's supervision.  Even better is if you can find safer ways of conducting a lab.  However, students who will take college biology courses should have the experience of carrying out a dissection and using a scalpel is an important skill that needs to be learned.  In any case, if a dangerous item is missing, you must resolve the situation by calling for assistance from other teachers and eventually the administration.  You cannot search individual students so the best thing to do would be to call for help and keep the students in the room so they can't hide the missing item.
  • A student is eating in the science lab.  Prevention and follow up:  Make sure the rules are posted in the room and that the students are familiar with them.  Do not allow food or drink in the science lab.  Have a place where students can safely leave their food or drink when it is confiscated.  Make sure that the students understand why it is so unsafe to eat or drink in the science lab.  You can use humor to get this across, Flinn has an excellent safety movie that illustrates why it isn't safe to eat or drink in a science lab.
  • A student mimics or imitates the teacher's or another classmate's voice.  Prevention and follow up:  Establish a rapport with students and be respectful of the students while also expecting them to be respectful.  If this still happens, you might want to deal with the individual outside of class when there isn't an audience.  Talk with the student and ask them why they are doing this and how they would feel if someone imitated them.  Discuss other ways that they might be able to express themselves with humor in the class, for example reading a funny science news story or science joke.  
  • A student is disrespectful to the teacher.  Prevention and follow up:  Get to know your students.  When this happens, do not ignore the disrespect.  Some teachers might defuse the situation with humor, others might keep the lesson moving by giving the class a task to work on while dealing with the disrespectful student.  Your response depends a lot on the personality of the student.  In any case you should never humiliate a student.  This will only exacerbate the problem and lead to more frequent incidents.  I would respond to the student, probably with a scolding and bit of humor and let them know that I want to speak with them after class or school.  The most effective strategy to deal with this problem is to try and find out why the student is being disrespectful.  There are many possible reasons and once you find them out, it is usually possible to devise a way to prevent these incidents in the future.  The best outcome results with the student apologizing and the teacher understanding why the incident occurred.  Again, I want to repeat, you should never ignore disrespect by a student.  If you allow this to occur, other students will see this and feel free to imitate this when they get frustrated or bored.  I find with most students an honest, one on one discussion, outside of class can enable resolution.  If the student is still disrespectful and refuses to behave then you will need to escalate the situation.  One tactic that can help is to consult with other teachers.  It is possible that the student behaves well for other teachers and maybe they have some insights that would help.  If this doesn't work, you can consult with the school psychologist.  Another resource that you can use at any point is the parents.  If you are having problems with a student you should feel free to contact the parents and let them know.  When you do this, make sure to give a balanced picture of the situation.  By this I mean that you should start by describing the positive things the child is doing and then point out the problem.  I like to relate a story of one of my student teachers who was having great difficulty with a male student.  This student was rude in class and talked back to the student teacher all the time.  I advised the student teacher to speak with the student outside of class.  While talking with the student the student teacher found out that they both collected baseball cards and somehow, that broke the ice.  The student never misbehaved again in the student teacher's class.  
  • A student has a weapon in class.  Prevention and follow up:  The most important way to prevent this is to know your students.  Get to know their moods, problems and personalities.  You should know if students are involved in criminal activities such as gangs and drugs.  This way you will be able to discern if there might be a serious problem with a student that might lead to them carrying a weapon.  Make sure that you have thought out an emergency procedure for a situation like this.  Have a way to unobtrusively call for help from other teachers, administrators, school security officers or to call 911.  You could ask the student nearest the door to go to call for help from the nearest classroom.  Keep calm and talk and reason with the student.  Don't box the student into a corner and advise them if they hand in the weapon things will be much easier on them.  Don't try to take the weapon from the student unless you absolutely have to protect yourself.  
  • A student starts a fire in the science lab. Prevention and follow up:  Students need to understand that any kind of fire in a science lab is extremely serious, much more so than a fire in an ordinary classroom.  The consequences of a fire need to be pointed out to the students such as stored flammable chemicals catching fire, poisonous vapors, explosions and other dangers.  Fire safety should be a regular topic of conversation and all students should know how to prevent fires and what to do in case of fire in the lab.  If a student deliberately starts a fire, obviously this needs to be reported to school security and the administration immediately.
