Becoming the Pack Leader

Everything I need to know about classroom management I learned from The Dog Whisperer.

Yes, I am serious.

College instructors are hired because they are experts in their content areas. Most of the time, they have little-to-no formal training in the field of education. This also means they have no training in things like classroom management. Such topics are the domain of K-12 teachers, not college instructors. The problem with this is that in today’s college classroom, instructors must have effective classroom management strategies in order to survive the millenial generation.

When I first entered the college classroom, I was full of hope, optimism, and general naiveté. It never even occurred to me that classroom management would be an issue: it’s college, for crying out loud! But I learned quickly that to keep from being slaughtered by my students I had to become the pack leader.

Yes, the pack leader.

{Thank you, Cesar Millan.}

The fact is that a classroom is much like a pack, and there has to be a leader. Surprise, surprise: the leader *must* be the instructor…or else all chaos breaks out!

So here’s what The Dog Whisperer taught me about being the pack leader of my classroom:

1. Practice Rules, Boundaries, and Limitations.
According to Cesar, you develop trust and respect with your pack by establishing rules, boundaries, and limitations. In my experience, one of the first and most important things you must do when beginning the semester is to lay out for students the rules. What are your expectations for them? What do you expect them to do? What do you expect them not to do? What do you expect in terms of behavior? Work load? Attendance? Timeliness? What are the consequences for violation of your rules? Students need to know what will happen if they do/don’t do X. And they want it crystal-clear. If there’s a loophole, they’ll find it (this is why I end up revising something about my policies nearly every year). And if they find it, they expect you to let them use it—because you didn’t say they couldn’t. This creates all sorts of problems in the classroom.

Practicing rules, boundaries, and limitations is also important as you create assignments.  I just had a former student in my office who is struggling in his current course because, according to him, the instructor tends to get off topic, and doesn’t clearly establish the guidelines for writing the essays required for class (no assignment sheets, rubrics, etc.).  I jokingly said, “Not at all like in my class, right?” He laughed and said, “Yeah.  In your class, you always told us exactly how we needed to do something. You gave us a process to follow, a structure to use, and I always felt like I knew exactly what I needed to do.”  They may balk at such rigid guidelines to begin with—they may fight you a little (or a lot), but in the end, they appreciate the fact that they know exactly what to do and how to do it.

Further, it is important to have rules, boundaries, and limitations in writing. If it’s not in writing, it doesn’t count. I always give my students a first-day-of-class packet (an electronic copy of that is viewable on my personal web site here) with my class policies and other specifics about class (grammar log, reading response journal assignments and directions, etc.). My students also get a packet for every assignment—complete with instructions, a list of guidelines for success, the tools to complete the assignment, and so forth.

Perhaps most importantly, you have to follow through. If you say you’re not going to accept late assignments but you do, you lose all credibility with your students. They cannot trust that what you say is true. And once the pack gets wind of that, you might as well prepare to submit to the new pack leader–one of your own students.

2. The pack leader is concerned for the pack, not himself.
Of course, if you’re going to succeed as an instructor, you have to focus on the class, not yourself. Obvious…yet one of the most difficult lessons for instructors to apply. Most college instructors take the role of “sage on the stage,” making themselves the center of the classroom…everything revolves around the instructor (have I mentioned that many college professors have kind of big egos?). This just doesn’t work. Nobody wants to follow the leader who seems to only be out for number 1; but they will follow a leader who is clearly working for the benefit of the pack.

In order to successfully lead the class, your focus must be on the class, the students. In short, the classroom should be student-centered, not instructor-centered. When the pack sees that your concern is for them, that their success is your primary goal, they will respect and trust you. Even when they don’t like what you’re doing or having them do, they’ll submit to your decisions, instruction, and authority as an expert–because they’ve seen (as opposed to having been told) that it’s for their own good. My students always balk at the rules I give them at the beginning of the semester.  They think they’re too strict.  They’ll try to push me to see if I stand my ground. I do. And they all fall in line—albeit begrudgingly. By 4-6 weeks into a regular term class, they also are able to see that what I told them is true: these guidelines are here because these are things I know will make them successful in the class. I’m a “hard ass” because I have to be to help them succeed. They recognize the efforts I’ve put in for them: meeting after class, answering e-mailed questions, reading drafts of essays, designing learning experiences that are active, participatory and actually keep them interested while teaching them something.  Many actually come to appreciate the rules they previously declared “too harsh” or “unfair.” They respect me; they trust me; they realize I actually know what I’m doing (imagine!). And it’s good for the whole pack.

3. Establish a regular routine.
Ok, so with your dog, it’s supposed to be things like sleeping time & place, dinner time, etc. but this lesson is equally applicable to the college classroom. The class needs routine. Students should know that work begins at the start of class or 5 minutes in. It’s helpful to begin class the same way every time. My students know that we’ll begin class on time with me taking attendance. Then, I’ll pass around the sign-in sheet for verification. As that’s going around, we’ll begin our activity. They know that many of our activities are collaborative learning activities, so they know not to unpack their class materials until after I announce our first activity (because they’ll probably have to move).

When, in my English classes, we begin to work on a new essay, my students know that we’ll begin with a lecture explaining the concept and the process. Then, I’ll show them what I want them to do by providing examples.  Next, we’ll do some sort of activity that will force them to apply what they’ve just been told and shown in a new, separate situation. Then, they’ll get an essay packet (an electronic copy is viewable on my personal website) laying out the requirements of the assignment in detail, and they’ll begin to apply everything we’ve learned to that assignment. They know the packet contains an essay plan and outline for completion.  That it has the peer review forms and the self-reflection.  They know that every time, they get the same material and that they’ll be expected to do the same thing (but with the new assignment).  They get comfortable with this routine, which is good because it helps them establish good writing habits (prewriting, outlining, drafting…).

If you establish a good routine, the students are more comfortable—they know what to expect—no surprises. They’ll fall into the routine and the classroom experience will be more pleasant for everyone. You can then spend less time on management and more time on actual learning.

4. “Most importantly, be quick, stay mindfully aware, emotionally in tune, and remain calm and assertive.”

Cesar’s advice about breaking up dog fights holds true in the classroom too…not that I break up a lot of fights. However, if I want to maintain control of my classroom at all times, I have to follow these guidelines.  It’s why I can’t stay up late on school nights.  If I’m not well rested, I’m not quick. I might even be extra cranky.

You’ve got to play at the top of your game every day when you’re an instructor. If you’re too slow, the pack will pounce on you.  If you lose your cool, they won’t trust and respect you.  If you’re not calm and assertive at all times, you lose your authority. You’re no longer the pack leader, and that’s bad for you and for your students.

See? Watching The Dog Whisperer has helped me be a better teacher. That show is sort of awesome.

Before you leave, have you read my disclaimer?


Filed under Community College, Developmental Education, Higher Ed, Teaching & Learning

2 responses to “Becoming the Pack Leader

  1. This secondary teacher agrees with everything written here. There’s an excellent book on this topic called The First Days of School by (I believe) Harry Wong. Almost his whole book is dedicated to routines and showing kids who’s boss. I recommend it to EVERYONE who has to teach.

    Hilariously, I’ve always said that kids are kind of like dogs. If they start to argue with you and you keep looking at them and talking, they’ll keep going on. Its the same with the dog who’s begging for scraps at the table. If you’re looking, they think they have a chance. You have to turn your back or avert your eyes to shut down that kind of behavior.

  2. That’s the 2nd recommendation I’ve had for that book after this post! So now I’m going to have to check it out.

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