As I reflect back upon my teaching experiences so far, I have come to appreciate the importance of having a classroom routine. This may appear to be an obvious piece of advice for even the most seasoned teachers; however, even the most routine orientated teachers can fall out of routine from time to time and this can spell disaster. Routine is not as simple as day starts and ends, class starts and ends; its depth is much greater than that. Routine encompasses many facets of any classroom, where there could be more than one routine or situation specific routines. Therefore for this first article on routine what I want to talk about are the positive impacts that routine can have for every single student that enters your classroom and how it can really improve class room management even when a consequence must be given out due to student behaviour.
Routine is always the hardest for new teachers and for teachers switching schools, boards, and even countries. If there is one thing that can be said about teaching is that no two days are ever the same. Hundreds of variables affect a teachers day from the unnoticeable intangibles, to the in-your-face-there-is-no-way-to-avoid-it variables; which can surely explain why teaching as a profession has such a high five year burn out rate. The job is highly demanding and there is so much to do as a teacher, that even after the bell rings at the end of the day our jobs are never finished. That final bell is simply an indication that the students are leaving the building for the day. As a result, establishing a strong routine in your classroom is an essential part of you being able to meet the demands of your job. In addition from my own experience this stuff is simply not taught very well in teachers college. Really how could it? As the old saying goes, “experience is the best teacher”, except when we’re supposed to be the teacher.
How then is routine that vital to a teachers practice? One way of looking at it is simply try to imagine starting something new in a completely new environment with people you never met before and then someone is leading the group. Well that is essentially what it is like for students every year as they progress through the grades. Then on the flip side of it all imagine you are the leader of a new group of people, who most likely don’t know each other and they are looking towards you to guide them, and then once that group is done you get an entirely new group of people. The relationship I am attempting to establish here is that teaching is truly a two way street, in which it does not matter if you are the teacher or the student. The routine that will be set out for both parties will have a significant impact. Regardless of being the teacher or student if the routine in classroom is too “loose”, inconsistent, changes constantly, different for some kids and not the others, it can lead to an extremely chaotic environment of instability.
What I want to focus on is the importance of routine for the students and what it means to them. One of the most important things you can do as a teacher is to never assume the social-economic situation of your students or advantages or disadvantages you think they might have. So much happens in the lives of students that you don’t know about that even the most “put together” kids can have some of biggest hardships. Therefore your classroom maybe the best place for some students all day five days a week, and having complete certainty of what they are going to expect in your room, before they even set foot in your class Monday morning to the final bell on Friday afternoon, is everything to them.
Setting up a classroom routine should be simple and easy to follow, especially to start the year off. As students grow and mature little adjustments can definitely be made to add or take away from the existing routine already set in place. Since every student is different and unique, a routine allows for all students to follow the guiding principles of the classroom. It is important to remember that a routine that works in another class may not work in yours, which there are many reasons for; the make up of students in your class and perhaps the one the most powerful reasons, is you as an educator and the personality that you bring. As a result, to say to you that you must have a particular routine in your classroom when mine doesn’t stay the same and changes even with just the smallest tweaks from year to year, would be missing the real point of this article. What should be understood is routine is the element of the classroom that no matter what background your students come from, how bad or good of a morning they are having, your classroom and the routines you have put into place is a constant in their lives that each of your students can count on.
To give a concrete example, in my room each day the students arrive and they have about 15 minutes before the start of first period. Being an elementary teacher, that is more than enough time for chaos to ensue and for some students the continuation of an already bad day. What do those 15 minutes of routine look like in my room then? Currently when students walk into the room they have a set number of options to choose from what they can do. I do this because it allows the students to have a degree of freedom without worrying about if they can do something or not. For example many students are simply not getting enough rest because of technology such as late night social media. One of the options is to simply rest your head. Often times this is frowned upon especially in the middle of class, which I have had to battle with many times over the years. So I decided what is one thing they can do in the morning, catch a cat nap before the day really gets going. I have found this to be really effective. Once it is time for first period I get students to nudge the sleepy heads awake, and they usually say “I was really tired”. My typical response is a quick laugh and “I know, I saw you sleeping”.