  • A student deliberately spills acid on another student's lab notebook.  Prevention and follow up:  Student understanding is the key to prevention here.  All students are curious and it is not surprising that a student might want to pour a chemical on a notebook just to see what will happen.  If you make sure that students understand the potentially serious consequences such as burning of the skin, blindness, or other serious injury.  A good rule is to have students treat every chemical as potentially dangerous.  
  • A student does not study or do homework.  Prevention and follow up:  Most adolescents don't consider the long-term consequences of their actions, especially something seemingly ordinary like doing homework or studying.  First of all, homework should only be assigned if it will truly benefit the students.  It is not a good idea to give homework as punishment or just because it is what all the other teachers do.  Try and use homework to help students improve skills, for research projects, for activities that relate the science to the real world.  Homework is also a great opportunity to involve the parents in a child's education.  You might use a point system to keep track of homework completed and then tie this to a system of individualized rewards based on the Premack Principle.  
  • A student is cheating on a test.  Prevention and follow up:  If students feel they are making progress, understanding and succeeding in your class, they will be less likely to cheat.  If they can't even begin solve problems, if they don't understand the science as a result of your teaching, more students will be likely to cheat.  The first way to prevent cheating is to teach as effectively as you can and to design fair assessments that enable every student to experience some measure of success.  Arrange items on a test from easier items to more difficult ones in order to avoid discouraging students.  The students also have to feel confident that they can improve if they follow your directions and work hard in class.  Another way to prevent cheating, not only on tests but on other assignments such as plagiarism on papers, is to reduce the opportunity to cheat.  Veteran teachers have developed many tricks and techniques that can be used.  For example, the spacing between students needs to be sufficient.  Students should not have any personal belongings with them during a test, especially electronic devices such as cell phones, hand-helds, ipods, etc.  If a test is generated using a computer, different versions of the test can be used where questions and multiple choice choices are shuffled.  Teachers also need to have a system to prevent students from changing answers after answer sheets or test booklets are returned.  Probably the most important way to prevent cheating is to talk with the students about the morality of cheating on tests and how it really only seems to help, and how it can hurt students in the long run.  For example, a student who cheats in a high school science class, will not learn basic science skills and knowledge, and then when he or she takes a science class in college they will be at a serious disadvantage.  Instead of cheating it would be far more beneficial for the student to tell the teacher if they don't understand and to ask for extra help.  The teacher needs to help students see that deep satisfaction and other intrinsic lifelong rewards can result from mastery of skills and knowledge.  The teacher should also point out that it takes hard work, practice and discipline to master science.  Once cheating has occurred you should make sure consistently apply your policy on cheating.  You might want to penalize students by making them retake an alternative form of the test, or by doing an additional assignment.  Find out what your school's policy is on cheating and ask veteran teachers what they use for cheaters.  In any case, you do have to be seen to follow through when someone cheats in your class.  Be fair and be consistent.  If you do allow cheaters to go unpunished in your classroom you are being very unfair to the honest, hard-working students in your class.
  • A student copies someone else's results during a laboratory experiment.  Prevention and follow up:  There are some excellent, widely reported cases of scientific misconduct that you could relate to the students.  Scientists have lost their jobs because of copying or faking results.  You can point out why it is so important for scientists to be honest and to have integrity.  In many cases dishonesty can endanger people's lives, such as in medical research.  In other cases, you might think your results are not correct, but if you did carry out the procedure correctly, in fact your results may be correct while your classmates are wrong.  In many cases, we can learn a lot from results that are unexpected.  A good punishment for this offense could be to have the student do a research paper on cases of cheating in science.  
  • A student is excessively absent.  Prevention and follow up:  Find out why.  Don't just punish without determining the cause of the absences.  This is a good opportunity for you to get to know the parents or guardians.  Another good idea is to discuss the student with the school psychologist or guidance counselor.  If there is a good reason for the absences such as illness then of course your response should not be punishment.  In any event, you should definitely keep track of absences and tardiness.  If there is no good reason, then think about strategies that might work best to improve attendance for this individual student.  There are all sorts of reasons that students do not want to come to school.  Here are just a few reasons that students may not want to come to school:
    • Boredom
    • Fear of bullies, certain teachers, certain classes, fear of failure
    • Illness
    • Social problems, lack of friends
    • Desire to play hooky with friends
    • Nice weather
    • Many other reasons, some which can be very serious.  Never ignore excessive absences by students.  
