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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

What to do with THAT Class (part 1)

You know exactly what I'm talking about: yeah, THAT class. The one that you dread every time you see them on your schedule for the day, the one that keeps you up at night, the one that you keep talking about with your colleagues trying to figure out how to get through to them, the one that your family and close friends know so much about because you're always coming home with stories.

We've all had classes that seem to confound us, no matter how long we've been teaching. I've had one most years, including this year, and I'm well over a decade into my career. Today I want to share some general, practical tips to hopefully help the students in that class be more successful, and help you feel less anxiety when you know that class is coming.

To be perfectly honest, I'm writing this advice just as much to myself as I am to every other reader. I had a tough go with this year's "that class" this past week, and I need a reset. I know I'm not alone in feeling this way, and I also know it will get better! Today I want to remind all of us of the most important general steps we need to take, regardless of what the specific issues are, to make sure we don't spend the entire year miserable.

1. Stop venting

OK, I'm not saying you have to stop completely, but one of the most important steps you need to take is to change your mindset about the class, and the more time you spend talking about the negative things that happen in that class, the more likely you are to continue to have negative expectations for them (which are always self-fulfilling prophesies). Pick one trusted person at work who can listen to you when you're frustrated and then help you move on. If you are having a particularly frustrating time, vent to them and only them. Then try to come up with a plan for what you're going to do differently next time- don't let it be just a chance to talk about the problems without looking for a solution. With everyone else, do everything you can to find something positive to say about that class, or just don't talk about them as often- when someone asks you how your day was, talk about a different class. The less you talk about it, the less you'll keep dwelling on it yourself.

2. Make a plan B, C, D, and E

When I suggest not venting, I'm not suggesting you don't talk about that challenging class with colleagues- rather than just focusing on the problems, have conversations with colleagues about solutions! Ask the homeroom teacher what they've found successful (or even see about observing them). See if there are any incentives they have in their classrooms that you could tie into. Maybe they have certain classroom procedures in place that you could replicate. Talk to the art teacher, the PE teacher, the school counselor, and anyone who may have some insight into how to help the class be successful. Not everything will work in your classroom, but there may be ways you can adapt strategies to fit in with what you do.

And don't expect the first thing you try to work! Some things may take time, and sometimes you may have to go through 5 different ideas before you find something that works! The key is to keep thinking, keep trying, and don't ever give up. It may never be perfect, but there is always opportunity for improvement.

The point here is to keep trying, and be prepared to go through lots of different ideas before you find a solution that truly works! Here are some of my specific suggestions for various types of challenges:

3. Get focused

It's so important, if you have a class that just isn't working, to make it a priority to figure out how to make it work. Just hoping they'll somehow eventually get it and continuing to teach that class the same way you do all the others will only end in misery for everyone and very little learning for students. Whatever the issue is, focus on addressing the problem(s) that are preventing the class from going well, and developing positive relationships with the individual students in the class and with the class as a whole. Instead of trying to do 3 activities to practice half notes, pick one (and make it the one that you think is most likely to be successful with that group). Narrow your focus to the most essential elements so that you can slow down and be more intentional with the class.

4. Celebrate successes

Going along with the idea of reducing the negative talk you do with your peers, it's important to try to focus on the positive with the students as well. Don't lower your expectations, but do be very intentional about pointing out genuine successes as often as possible! If the whole class enters the room the way you expect them to, note it verbally. Not in a condescending or patronizing, "I'm so glad we finally figured out how to enter the music room appropriately!", or even, "Good job coming in the room!" (which, come on, students know shouldn't need praising), but a simple "class is off to a great start!" or "everyone's ready to go, let's do this!" can be powerful.

5. Problem-solve with students

If a class isn't going well, stop. If you're feeling stressed out, overwhelmed by the noise, or personally hurt, tell them you need a minute. If you can, explain to the class what you think isn't working and why, and tell them what you're planning to do next time (or right then, if you still have enough time left in class) to help them be able to succeed. If they're old enough (and you have the class time), ask them to discuss what they think is the problem and why, and offer their own suggestions for solutions. Problem-solving circles are ideal for this situation- read about how I do those in this post.

6. Get help

If you feel like you've exhausted every option you can think of and the class still isn't running the way you'd like, call for back up. There's nothing wrong with asking for help, and often a second, third, or fourth pair of eyes are just what you need to get some fresh perspective! Ask another music teacher or even a non-music colleague that you respect to come and observe a lesson. If you have an administrator or teaching coach/ specialist you trust, ask them to come and sit in on a class. See if the school psychologist, social worker, or other support staff can come.

Hopefully these initial thoughts will give some much-needed perspective and relief to what can be a very overwhelming and stressful situation! To read more about specific strategies for fostering a positive classroom climate and supporting students' character development / handling challenging behaviors, head to this post.


  1. Elizabeth,
    Thank you so much for creating these blogs! I am so excited to read many more of your blogs! This information has been super helpful! Have you found any general strategies that work with 3rd and 4th graders? I do good with grades k-2 but I have trouble with classroom focus of the 3rd and 4th graders.

    1. Hi! I'm so glad it has been helpful :) My initial thoughts with focus in those middle grades are 1) using warmups at the beginning of class, 2) speed up your pacing, and 3) using some type of whole class feedback system, like my MUSIC letters that I use. Please email me if you want to talk about more specifics for your situation- you can also read about the whole class management strategies I find most helpful in this post: