The Chalkboard Bookshelf: Running the Room

James Furey review’s Tom Bennett’s Running the Room
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If you’re a teacher, your introduction to the job may have gone something like this: you’ve gone through college, student teaching, and certification. Now you’re excited to begin the career you’ve enthusiastically embarked upon. You show up to your first day, armed with the knowledge that “building relationships” with students is super important, and you have some vague notions of how to do that, a lot of it boiling down to making sure students know you care about them. You feel good about your chances. Then, you meet the little tykes, and…disaster.

So, what happened? 

Most teachers are not given solid, practical advice for how to manage a classroom. That’s where Tom Bennett steps in with his book Running the Room. As written on the back cover, the book is “[b]ursting with strategies, tips and solid advice” for everything from establishing classroom norms and routines, the use of sanctions and rewards, communicating with parents, removing students and a host of other concerns which are useful for teachers at any stage of their career.

Bennett’s previous book, The Behaviour Guru was published in 2010 and also dealt with the topic of behavior, but his current work is a more comprehensive guide. Included in Running the Room is an extensive update to Bennett’s view of what makes students tick and how classroom teachers can use that information to best serve everyone in the room.

Bennett doesn’t entirely shun the common advice to “build relationships.” In fact, in his opening salvo, he offers 10 “principles of the classroom,” among which is #6: “Good relationships are built out of structures and high expectations.”

The difference lies in the predicate of his sentence: by providing structure to a classroom, and maintaining high expectations, a teacher fosters healthy relationships with their students. Herein lies the difference between the advice given by Bennett and that given by so many others: while it is common for people in our profession to emphasize the emotion which motivates us to build relationships with students, they are light on the details of how or why to do it. Not so with Bennett in Running the Room. Yes, teachers should all be motivated by their desire to help students, but no amount of saccharin restatements of that sentiment will achieve that goal. Instead, teachers need the sort of advice given in this book — detailed, concrete, and practical.

Key Ideas 

  • Ideally, behavior is a curriculum, to be taught like any other. You wouldn’t expect a student to know how to perform a dissection in biology without explicitly teaching them how, so why is this the expectation when it comes to behavior?
  • Students won’t all react to your behavior management strategies in the same way, so it is best to understand the possible origins of their differing behaviors and to try to act accordingly.
  • Students, like all people, are social creatures. They exist within a specific environment, ideally curated by competent adults. Because of this, what one student does will inevitably have an effect on what other students do; therefore, it is necessary to make it easy to behave well and difficult to behave poorly.
  • Consistency is of the utmost importance. Expectations are meaningless unless they are reinforced consistently. If consistency slips, it may be necessary to re-teach some aspect of your behavior curriculum.

Should you read the book, and why?

It’s probably pretty obvious at this point in my review that I think this book is well worth reading. In fact, I’d consider Bennett’s work to be one of a few books, along with Teach Like a Champion and the work of E.D. Hirsch, which should be included in everyone’s teacher training.

Learning how to manage a classroom is not, as some believe, something that comes merely from time spent in the classroom. Yes, there are techniques that a teacher picks up as they go, but there is no reason to grope around blindly every day, desperate for guidance on what works and what to avoid. 

The fact of the matter is, if you don’t learn how to run a room, nothing you know about curriculum or pedagogy is going to matter a stitch in the classroom. Luckily for those who read it, Running the Room teaches you exactly what the title implies: how to run an effective classroom, motivated by real compassion for both teacher and student.

Jason A. Furey
Jason A. Furey is a high-school English teacher from Wisconsin. He is a regular contributor to Chalkboard Review and has been published in City Journal and National Review.