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Learning to Let Go in the Classroom: What You Can & Can't Control

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As a teacher, it's easy to think you can control every aspect of your classroom. However, the reality is that so much of what goes on with your students is actually beyond your control, as we'll discuss in this article.

Finding Balance in the Classroom

As new teacher, you may be inclined to try and control everything that relates to your classroom. When you think about it, the nature of a teacher's life lends itself to this phenomenon. Teachers are responsible for managing a classroom of 20-25 students on a daily basis. Add to that the responsibilities of everyday tasks like preparing lessons, teaching, and assessing student learning. And don't forget the importance of forming working relationships with students' parents. That's a lot of control!

Your impulse as a teacher may be to try and exert as much control as possible, in an effort to preserve your sanity. However, experienced teachers know that there are some things you can, and some things that you cannot, control in your classroom.

Letting Go of Things Beyond Your Control

It may sound like a cliché, but if you're going to teach and remain sane, you have to learn to let some things go in your classroom. While you play a significant role in students' lives inside your classroom world, there are aspects related to their home lives and economic levels that impact their ability to learn. While many new teachers do their best to be superheroes to students, there are some parts of their student's lives that are beyond their control. So, as a new teacher, you have to learn to let those things go.

Student Home Life

Many students have less than ideal home lives. While some go home to a traditional family with two parents, where they enjoy an evening meal together, many belong to non-traditional families. Siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents may be raising your students; some students may even be in foster care.

Other students may go home to chaotic, or unstable domestic environments, alternating between two or more living arrangements during the week. Some students may live in multiple houses during a term, perhaps even changing schools along the way. Trying to find the focus to complete homework when their home situations are uncertain can be virtually impossible. As a result, they may not have the support they need to finish assignments.

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When students don't do their homework, as hard as you may try to motivate them, it's not something you can control. You can't take them home, sit them down at your kitchen table, and provide them with a quiet place to work.

Student Poverty

In most of the schools you'll work in, you'll likely encounter students who are living in poverty. Some of them may have significant responsibilities outside of school. For example, they may supervise younger siblings while their parents work in the evenings. Older students may have after school jobs to help support their families and put food on the table.

Even less fortunate students may return to homes where there's nothing to eat and no electricity or running water; some may even be homeless. The National Center for Homeless Education reported that during the 2014-2015 school year, 1,263,323 students in grades K-12 were homeless. As a teacher, these situations will break your heart. You may want to change these out-of-school circumstances, but there's only so much you can do.

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Embracing Things You Can Control

So instead of making yourself crazy thinking about all of the things in your student's lives you can't control, focus on those things that are within your control in the classroom. These include how you react to your students and conduct yourself with their families. For example, if you have students with behavioral issues, it's easy to let your frustration show. That's why it's so important to use your classroom management skills when dealing with the challenges students throw your way.

Create a Respectful Environment

The classroom is your domain from doors to windows. Within it, whether your students are courteous or not, you can create a safe respectful environment for all of them. Establishing a respectful environment begins with how you approach and speak to your students. When you speak in a disrespectful tone, even if it's purely unintentional, it sends the message to students that it's okay to behave that way.

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Beginning on the first day of class, try to establish a positive classroom management routine. For example, reward those students who meet your expectations. Create a classroom rewards system, where cooperative students can earn ''money'' to spend in a ''classroom store'' on pencils, pens, erasers, and small snacks, among other items. Older students may appreciate a positive comment on a post-it note or a mint.

Control Your Reactions

Sometimes you just have to channel your inner Buddha and learn how to remain calm when dealing with students, even in the worst situations. As a teacher, you can't control every decision - good or bad - that your students make; however, you can control how you react to them.

If Stephen decides to throw a book across the room, you can't control his decision, but you can control your response. As hard as it may be initially, learn to approach every classroom situation with a calm demeanor, which is more productive. Don't raise your voice or yell because that will only escalate the situation. Your goal as a teacher should be to diffuse the drama and address any behavioral issues in line with your school's policies.

In these instances, feel free to let your head ring with frustration. Just don't let your voice or body language show that frustration to your students.

Letting Go

As a new teacher, remember to focus on what you can control in the classroom, namely, what happens between the morning and afternoon bells. For example, you can't cure poverty or fix students' chaotic home situations. Instead, focus on how you manage the students in your classroom. Do it with a positive attitude and create a climate of respect, which may inspire students to behave in a similar way outside of the classroom.

By Rachel Tustin
November 2017
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