  • The class teases a student on a regular basis.  Prevention and follow up:  Have clear class rules.  Be a role model and be careful about teasing students yourself.  A certain amount of playfulness in a class is fine, but it can be very painful for some students.  Get to know all of your students and if you notice teasing going on and you aren't sure if it is bothering a student, pull that student aside outside of class and ask if it is a problem.  Do the same with the person who is doing the teasing.  Talk and reason with them outside of class.  
  • The class as a whole will not quiet down and listen.  Prevention and follow up:  Be well prepared and move smoothly from one activity to the next.  Make sure to prepare a motivation for your lesson to get the students' attention and focus it on the topic as soon as possible.  I remember observing a student teacher trying to quiet down a class in order to show a video.  The teacher kept asking them to get quiet and they weren't listening at all.  Finally a veteran teacher nearby whispered to the teacher, "just start the video."  When the teacher did this, the students quickly became quiet.  There are many simple techniques that can be used to restore order in a classroom.  I have seen teachers with bells, with a can of nails that made a loud noise when shaken.  Some flip the light switch on and off.  Some of the methods are counterintuitive.  For example, sometimes just lowering your voice to almost a whisper, will make the students stop talking.  Another tactic is to write your message on the board.  One thing that rarely works is yelling.  Unfortunately, some students actually like to get a teacher mad. It can be amusing to see a teacher turn red and scream or yell, or pound on the desk.  It is usually better to keep your cool.  The best way to get a class quiet is to get their attention in any way you can and then immediately give them a task or get them engaged in an intellectually stimulating learning activity.  
  • Someone has stolen something but no one in the class will tell you who did it.  Prevention and follow up:  Always count everything before giving it to the students. For more valuable equipment write down the names of the students or collect ID's when handing out equipment.  Have class sets of materials, e.g. ten magnifying glasses, ten dropping bottles so that it is easy to notice missing items.  Make sure students know what will happen if equipment is missing.  You should never punish an entire class when something is missing.  Give the students a chance to return the item.  If the item is expensive or potentially dangerous you will have to get another teacher and involve the Principal. You should never search the students yourself. Call for help from the administration.    
  • Someone has written something inappropriate or obscene on the board.  Prevention and follow up:  Be alert and don't leave chalk or markers out in the open between classes.  Make sure students know that they should not write on the board without permission.  Make sure to work with the students to establish an atmosphere of mutual respect between the teacher and students and between all students.  Knowing your students is a key to dealing with something like this.  Most teachers, if they pay close attention when grading assignments, listening to student responses, etc. are very capable of identifying a student from their work.  It is not too difficult to recognize drawing techniques, handwriting, and commonly used phrases, misspellings. Once you have a suspicion, you can let the class know that you have a very good idea of who the culprit is.  You can follow this by saying that if the guilty party admits that they did it, they will receive a much milder punishment.  One key point is that the teacher should not become visibly upset or embarrassed, or take a lot of class time over the problem.  It is far better to deal with things like this outside of regular class time.  Do not ignore it though as students will see that they can get away with disrespect in your classroom.  If this happened to me, I would look at it and the entire class carefully, and try and get a hint as to who did it. I would maybe make a humorous remark about the artistic abilities of the unknown artist and then quickly erase it.  I would remind the class about respect and the rules of our classroom and tell them that I want the person who did it to see me after class.  I would then continue on with the lesson, and monitor the class to look for guilty looking parties.  
  • A student accessed an inappropriate web site in class.  Prevention and follow up:  Have rules for computer use and a cybersafety contract for students and parents to sign.  Do not allow the students to use the computers without supervision.  Arrange the computers so that you can see all of the computer screens at the same time.  I would also caution the students that all activity on the computers can be monitored and that it is quite easy to determine who has accessed inappropriate web sites by using logs on the server, using ip addresses and analyzing web traffic patterns.  Many schools have filters although most students can easily bypass these.  It is far better to educate the students and point out the dangers and negative consquences of access to inappropriate web sites.  These dangers include picking up computer viruses and spyware, identity theft and others.    Point out that the people who run those web sites are criminals in many cases.  
  • A student breaks science equipment as a result of horseplay.  Prevention and follow up:  Make all students are familiar with the class rules, and especially safety rules for labs.  Have students and parents sign a safety contract.  Remind students that all breakage needs to be immediately reported to the teacher.  Students who break equipment as a result of a genuine accident are normally not punished or asked to pay for replacement.  All students should understand why horseplay is not allowed in the lab since it can lead to serious injury or breakage of equipment.   Make sure that students know that they will have to pay for any equipment broken as a result of horseplay.  

