Past Lessons

Monday, October 1, 2012

Young Citizens: Partners in
Classroom Management
by Devon Metzger
A cornerstone of our democratic society is citizen participation. Informed and responsible decision
making is therefore a critical skill for students to learn. Schools are one place where students can have
early and formal experience in responsible parti&nbspipation. Sadly, for many children, it might be the
only place, as their home environment may not provide the kind of support and structure that is needed
for them to learn how to make wise choices, understand the difference between rights and responsibilities,
and explore the relation between one’s actions and the consequences that follow.
All too often, classroom management strategies work against the larger purposes of a democratic
society. Proponents of popular and frequently used management strategies do not seem to view students
as capable of participating in the management of their own classroom learning communities. However,
classroom management can help define students as young citizens today—not just as citizens-in-training
for some distant tomorrow. Including students as partners in classroom management addresses several
educational issues: order in the classroom, the practice of citizenship skills, and effective instruction.
Sharing Power
One can recognize the greater experience, expertise and knowledge of the teacher, yet not sacrifice
the dignity or worth of the student. Using students as partners in classroom management is a strategy
that develops the ability of each student to assume control over his or her behavior. Essentially, students
are viewed as young citizens who must learn to make decisions and accept responsibility for their
actions. As Kohn asserts, “The truth is that, if we want children to take responsibility for their own
behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it. The way a child learns how to make
decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.”
Students constantly make decisions outside of school; for example, when selecting television shows,
spending allowance money, and choosing friends, but teachers do not usually provide opportunities for
students to make meaningful decisions in school. Such seemingly simple activities as children choosing
their coat hooks, and then printing their names or painting their identifying pictures over the hooks, can
be an important formal experience in making a decision inside the classroom. Such first small steps can
lead to more significant and increasingly empowering decisions. Students can eventually develop the
confidence and skills to make decisions such as selecting an individual topic of study, deciding whether
to produce a report or a skit, evaluating one’s own learning success, and deciding what to do with free
time earned after completing a class project. Students might even suggest actions to improve the classroom
or school.
While including students as partners is gratifying for the students, it can also be very liberating for
2 The psychological shift from assuming complete control to sharing the responsibility of building
a healthy learning environment can be profound. Instead of feeling pressured to constantly control,
chaperon, and monitor the students, teachers have the opportunity to interact and genuinely work with
students. This partnership, however, does not mean abdicating adult responsibility or teacher guidance;
it does not mean shifting the “burden” of discipline to the students. Dictating the new responsibility is
different from helping the students to learn gradually to appreciate the challenge of new freedom and
responsibility. After all, learning the concept of rights and responsibilities is developed through
experience, as well as maturation. Helping students to accept responsibility in the classroom takes time,
patience, practice, and experience (on the part of teachers and students). Consequently, easing students
from a teacher-dependent relationship to a partnership can be challenging, but it is a challenge worth

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