Think back to your days in elementary school. Who was your favorite teacher? Now take a moment to remember your days with that teacher and the atmosphere of the classroom that they cultivated. Do you have fond memories of story time, hands-on science experiments, or flag football games?
No matter what your individual memories may be, chances are your favorite teacher was one who created a calm and organized setting in the classroom, allowing you and your fellow students to be absorbed by learning. Cultivating this atmosphere didn’t happen by accident -- your favorite teacher used their classroom management skills to achieve this result.
Now that you’re teaching abroad, it’s your turn to cultivate a similar learning environment for your students, and you are going to need to know at least the basics of classroom management.
In fact, classroom management is the key to success in any classroom around the world. This can loosely be defined as the ability to maintain a functioning classroom in which your students demonstrate appropriate behaviors that are conducive to learning.
It can take teachers years of study and real-world experience in the classroom to master the art of classroom management. If you are about to begin an experience with teaching abroad -- or have in fact already started your time in the classroom -- we know that you’re likely in dire need of at least a run through of the basics in lieu of hard-earned experience. The checklist below will provide you with this quick overview of the basics so that you can begin implementing classroom management skills immediately.
1. Get to Know Your Students
Strong personal relationships with your students will form the backbone of a well-run classroom. Think about your own experiences as a student: were you more motivated to follow the rules with a teacher you felt knew you on a personal level or with a teacher who treated you like just another number?
From day one in the classroom, invest time in getting to know your students. Learn their names and use them in practice. If you are teaching overseas in a location where names may be harder for you to pronounce, practice those names over and over again until you have them memorized. If you are unsure of how to pronounce one, make sure you ask the student and then write a phonetic transliteration on your attendance sheet so that you can get it right in the future. Part of being culturally aware and respectful includes making sure your students know you are putting in effort to say their names correctly.
Playing games is a great way in the early days of your teaching abroad experience to not only get to know your students but also engage them in active learning. If it’s the start of the school year name games can also help your students get to know their fellow students (and help you as well!).
When speaking with children it is also important to get down on their level and address them at eye level. This builds mutual respect and demonstrates to your students that you value them as human beings and therefore value them as active partners in maintaining a functioning learning environment.
2. Prepare Lessons in Advance
There is no such thing as "winging it" when it comes to teaching abroad. While a day in the classroom may feel like a seamless, care-free experience from a student’s perspective, the truth is that the best teachers spend a large amount of time preparing for the school day well in advance (or at least have done so early on in their careers).
In order to have a classroom where things run smoothly, it is essential to have prepared lessons in advance. Lessons should be well-planned and engage your students at their learning level. There are a wealth of resources online that will help you with the basics of lesson planning. Veteran teachers at your school are also a great resource to get ideas for lessons -- or run through the lessons you’ve developed on your own with an expert.
Lesson planning is not the place to cut corners. If you don’t think through all the steps and details before you are in front of your class of students, how will you be able to do so in the moment? Trust us, the more time you spend lesson planning in advance, the better your chances of success are in the classroom.
If you're new to teaching abroad and unsure how to plan your first lessons, here are some good lesson plan ideas for first-time teachers to inspire you.
3. Make Learning Hands-On
The more engaging you can make your lessons, the more likely your students will be to listen to your instruction and exhibit behaviors that lead to focused learning. One way to make lessons more engaging is to make them hands-on. This will be an especially helpful tool with younger students as they have shorter attention spans.
Students are more apt to learn when they feel they can interact with the material you are trying to teach them. Seek out ways to incorporate hands-on activities into your lessons. Perhaps your students can build a volcano to conduct a chemistry experiment or learn a dance to demonstrate the functions of the digestive system. Any time students can build or construct something with their hands -- or physically engage their bodies in play -- they will be more focused on participating in the activity, minimizing their opportunities to goof off or distract other students.
4. Use Praise as a Reward
One of the most powerful rewards a student can receive is praise from his or her teacher. After all, as a teacher and role model you hold a lot of power in your position as the gatekeeper to knowledge. However, this comes with a caveat; praise needs to be earned, it needs to be honest, and it needs to be specific.
When delivering praise, use the names of your students and point to specific examples of their behavior that deserve to be rewarded. For example, instead of pointing to John and saying, “great job,” consider making a statement such as "John, I love the way you are listening to me and you are sitting on your bottom with your hands in your lap."
You can also consider using a positive reward system for a prize of something small, such as stickers, that students can work towards by earning points for good behavior. However, the use of praise should be your starting point as this may prove to be an effective tactic on its own.
5. Minimize Reprimanding
It may seem that in order to have a well-run classroom you will need to be a strong disciplinarian. However, in the most well-run classrooms reprimanding is kept to a minimum. Specific, timely praise is a more effective tool in the long run.
The more you reprimand the more your students will have a chance to get used to this and the desired effect will be dimmed. Think about it: if a teacher is constantly yelling at their students, the students will likely adapt to this mode of communication and the words -- or tone -- will no longer carry as much weight.
Discipline action should always be the last resort. Consult a well-respected teacher or even the principal of your school before carrying out any discipline. Discipline is something that can vary widely from culture to culture, so it is very important that you follow all cultural norms should disciplining a student be necessary. In most cases, because of your limited experience in the classroom, you will want to delegate this responsibility to someone higher up the chain of command at your school.
6. Follow the Lead
As a new teacher abroad, following the lead of seasoned, well-respected teachers at your school can go a long way. Many programs abroad will pair you up with a seasoned teacher at your school. If this is not the case, seek out expert teachers at your school. Build relationships with them as well and ask them for advice.
If a fellow teacher has already set certain routines in place in your classroom, continue these routines. If you try to change the system it may disrupt learning, and chances are there is a reason (or many reasons) for these set systems anyway.
Keep in mind that cultures vary in different regions of the world, so your perception of the “right” way to do things may not always be right. Again, having solid relationships in place with fellow teachers at your school will help you navigate cultural differences as they arise or become apparent.
This post was originally published in November 2017, and was updated in June 2020.