Harry Wong: Why Teachers Need Classroom Management

Harry K. Wong, Ph.D., best-selling author and motivational speaker, has offered guidance to tens of thousands of teachers and school leaders over the past three decades.Harry Wong

A former science teacher, Wong has written and co-written several books, including “The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher.” More recently, Harry and his wife, Rosemary, wrote “The Classroom Management Book.” Combined sales of their books total more than 4 million copies.

A native of San Francisco, Wong taught middle and high school in Menlo Park, California. The Wongs still reside in Northern California — when they aren’t traveling across the United States or touring the globe to present their no-nonsense teaching style. Their model for helping teachers excel starts with a simple, if methodical, approach: Teaching is all about student achievement. Like every other profession, good teachers are good managers. Hence, positive student achievement begins by developing strong classroom management skills.

We caught up with the Wongs between their recent trips to China and Missouri. Through a series of email exchanges, we asked Harry to explain classroom management procedures, as well as his decision not to become a brain surgeon, as his parents had hoped. Fortunately, for the millions of educators who have benefited from the Wongs’ books and columns, videos and workshops, he decided to become a teacher.

What advice do you offer new teachers about relying on colleagues when it comes to classroom management techniques?

Of course, always seek guidance from colleagues. But it must be done carefully because most all teachers regard classroom management as discipline [and] it is not.

Management has to do with organization. When you manage a store or team, you organize the store or team. You don’t discipline the employees, customers or players.

The best guidance is to ask other teachers to share or show their classroom management plan — typically in a binder or folder — from whence a new teacher can glean ideas they can adapt. To see something specific is better than guidance.

What common threads do teachers share in their approaches to teaching and preparing students for the next education level or careers?

I do not see any common thread. What I see are teachers who follow what is the prevailing thread, which currently is to prepare every student for college.

Schools love to brag [about] what percentage of their graduates go to college. They fail to see that a great percentage never finish the college they go to.

It would be better to prepare students for a career, but there is little or nothing in the curriculum that prepares students for the work-world after high school.

In this brief video, Wong discusses the difference between disciplining students and implementing procedures that help teachers avoid student behavior problems.

You often point out that teachers don’t discipline students; they manage classrooms. How should teachers manage students in differentiated classrooms?

Students do not learn when they are disciplined. They learn when the classroom is organized for learning and success.

Differentiation refers to instruction, not to management. A store is managed to run well. The differentiation comes in the variety of merchandise that is offered.

There was a recent article in “Education Week” where the writer said differentiation does not work. It caused a controversy, but he had some valid points.

I have yet to see a differentiated classroom. Nor have I even seen research that supports differentiation. Here is what I have learned. If a student does not succeed in learning what the teacher wants the student to learn — the objective — here is what works:

  1. Reteach it again (not the same as differentiating).
  2. Check for understanding (assessment) and reteach it again and again.

That’s what music teachers and coaches do. They don’t differentiate.

John Hattie’s [visible learning] research says, give students the lesson objectives before the lesson begins and you will raise student achievement by 27 percent. The student then learns to understand the objective while the teacher teaches to the objective.

In an effective instructional template — the lesson plan — a lesson begins with a lesson objective or lesson target. The next thing a teacher does is called instructional strategy. This is where a teacher uses a variety of activities to teach the objective. For instance, you don’t use technology until you post the objective first.

With today’s emphasis on technical training programs that seem to mirror the European model, should teachers be preparing some students for careers that don’t require a college education?

Yes. But it is not a European model. Only Germany has a [technical training] model that seems to work. Singapore has an excellent career model.

How does your business analogy — comparing classroom management to operating restaurants — fit within the current educational environment?

What’s interesting is that all stakeholders understand my analogy. All business people, military people, and parents in the work-world accept my analogy [because] that is their work-world. They all come from or work in an environment that is organized.

The problem is in education [systems] where many believe that a classroom should be unstructured to allow students to explore and discover their own learning. If they discover their own learning, then they have ownership of what they discovered — more educational jargon.

As a counterpoint, Wong shared a recent communication he received from a teacher that reflects his organizational concepts of how to manage an efficient classroom:

“As I am an elementary instrumental/general music teacher, the first five minutes of class are all about awakening my students’ creativity while helping them prepare to focus on my instruction.

Students follow the same entrance procedure in every music class. They enter the classroom, find their assigned spot or seat at their instrument, depending on their grade level. Then, they are instructed to improvise on their instruments within specific guidelines (for example, practice the notes and fingerings for G, A, and B on the recorder, or improvise on the high pitched parts of your xylophone, etc.).

During this time, I am taking attendance, helping students with any instrument issues, and checking for student understanding of previously learned material. This practice allows students to experiment with sound in a structured environment, while simultaneously releasing excess energy and excitement about the instruments.

We are then ready to focus on whatever concept we are learning for the class period. Students are also given opportunities to share their creations when there is time. This helps them learn audience etiquette, respect for others’ work, and pride in what their imaginations can produce.”

Jennifer Roland, NBCT
Instrumental Music
Windsor Hill Arts Infused Elementary School
North Charleston, South Carolina

Have you ever had second thoughts about your decision not to become a medical doctor?

No second thoughts at all. In our presentations, we have one slide that says, “The noblest of all professions is teaching. Upon your effectiveness hangs the success of every child.”

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