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"Classroom management" vs. Relationship Building - A necessary dichotomy?

I'm interested in creating an environment that enables and empowers student learning. A question I've been pondering is: In what ways can "classroom management" build and erode classroom communities? In what ways can "classroom management" build and erode a teacher's relationship with individual students?

I've recently have had the opportunity to observe two classrooms that functioned very differently - in one, explicit, enforced expectations created (or at least appeared to create) a fairly quiet, regulated classroom environment. Students did not attempt to use cell phones, were generally silent when a teacher or a classmate was speaking, and they arrived on class (mostly) on time. However, in comparison, these students seemed less engaged and excited about learning in this classroom. I'm unsure whether they would consider this class to be their favorite, but my instinct tells me that the majority would not.

In the second classroom, there seemed to be fewer explicit rules and expectations. Students seemed to have more of a "control of the show." Cell phones were being used in class, students would sometimes interrupt the teacher, and would fail to stop talking when asked gently by the teacher. This teacher has a reputation for developing amazingly strong relationships with his students. Students who have gotten so upset in other classes that they punch a wall or window, are excited to come to his class and easily diffused when angry. They also repeatedly say that his class is their favorite.

Do stricter "classroom management" policies necessarily hamper one's ability to connect with students and gain their respect? If so, should we prioritize relationship-building or creating an "orderly" classroom? Or have my observations of these two classrooms led to false conclusions?

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Any sense on how much the students are learning in each class?
Honestly, I am unsure to what extent students are learning; I have only seen assessment results from one class, and what I might be interested in measuring (engagement, content, etc.) is not completely captured in that assessment.
This is a great question Emily, and I think that I would have to put myself in the middle of these two styles, but definitely more toward the strict management end of the spectrum. In thinking about the two classes that you describe, I think each has elements that both support and detract from student learning. However, I do think that there is a place for "order" in a classroom to the extent that teacher expectations and class norms are understood and acted upon, with clear, fair, respectful follow-up when they are not. By having this type of environment established, the class can then move on to focus on learning. My experience with teenagers has shown me that more than anything they value high expectations, honesty, and fairness from their teachers, and I think that this can come from a highly structured class environment. Being "strict" does not mean that you can't develop good relationships with students, and in fact many students might appreciate you maintaining high expectations for their conduct in class. While the second class described may seem like a lot of fun for the students, I can't help but wonder if some of the more hesitent voices are being silenced and questions left unasked due to the unregulated, casual nature of conversation.
I agree with William that there has to be a balance between the classes you have seen. In elementary school most teachers have opted to use the "Responsive Classroom." The students write their goals and then the teacher tells them that in order for students to achieve their goals, they have to make classroom rules so everyone will have a chance to meet their goals. The rules are owned by the students and they are more respectful of them.
In the middle grades, The Responsive Classroom has a program called Classroom by Design. Google the and use the best of what is developmentally appropriate for your students. Students of all ages enjoy limits and rules.
I totally agree with Jennifer. If the teacher is positive and enthusiastic, the students will love to do the work. Even when my students are talking in class, I find them talking about the projects they are involved it.
I have to agree with both Alex and William on this. Being strict in today's classroom does not necessarily mean the classroom is orderly and students are disengaged. Ultimately, the two environments should be and can easily be combined. When we have passion and the students know we care about them - each and every one of them, individually - we can almost be assured of higher levels of student engagement. No set of rules can bolster student engagement as much as teacher's attitude and enthusiasm.
Good question.
I believe that being "strict" or being a "good classroom manager" has nothing to do with having a non-constructivist - or traditional - classroom. Therefore, we need to set the definition of "strict". Do you mean strict as being someone who yells at their students to be quiet and is traditional in their teaching style (90% lecture-based and clearly teacher-led) and allows very little room for creativity in class?

For example, I am strict in my class. I do not allow chewing gum. The kids come in and say that "other teachers let me do it", and I tell them, "that's fine, but I do not, those are the rules and you follow the rules."
However, I also let them take their cell phones out when they need to program other group members' contact information into them. My class is a constructivist classroom, we are always working on some sort of cooperative group assignments which allow for collaboration and, yes, talking. However, my kids also know that when I need them to be quiet to tell them something, they get quiet... and if they don't get quiet enough for me to be heard, then I raise my voice so they can hear me. They do not leave the classroom without a pass, they are to my class on time, they show me and their fellow students respect, they do not chew gum, their clothing is appropriate (or I send them down to the front office to get something else to wear or call home), and I make sure their I.D. badge is always on. Compared to most teachers in my school, I understand that I AM STRICT. However, my class is also a fun place to be.

