Hard-learned lessons in classroom management

For all the teachers who have (ever had) a class that made them feel like a failure, I see you. This blog post is for you.

Before meeting my 5th grade class, I used to believe in the credo “create a classroom community and there shall be no or little classroom management needed”, or “provide input that is interesting to your students and they will listen”, or even “model respect for your students and they will respect you”. Before meeting my 5th grade class, I was very confident in my ability to win over any class using Compelling and Comprehensible Input.

That was simply arrogant on my part, and I had a brutal wake-up call this year.

When I took over this class late September at my new school, students were learning about French with paper and pencil. So, I started by taking their notebooks away and set off to create my little community of learners using our Classroom pledge,  Total Physical Response and Card Talk. Very quickly, a group of vocal students started trying to take control of our class. Instead of embracing being released from paper and pencil, they abused their newfound freedom.Or at least that is what it looked like to me.  They started making fun of my gestures, they blurted, shouted, talked over me, and over their classmates. Here is how I responded at first:

  1. I pointed at our classroom rules
  2. I had 1-1 conversations with some of them after class (but never asked them what I could do to be a better teacher to them!)
  3. I used a seating chart
  4. I asked them if they preferred to work on their own (the answer was “no”)
  5. I spoke to adults in the school who knew this class and implemented some of their suggestions (such as a class point system)
  6. I called parents
  7. I tried getting to know them better (I got involved in the school play and this paid off with one student in particular)

When we started creating story characters and story asking, things got worse. Students started fighting over things like the character’s name and our class would come to a halt while trying to get any form of consensus. I tried modifying instruction, for example I asked everyone to write a name for our character on a note card and choose a name at random to avoid conflicts.

By November, I had completely lost control of the class.

Right around that time, Jon Cowart, Director of Foreign Language at a school in Memphis TN, started posting classroom management videos in the iFLT/ NTPRS/ CI Teaching FB group. His videos drastically changed my approach. I took a hard look at myself, and realized I needed a much more consistent and structured classroom management approach. Jon made me realize that some classes need a very structured environment, and that’s ok! He also gave me the tools to take back some control.

I used what Jon calls a hard reset. I created a behavior plan with our assistant principal and got buy-in from the homeroom teachers. I shared the behavior plan with the class, answered questions, and each student signed a copy of the plan. Then, I had them physically leave the classroom and re-enter under the new behavior plan. A few students entered the classroom shouting and dancing, I had them exit and try again until they entered quietly. Once we sat down, some students immediately tested the new plan by talking over me, and I responded according to the plan. It was super hard to remain consistent, I felt like I was constantly interrupting instruction to follow the behavior plan, I felt I was being a mean teacher… but within a week or two, things started getting somewhat back under control. One student even apologized to me! I used this small momentum to try to build our community again by doing Special Person. I will admit I was never a fan of Special Person, because I find it very repetitive. But I have been wrong about Special Person so I milked it:

  1. Special Person process (I did not follow the full process, I kept my process very simple and very structured)
  2. Special Person posters (in French)
  3. Special Person Graphic Organizer
  4. Special Person game (easy to prepare using data collected during interviews)
  5. Special Person project. This may look like a production project but it is not. All students had to do was read my personal answers, copy the correct questions from the posters posted in our classroom, and modify the answers with their personal info and pictures. It was a sneaky way to provide input. My students really got into this and surprised me by asking if they could present to the class, we really had a blast!


My students, engaged in listening to a Special Person

After this win, I moved back to language in context using stories but in a more structured way. We did a lot of Movie Talks using supplementation which doesn’t require student input therefore went fairly well. I used a slideshow to tell the story and stopped right before the final twist, and then we watched the video as a reward. I typically followed-up with a reading activity, such as a silent Gallery Walk.

My students, engaged in post Movie Talk activities (Human Timeline and silent Gallery Walk)

Finally, I also used Alice Ayel’s story videos for those days where I needed a break. Thank you Alice for providing comprehensible input to my students and helping me keep my sanity!

I have learned so much this year about giving my students a structured environment when needed to resolve/reduce “discipline” issues. Our class was never all rainbows and unicorns, I did not turn the class around nor did I create the community I wanted to create; we got a bit more productive and my students received some input. Even though this experience was difficult, I learned so much, became a more humble and student-focused teacher, and I am proud of myself for not giving up on my students and not resorting to worksheets and busy work.

I hope this experience and some of the resources I posted will help other teachers with similar issues.


  1. Thank you for your honesty! I think we all have classes like this at times. I love your ideas! I am really curious to learn more about your silent gallery walk. Would you mind explaining that?