Special case:  If a student commits violence or threatens it, you must call for assistance from school security and report the incident to the administration immediately.  You may think that a fight in class is not serious and that you have smoothed things over, but it is very possible that the fight could continue outside of school and someone might become seriously injured.  Always report serious incidents and keep detailed and meticulous records.

Wow!  It is a bit frightening reading the list of possible misbehaviors.  

For any classroom management scenario, you should think about two main things before anything happens:  

    1. How could you prevent it?  
    2. How would you deal with it, if it did happen?  

Let's look at prevention first as many of the incidents above can be easily prevented.  Much misbehavior occurs when the students are not actively engaged in a learning activity.  

Here are some of the potential trouble spots during a typical science lesson:  

  • At the beginning of class when students are entering the room, sitting down, and waiting for the teacher to begin the lesson.
  • When there is a transition from one activity to another and for a moment, students do not have anything to do.
  • When the teacher is conducting a lecture, especially if the lecture is long, boring, rambling, or difficult to understand.
  • When students are given a task to do but they either don't understand what to do, or the level of difficulty is not appropriate.  If the task is too easy the students finish quickly and get bored.  If the task is too difficult the students get frustrated give up, and get bored.
  • Whenever the students are bored or not interested.
  • At the end of class when students have finished an activity and have nothing to do before the bell rings.  Also, when the students are getting out of their seats and leaving the room.
  • If a student is sick, emotionally distraught, distracted, sleepy, tired, intoxicated, or otherwise not in a normal, alert, rested state.

A teacher can reduce the likelihood of trouble occurring by preparation and good classroom organization.  If a teacher knows exactly what he or she will do when the students enter the room, this minimizes the chances of trouble.  In New York City schools an attempt was made to engage students immediately after they enter the room by having a "Do now" written on the board.  This has degenerated in many cases into a trivia or low level knowledge question.  Make an effort to create a "Do now" that is a genuinely valuable learning experience. This is not always easy to do as you really want the "Do Now" to immediately engage the students but only last for a very short time, usually not more than five or ten minutes at the most.  Probably the best "Do now" will be an intriguing, open-ended question related to the science topic of the lesson.  Other possibilities could be a "Mystery image" projected on a screen, or a "Mystery object" or a short news item, a poem or story, or a cartoon (the Far Side is a great example) related to the science topic involved.  

So far we have concentrated on what you as a teacher can do to maintain a safe, supportive classroom learning environment during science lessons.  However, teachers are only part of the problem.  Obviously, students bear responsibility for their misbehavior.  If a teacher keeps students actively engaged and they feel they are learning something worthwhile, and at the same time is a consistent and fair classroom manager, most students will behave well.  However, there will always be a small number of students who have problems and who do not respond to the strategies available to you as a teacher.  These students could be learning disabled, they might have emotional, personality or other psychological disorders, drug addictions, or serious problems outside of school.   In these cases, you must get help.  Assistance can be obtained by consulting with other teachers, the administrator, school psychologists and counselors and of course, parents and guardians.  

Unfortunately, the only time parents or guardians are usually contacted by teachers, is when there is a problem with their child in school.  It doesn't have to be this way, especially with all of the technology tools available.  I would recommend that every science teacher set up a class web site with areas devoted to students and parents.  You could collect email addresses of parents and produce a science newsletter.  Students could produce the content and help with the web site and newsletter.  The web site could also be a great place to exhibit student work, make announcements, list assignments, and have a calendar of events.  Other ways to involve parents might be as invited speakers, as chaperons for field trips to science museums, judges in science fairs, participants in science clubs, science competitions.  You could work with your students to hold science events on weekends or evenings.  These could be Science Expos, Science fairs, carnivals, science clubs, and so on.  Just as it is critical that you get to know your students, you also need to get to know your students' parents.  

