Seating charts saved my life.

When you take Education classes, you read and respond to dozens of teaching case studies. These are stories based on real life situations teachers find themselves in. They involve some sort of dilemma, and get student teachers thinking about how they would react.

In a class I had last fall, we had to write our own case study, including discussion questions and a conclusion that describes our own outcome of the situation. When my case study was coming due, I had recently discovered that seating charts do not, in fact, stunt a child’s creativity. They are essential for many reasons and I wish I had started out with them on day one.

Here’s what I wrote in my case study in October of 2006:

The Case
Miss P is teaching art for her second year, but it is her first year teaching full time. Last year, she taught once-per-week classes at an independent study program. Class sizes were about 15 students and there were never any discipline problems. This year, she is splitting her day between the middle school and the high school at a very small rural school district. The schools are small but the classes are up to 31 students each.

Classroom management has become a real chore for Miss P. Although she has posted her rules and explained her procedures carefully and routinely, she has difficulty keeping her students quiet and focused on their work. Her most trying class is seventh period, the last one of the high school day. At first, she guesses that the constant classroom disruptions are due to the lateness of the hour and that students are ready to get out of school and go home.

By her fifth week at the school, Miss P’s stress level is very high, and her joy of teaching – and patience – is quickly being depleted. In her seventh period class, she has allowed students to sit where they please, in order to create a less formal “arty” type of environment. There are three knots of students who repeatedly ignore her reminders to remain quite while she instructs. She has not yet memorized all of her 166 students’ names, so calling on individual students when they are misbehaving is hit-or-miss. Writing names on the board, when behavior correction is needed, is nearly impossible to do consistently.

Students are given bathrooms breaks whenever requested, except one young man who lied about why he was gone so long on his very first day in class. Miss P revoked his bathroom privileges for the remained of the semester. Students are also allowed to get up for supplies or to wash their hands. Miss P expects them otherwise to be seated until the bell rings. She discovered that they swamp the entryway just inside the door for minutes beforehand if left to their own devices.

A number of students have done all they can to test their new teacher. First came the playing with paper footballs. Miss P allowed it once near the end of class but soon realized that allowing it led to greater challenges to classroom order. It escalated to two male students playing “snap the pencil.” Miss P discovered what the boys were doing when they had lined up the third colored art pencil. Two ruined colored pencils lay nearby. Miss P referred the boys to the Principal and called their parents. One of the boys’ mother was particularly responsive, and wanted to know whenever her son acted up. Both boys apologized the next day.

Miss P has also recently given detention to another two boys who had spoken after two verbal warnings. She has hoped that these measures would assure that the students would fear consequences if they broke classroom rules.

However, her consistency is flawed because she has not remembered everyone’s name. Paper airplanes go sailing, art supplies get thrown, and multiples reminders of the rules generally go unheeded. What is very difficult is when she needs to speak quietly with a specific student about his behavior, the other troublemakers are right within earshot and throwing in their two cents because they sit right there.

The volume level of talking during independent practice frequently gets overwhelming. Asking all of the students to be absolutely quiet during this time seems unnecessarily strict to Miss P.

Miss P really wants all of her students to do well. She wants them to have that sense of accomplishment that comes from seeing a work of art they created with focus and hard work. She wants the more disruptive students to stop making it harder for her to teach the more eager learners. However, lately she’s been feeling more like a cop than a teacher.

Discussion Questions
1. What steps can Miss P take to control her class better?
2. To what extent should students be allowed to talk during independent practice?
3. To what extent should students be able to move around the classroom freely in this sort of environment?

style=”font-size:1.5em”Commentary & Resolution
Miss P needed to do something big before she gave up entirely on this difficult class. What she did was really very simple but largely effective. She broke down and assigned seats. She did this for all of her art classes, but in seventh period she especially rearranged all of her students. Each of the three knots disbursed throughout the classroom. She gave special focus to her worst offenders, moving them as far apart as possible.