    • Sure. Typically a Gallery Walk means you have images posted around the classroom and students walk around talking about the images. Of course this doe snot work for Novice students who don;t have enough language to “talk about” images. So after a Movie Talk, I post screenshots of the video around the room. Students walk around and 1) match text to images 2)) sequence the story. You can find examples in this link (look under my name) : https://us.ifprofs.org/groupe/movie-talks

  2. Cécile, i too am grateful for your candor and most of all, your solutions. I have had a challenging year in all my classes without doing any successful damage control. I love the behavior plan and want to do similar, following our school culture and discipline norms of course. Would you explain what hit points are? Merciencore!

    • Thank you. You are right, it is very important to create behavior expectations/plan aligned with your school culture. That is exactly why I worked with my assistant principal and homeroom teachers, especially since this school was new to me and I started late September.

      The homeroom teachers already had a point system in place called “Classcraft” https://www.classcraft.com/, where students create a character and work in teams to win XP (experience points). They can also lose HP (hit points) and all kinds of fancy stuff. In my class, students could win XP as a class or lose HP as individuals. So I decided to join in the game.

      You could come up with your own point system of course.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story and a solution that worked. I have similar issues in high school and I will implement changes next year using your strategies.

  4. Thanks Cecile! I tend to have this problem with my 7th graders. This is a great plan. Robert Harrell shared a lesson plan to teach classroom culture. I think next year I am going to try a mix of what you have shared.

    • Could you please share Robert’s plan with me as well? I am will be in my second year teaching next year and plan to switch to CI based curriculum. Classroom management is really where I need to do some heavy training and planning.

  5. Thank you for your sharing about “classroom management” in which many of us struggle daily. I especially appreciate you put many doable strategies out there. I especially like the “special person” activities in which tie in with context and personalization. Many students in my district crave the attention and personal touch.

  6. I appreciate your openness to share about your difficult class. I had one class this year that made me think about retiring early! I am devouring your details so I can be prepared for the future. I did not handle it as well as you did. I teach high school and some of them were jaded and had years of experience of being disruptive. The administration was helpful, but as we grow our own culture in our new district (we are only in our second year) it is getting better and it could have been worse; the most disruptive anti-learners could have been spread out through more of my classes. Unfortunately, in this one class, they were the majority by far. We are in our last four days of classes, so on to next year. Thank you for sharing what worked for you!

    • Hi Carin, I am with you. This was a difficult year with this one class, but I celebrate the small wins/progress we have made. I hope you also find something to celebrate, however small it may be. I find that taking pictures of the small wins actually helped me. Have a restful summer!

    • I have been begging Jon to put his videos in YouTube for easier acces/linkage 🙂 For now there are only on the IFLt/NTPrs page, search for Jon Cowart, he posted them around November. If he posts them to YouTube or somewhere shareable, I will immediately link to them.

  7. Coming in late to any class is such a difficult experience! Thanks for sharing your strategies!

  8. Thank you Cecile! I had such a class as well. I appreciate all the time you took to explain what happened and what helped. Thank you, too, for your conclusion at the end…that it didn’t turn things around to the degree you had hoped, but it was better. I often have a huge sense of failure when I haven’t been able to foster a perfect sense of community and cooperation in all of my classes. You clearly did everything possible and more. I am so grateful that you shared your challenges. It is difficult to find on many blogs, but so important and helpful!

    • Merci Karen, yes like you I felt this huge sense of failure because I was knees deep into it. But writing this post helped me realize, I gave it my best effort and we did make some progress.

  9. Thank you for sharing, Cecile. I am looking to joining Jon’s webinar. How young of an age do you think will work for his strategies? I teach 1-6th but most of my behavior problems are with the 2nd graders.

  10. Cecile, Thank you so very much for this post- sharing your struggle and how you worked through it with us! I had a very trying class of 32 ninth graders this past semester, and I believe I have another set coming in January. Classroom management has never been my strong point. Much like you described your philosophy pre-fifth grade class, that too, is how I’ve been. I too realized that I had to give much more structure and consistency for that class to function- and I wouldn’t even flatter myself to say that it did to any significant degree. I had multiple students with behavior problems and they could wrestle away the direction of class at any moment despite how “ready” I was for their class. I am going to watch Jon’s videos now, in hopes that I find something that I can implement in two weeks with the next crew!

  11. Cecil, thanks for sharing such wonderful resources. I clicked on “supplementation” and the link led me to internet limbo. Could you please share what supplementation refers to?

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