There is another 15 minute window before recess which I call W.OW. – Working On Work (something I borrowed from a school I subbed at for a while). During this time students are allowed similar options as the first 15 minutes in the morning, one of which is the chance to socialize. We all know that students want to socialize anytime the chance arises. Usually in the mornings the socializing is not as intense as it is a couple of hours later. So students knowing they have a set time each day allows them to hang on (usually) to their conversations until later. Again I offer this short period as a time to catch up on some sleep for those who are suffering from some serious sleep debt. As teachers, we know if a student is too tired they aren’t learning and you can’t force a student to learn, especially ones whose brains are forcing them to sleep. So what is the benefit of this routine that I have built twice into my day? This routine is also good when it comes to having to set out a consequence for a student that just wont stop talking or falls asleep in the middle of class. Usually a simple reminder of when it is a good time to chat or rest your head is good place to begin with, it allows the student a chance to adjust their behavior, and reminds them of classroom expectations. So instead of immediately delivering a consequence, a reminder is given about the appropriate times set out in the daily routines. Eventually if it goes on long enough with sleeping in class I will say if you’re too tired to be awake in class then you’re too tired for recess or gym or another class they need to be fully alert in. So the consequence becomes what is typically known as a natural consequence. The student will then be able to directly relate their actions to the consequence that is given out, rather than an arbitrary consequence given by the teacher, which may not match the severity of the unwanted behaviour. Arbitrary consequences tend to change each time as well, breaking from established routine. As a result, the routines I put in place are clear and concrete and applies to everyone. This means the second students enter the classroom they know what to expect and there are no surprises that result from behaviour that fall out of line from the routine, and the consequence is a result of their actions and it makes sense.
Do I always enforce my routine or consequences? The easy answer to that is no. I think as teachers one of our most significant traits we bring into the classroom is our compassion. Have you ever wished someone gave you a break just once, bent the rules for you, just giving you that simple “win”? Ultimately at the end of the day students need to know that you are not simply a robot that follows routines and consequences, but that they can reason with you and you will listen and even negotiate and compromise with them. One example I can provide is at times when students come back from another class they pull out a piece of art we had been working on, or they start to do an activity that is not scheduled. From time to time I will let this continue and say nothing. I will actually take that opportunity to get some of my own work done such as marking or whatever else needs my urgent attention. What the students have demonstrated is that they know if they are going to “switch” activities on me that there still remains an expectation in their behaviour: being on task, not bothering others and working at an appropriate noise level. Although no actual words were spoken in this negotiation they understand what is expected of them in order to continue what they are doing. So in an ironic sense by breaking from a routine they had to keep in routine.
A routine then must not only work for the students but it also must work for you as a teacher. As mentioned previously this article is not meant to tell you as a professional what kind of routine to have in your room or how to run a classroom routine. Instead the intended message is that the importance of a routine is more powerful than we realize. Whether in my case I allow students an opportunity to socialize or rest their heads as students they know this exists everyday and is guaranteed to them in our classroom routine. However, part of that routine are the consequences for not following the routine itself. These consequences are also routine, from gentle reminders to eventual loss of privileges. They are never made up on the spot, they are always made aware of what their next consequence will be. If the time comes when it is time to take away a class from a student that is chronically sleeping during the day, they know what to expect, zero surprises and that even brings a sense of stability whereas that may not occur in their home life.
A final note about routine is that I am fully aware how often and quickly routine can break down in any classroom due to many other factors such as announcements, assemblies, classes getting cancelled, and the daily interruptions that all add up to the chaos that we face as teachers each day. I am certainly no stranger to this. That is why as I have previously stated keep your routines simple and easy, and grow them as your students grow. For me, some of the biggest routines happen during the two 15 minutes blocks then almost nothing interrupts them during the day. All my other routines such as lining up and expected classroom behavior happens on the go is constantly being worked on everyday. There is no secret formula to routine what worked one year may not the next. However as teachers if we can provide even the smallest and simplest routines for our students each day as they enter our classrooms we can make a world of a difference in their lives.