So, in my opinion, being strict and having an oppressive or "not fun" classroom environment is not mutually exclusive. Just like anything else it is all about how you teach your kids. Do you show them respect? If you do, then you'll get it back. Do you follow the rules? If you do, then your kids will have no problem following the rules too. It's also about how you treat people. Some teachers make the mistake and think that they can B.S. the kids and that they will not figure it out. You can't. They see through you in a second and lose respect for you in the process. Students appreciate what you do for them, especially if you try to make the class fun and engaging, and you are fun and engaging as well.

So, to make this easy and short answer waaay too long, I do not think that a strict classroom hamper's one's ability to connect and gain respect of the students.
I would hope that as long as relevant involvement (or relevant loudness even?) is rewarded, students will be empowered and management will still be fully in tact. It is tough though to tell kids to be involved but well behaved at the same time!
I would agree that strictness vs. laxness are really uncorrelated w/either engagement in learning or depth of student-teacher relationship. I would definitely agree with William that many students are grateful to have clear, fairly enforced, and predictable expectations, and that this can actually enable greater comfort in a classroom and a deeper development of community.

I also think it's important to remember that different students (and teachers!) learn and work productively in different settings. Some people work best with a radio on in the background; some work best in total silence; some hate to be out of the action and love to do their work in the middle of things, while others have to close themselves off from everyone and everything else in order to concentrate. I ran a relatively lax classroom because it suited my personality and didn't interfere w/my concentration. I allowed students to get out of their seats and stand or walk around the classroom while we were doing work so long as they didn't interfere w/others because I thought it was ridiculous to expect all eighth graders to maintain concentration while sitting in desks for 80 min at a stretch. Some of my students just had to move, and that was fine with me. I also frequently had lots of different projects going on in my class simultaneously, with some students practice-interviewing each other, others going to get their portfolios from the back of the room, others reading through documents, and others typing on the computer. Again, this didn't bother me, as I could easily think and work through the "chaos." Some of my students loved it. My two student teachers, though, both found the multiple sensory inputs to be too much. They both were "stricter" in their own classrooms because they just found it hard to think with so many different things going on. And it became clear to me that some of our students thrived in the more controlled environment. I hadn't realized it before, but they appreciated the silence and space to think. It wasn't that they would "get off task" in my looser classroom; it's just that even if they worked as hard, they just couldn't think as productively as they could in a quieter class. I realized in retrospect that I'm an extroverted thinker, so I love interacting w/other people; that's how I learn. But introverted thinkers can't function as well when someone is always trying to talk to them -- even if it's talking about the work. So in sum, I think that no classroom organization can serve every student's needs, but each can serve some students' needs. I guess this got fairly far off of your original question about building relationships...
Emily, your comparison of these two classrooms reminded me immediately of my two 10th grade classes. One is known as the "bad class"--students are louder, sometimes physically moving around the room, and talk during independent work. The other class is much quieter when others are talking and during independent work. I have found, however, that when students in the "bad class" interrupt during class, it is often with relevant questions that reflect a curiosity about the material. Interrupting may be rude, but that questioning is something to be encouraged, and it doesn't happen as much in the other class. Expectations for what is "quiet" or on-task for the two classes have become very different, and while that risks creating unequal expectations of students, it may be, as Meira says, a difference in learning style. Still feeling that out...

On a more theoretical level, I don't think managing and building relationships are opposite tasks, depending on how you define them. I am strict about student-teacher boundaries and don't think it's appropriate to be friends with students, because we're not peers. Some of the younger teachers in my former high school tried to be friends by making jokes or negotiating homework assignments, and it undermined their authority. Teachers can and should build close relationships in a way that is not "hanging out" with your students, and when there is strong respect between teacher and student, classroom management can become a lot easier. Students sense teacher disapproval or arrogance, and respond to it negatively. This can lead to a refusal to do work or open defiance in the classroom. I have found my students to be very clear in this regard--the second they feel ignored, some will just yell out "Miss, don't ignore me"--and even when it comes off rudely, I find it refreshing, because it tells me if I'm getting (appropriately) closer to my students or not. So I'm still trying to do both...

I do not think "classroom management" can erode classroom communities. It is our job as educators to manage these communities effectively and not give the students complete control of the classroom. Maybe "classroom management" can erode some relationships with students, but at the end of the day we are not in school to be thier friends. We are professionals and nothing more.


In regards to your examples of the two classrooms you were in, I think the problem is more of lack of educational diversity. Perhaps the teacher has implemented to strict of a routine, and the students have become bored and passive. Instead having various types of learning activities might make this class less of a drag and more engaging. The second classroom however, how much learning do you think was really taking place in that environment? Just because a student says it is their "favorite" does not mean that it is the best for them to learn. My favorite class in high school was Creative Writing, because we watched movies all day and got to skip class you think I learned a thing about writing...?

I think you are on the right track with being mindful of teacher-student relationships. However, these need to be blended with meaningful content. You are not the guidance counselors, nor their friend, so diffusing anger and becoming friends with the students is not neccessary.





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