With a seating chart in hand, she can now easily call on individual students by name when they need to be corrected, and she can write their names on the board when they are heading toward detention. She has also found it much easier to memorize student names and to pass back papers in all of her classes. Now when she needs to speak quietly with a student about his behavior, his buddies aren’t right there offering their unconstructive comments.

While there continues to be some small behavior problems, the seating chart has worked a small miracle. Miss P can now reasonably count on her students to pay attention during instruction because they are not distracting each other. She now feels like her seventh period students are learning, and she can see the evidence in their work.

Side Note
Recently Miss P discovered that she could see how all of her high school students were doing after the D and F reports were recorded. Unlike her other classes, her seventh period students were almost unanimously receiving a D or F in at least one class. Many were receiving Ds and Fs in most of their classes. This was some consolation to Miss P, who had thought that her students’ bad behavior in seventh period was entirely her fault. She was reminded that sometimes art class can be a bit of a dumping ground for the highly unmotivated. An eternal optimist, she still thinks she can keep them motivated through interesting work and that precious sense of accomplishment.

These days, I require all students to be in their assigned seats when the tardy bell rings. Then I can take role very quickly against my seating chart. Once attendance and instruction have occurred, I allow most of my students to move to other seats if they wish. I have all their names memorized now, so using the seating chart to identify students during class is no longer necessary.

However, I keep a little list on my blackboard of students who have lost the privilege to move out of their assigned seats. These are the students who have shown that they cannot be counted on to stay on task or avoid horseplay. Most of these students do much better in class when they do not sit next to their buddies. Perhaps some day they’ll learn that behaving and getting work done in class equals more freedom and privileges. For the rest of the students, I still have this bargaining chip: get to work or I’ll move you back to your assigned seat.

By Dawn Pedersen

Science advocate, web designer, educator, artist, and mommy.

3 replies on “Seating charts saved my life.”

Thanks for reminding me of the magic of the seating plan. After 20 years I rarely use them anymore, but one new class will be finding out about them next lesson. I think you might just have saved my sanity. Why??? Because I Soooooo understand Miss P.

Having taught as a long and short sub for several years, this year found me with my full time credential in hand. Now, I have my own 8th grade class. The methods, and tricks I learned during my years as a sub in many challenging schools has served me well. The teachers now watch in awe as I move my class to and from lessons, as well as in and out of the classroom. The first rule is to teach where the administration supports firm/fair Classroom Management. Remember the old Harry Wong rule: You do it on the first day, you do it on the second day, and EVERY day, the EXACT SAME WAY. You stop and re-do behaviors that are not appropriate. You don’t let students get out of their seats for ANYTHING, except emergencies (you can always tell who’s genuine). Yes, seating charts, testing rules, entry and exit protocol, and respect levels are extremely important to remember. YOU, the teacher are running the class. You rule with an iron hand, until you find the respect level that is right for the grade. You DEMAND respect, and you GIVE respect to all students. When a student refuses to give respect you hand him/her off to the counselors, don’t spend precious time arguing, students are professionals, and don’t try to be cute, just move them out of the learning environment. Move through the material in an energetic and interesting manor. Interact with the students, move around the room, and involve everyone in the pedagogy. Kids get enough slack at home. In the classroom you must assert yourself, and be in charge every minute. Don’t take disrespectful words or motions, and give every student a fair chance to join in the learning environment AFTER they understand the rules. It is YOUR job as a teacher to create an environment that interests and informs the students. Start each day with fresh energy and ideas. Remember, the moment you change the rules, you confuse the students, and you only serve to tell the students that you are not committed to your original teaching path. Don’t abdicate your roll for that of a friend. You are supposed to be friendly, but do not make students your friends, they have plenty of their own. Button them down and do what you were trained to do.
Sisao Tresed

You have to start tough and stay tough. Teaching is not for the faint of heart. Students who understand what discipline is will enjoy and support you. Fair and firm, every day with every student. Enjoy yourself.

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