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Want A Calmer High School Classroom? Teach Your Routines!

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

“By the time they get to high school, students should already know how to do school.” I hear this A LOT when I’m working with secondary teachers. And I used to think the exact same thing. I mean, come on. They’ve been doing school now for like at least 10 years. They should know how to come in and get started right when the bell rings. They should know they are supposed to push their chairs in and pick up after themselves when they leave my classroom.

So why is my room trashed at the end of every hour? Why do I have to explain where to turn in homework like 100 times a week? Why do I spend half my time during passing time getting students missing work? Why does it take like 10 minutes for my students to settle down when they move into groups? It’s exhausting I know. I struggled with a lot of these issues in my own classroom. Until one day I had this epiphany.

It was after yet another group of students lined up before the bell rang and then left my room trashed. I looked around at pens and pencils on the floor, pieces of paper left on desks, chairs askew, an empty water bottle leaning against the recycling bin (really? You couldn’t even get it IN the bin? Ahhhhhh! Why???) After the 2000th time of wanting to scream “I AM NOT YOUR MAID OR YOUR MOMMY,” I realized I had to change...something.

The next hour, when everyone started lining up, I finally asked, “WHY? Why is my room always trashed when you all leave?” And one student looked at me like I was crazy and stated the obvious, “Because we can. You never say anything.” And that’s when I realized-- I had never told them otherwise. I had never said, “Make sure to clean up your area before you leave.” I assumed they knew they were supposed to, because, duh. That’s what grown folks do--clean up their messes. But clearly, even if they did know, they weren’t doing it. I needed to actually tell them that’s what I expected. I am a big fan of the adage, “You teach people how to treat you.” I had been teaching them that it was okay to not care.

So I formalized my “exiting the classroom” routine, just like I would a lesson plan. I wrote a procedure around that routine and I taught my students what it would look like, sound like and feel like to exit my classroom using the procedure.

Here’s the truth-if we want students to do things a certain way in our classes-no matter what age they are-we have to teach them. They are not fully-formed human beings yet. And even if they were, I know a lot of fully formed human beings who still need clear and concise directions and step-by-step procedures. So how do you formalize your routines?

1. Figure out what your most common routines are. (There is a great list of common routines here. Also, check out this post for a great list of the most crucial routines to establish asap).

2. Ask yourself- “If my students were doing this routine perfectly, what would that look like?” This is Your Goal.

3. Develop step-by-step instructions for each routine to get them from Point A to Your Goal. Make it as clear and easy to follow as possible. This means keep it to 3-5 steps. This is not putting an IKEA shelf together. This is finding your seat and getting started on your bell work.

4. Put the procedures in writing. Post them. Make them visible. This can be a handout, this can be a section on your website, this can be flipchart, this can be posters--but it needs to be written and available so that anyone who needs it can see the step-by-step routine.


You have to teach these routines just like you are going to teach that math formula or that piece of music or those literary devices. And once you teach them, you have to practice, practice, practice until they can do it in their sleep. And then you practice some more. And you come back and reteach. Just like I would never teach my students a math formula in September and ask them about it again in May without ever having revisited it in between, I need to continue to talk about these routines and procedures all year long.

So here’s what I did. I sat down, took a deep breath and asked myself, “What would it look like in my ideal unicorns and rainbows fantasy world if my students left my classroom the way I want it?” And I made a list: chairs pushed in, materials put away, desks clear, garbage in the bin. Then I developed my procedure. Which looked like this:

1. Table leaders gather all materials and return them to the shelves.

2. Everyone check your area for your materials.

3. Throw all garbage in the bin.

4. Stay seated until the bell rings.

5. When the bell rings, push your chairs in.

6. Have a super-fantastic, most-excellent day.

Five steps (6 if you count the last one). I wrote them up. Then I posted them. Then I taught them. I asked my 12th graders to practice cleaning up their area and pushing in their chairs. Which seems crazy but IT WORKED! I laid out my expectations. I made them clear. I taught them. And they met them.

Listen, they *should* know how to do these things. And they do, technically. But we need to remember that your classroom runs differently than everyone else’s. You have your own way of doing things. So, if you want your classroom to run more smoothly, be sure to take some time to teach them your ways.


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