In addition to parents, the community surrounding the school can contribute to your safe and supportive classroom environment.  Science offers great opportunities for informal science education.  By informal science education I am referring to science learning activities that occur outside of the traditional school environment.  Students could do research projects on environmental problems in the community, create community gardens, demonstrations of composting, and so on.  These could involve local businesses and residents.  Students will see that science can help them in their own lives, in the real world.  

Finally, an important factor that cannot be overlooked is the school administration.  As a new teacher you definitely have to learn the rules of the game.  Every school is different but there are a few important things you need to keep in mind.

Document everything and keep good records of attendance, tardiness, homework, grades, and misconduct.

Try and deal with most discipline problems yourself first.  Do not send every minor case of misbehavior to the office.  You will soon lose all respect with the students.  

Identify teachers and administrators who have good classroom management skills and learn from them.

When you enter a school as a student teacher or new teacher, the first thing you should do is to get copies of the school rules for students and faculty, find out disciplinary procedures, and introduce yourself to the school administrators.  The support you receive from the administration will vary greatly from school to school.  Find out what your school's administration expects from the students and teachers.  In some schools, administrators want all classrooms to be silent.  Unfortunately, a school environment like this is not conducive to many productive learning activities such as cooperative learning, science labs, group projects, etc.  You may need to demonstrate the educational value of some science activities that generate a certain amount of noise.  Contrary to popular belief, there is good noise in a classroom.  For example, when students applaud a job well done by a group of students who has just presented a science project, the noise is beneficial.  The noise that occurs when students are doing a step test and measuring their pulse rate before and after exercise is normal and not a problem.  As a science teacher it is your duty to help the administration see how the types of hands-on, inquiry science activities you do are superior to traditional lectures by a science teacher with the students sitting silently copying notes.  On the other hand, you do need to keep the noise down to a reasonable level or else students in your class will not be able to learn.  Some students do need quiet to concentrate when solving a problem, reading instructions or during other tasks.  You need to be able to silence the class at moments like these.  You also have to make sure that noise in your classroom does not disturb neighboring classes or administrators.  One way to do this is to make sure to communicate and interact frequently with the teachers in classes near your own.  You may be able to coordinate the timing of activities so that any disturbance is lessened.  You should try to anticipate whether any activities you might do with your class could negatively affect other classes or the school environment.  This can happen because there are so many fun hands-on activities that can be done in science and sometimes these spill out of the classroom.  Examples might be soap bubbles escaping into the hall, launching a rocket outside the school, or activities that involve noise, music, sound, animals, etc.  The bottom line is that you need to establish a good relationship with the administration and with other teachers in the school.  This will enable you to communicate and explain your teaching methods and to warn administrators and other teachers about certain activities that have the potential to affect the atmosphere of the school.  

Probably the most important thing you can do as a new teacher is to ask for advice from experienced teachers.  Remember though, everyone is different, and you might want to take very different approaches to classroom management in your own classroom.  You may hear that certain students are potential problems, so listen with an open mind, and be prepared, but try by all means not to let this influence your attitudes towards the students.  Give students the benefit of the doubt and a clean slate with you and let them know they have a chance to succeed in your classroom.  

A final word on classroom management - Teachers have one of the toughest jobs around.  You will be challenged, students will misbehave, and some days you will go home discouraged and demoralized.  

But do not despair!

The Sun will shine again, you and your students will smile and laugh together again some day.  

Anything is possible if you and your students do not give up.  It is your job to help young people learn the wonders of science and you should realize how lucky you are.  Science offers so many great opportunities for fascinating and enjoyable learning activities that connect to the real world.  If you work hard, prepare well, and learn from your mistakes, you are halfway there.  Get to know the students and hook them with engaging and exciting science activities.  Work together with your students to come up with rules and consequences and be fair, firm, and consistent.  You will find that most of your students will behave well and you will have no major problems.  Once you have earned the respect of the students and established a good classroom learning environment, you will be able to concentrate on continuing to improve the effectiveness of your science teaching.  You will still have to devote time to discipline those few students who have serious problems or who misbehave, but now the problem is much more manageable since most of the students are actively engaged in learning and behaving well.  

At this point in your science teaching career you will have almost reached classroom management nirvana...

However, you do need to realize you will never have a placid pool of perfectly behaved students.  It just won't happen and that is actually a good thing.  Without that spice of rebellion and spark of energy that periodically erupts from young people, a classroom would be a very boring place.