Classroom Control

I am asked, on a regular basis, how I maintain order when teaching twenty to thirty young students at a time. As a chess teacher and trainer of chess teachers, I know that maintaining control when teaching is crucial to the student’s ability to learn. If a classroom is noisy and chaotic, it is difficult to concentrate. Both teacher and serious students become frustrated because more time is spent trying to keep the class on track than is spent on the subject matter at hand. After spending a few sessions working with a young man who is new to teaching chess in the schools, I decided to share the ideas I passed on to him.

Teaching any subject in a classroom setting comes down to doing two things well, maintaining classroom discipline and providing an engaging subject. You have to have both. You might have the greatest gift for teaching chess in a fun and exciting way but, unless your students are focused, they’ll miss out on it. We’ll look at discipline and classroom control first.

Children are used to structure in the classroom. Just because you’re teaching an after school program doesn’t mean that the classroom rules children observe during normal school hours shouldn’t apply. As their chess teacher, you have to set the standard for classroom behavior from day one. Trying to enforce classroom rules a month after you’ve allowed students to do as they please simply doesn’t work. Guideline one, set the behavior standard or model for your students immediately. Of course, you have to remember that you cannot overwhelm children with a complex set of behavioral rules to follow because they’re kids. You have to keep it simple. I use three basic classroom rules:

Rule One: When I’m talking, student’s need to be sitting upright at their desks, paying attention and not talking to others in the class.
Rule Two: If you have a question, raise your hand. If my answer doesn’t make sense to you, ask me to explain it again.
Rule Three: After the lecture portion of the class is over, we play chess. When we play chess, we play chess quietly which allows us to concentrate.

These three basic rules point everyone in the right direction. Of course, there are students who will try to ignore the rules, which is why I carefully explain what happens when the rules are broken. I tell my students that at the end of the eight or twelve week session we have a party. There are large quantities of cookies or pizza involved in this party. Why throw a party? We have a party because my students work very hard during each session and should be rewarded. Of course, (continuing with my explanation to the students) there is one way in which this party might not happen. For each rule broken, the class gets a strike. If the class gets three strikes during a single class, there’s no party.

I give my students the classroom rules immediately after I introduce myself and often give out the first strike within five minutes because there’s always one student who likes to test the waters of authority. While some students have referred to me as Professor Serverus Snape (Harry Potter), we get a lot done in my classes. My students also know that I’ll go the extra distance to help them with their game if they meet me half way. By setting the tone immediately rather than later, you and your students can get the most from your time together. Also, remember your relationship with your students. By this, I mean that you’re the teacher which means you can’t try and be their best friend in an effort to win them over. It doesn’t work. You win them over by being a teacher and mentor.

Listen to your students and give them real answers. If a student asks why to one of your questions, don’t simply say “because I said so kid!” Give them a real explanation and your students are apt to honestly accept the answer. Talk to the parents as well. Often, keeping them updated regularly helps with their child’s progress.

Of course, what’s the point of having a well disciplined group of students if the subject matter puts them asleep? I live for chess. I teach fulltime and when I get home study chess and play Correspondence Chess through the ICCF. I mention this because I can sit through the most painfully boring chess lectures ever presented without dosing off. However, most people can’t, especially children. You have to be excited about the subject matter and convey this to your students. I record my teaching trainees as they present a chess lecture and play it back for them later on. They are often surprised at how monotone their presentation is. If you want to share your excitement for chess with a group of students, you have to make it exciting.

One way to do this is to come up with an outlandish story behind the game you’re presenting. My lecture games (for children) have a cast of characters from the Blind Samurai to a stubborn Bull from Spain. Children like stories and if you can tell a good story while presenting a game, you’re students will absorb more. I have a small of group of more advanced students who refer to the Wilkes Barr as the Darth Vadar Attack because it was part of the story around a game featuring the Wilkes Barr. One point I cannot make strongly enough is not to present material that is over your student’s heads. While you want to teach them as many aspects of the game as possible in the time you have with them, students can easily become frustrated if they don’t grasp the ideas being presented. Just because you understand the tactical ideas behind a specific game doesn’t mean that young students will.

I use games for my lectures that present a key idea in the simplest of terms. When children are first learning chess, they need to learn one idea at a time. Break your lectures down to cover single ideas at first. After my students learn the game’s rules, we’ll look at opening principles (for example). I’ll start their introduction to opening principles with a game employing the Italian Opening because it clearly demonstrates control of the center with a pawn, good minor piece development and Castling. I wouldn’t show them, as their first introduction to opening principles, a Ruy Lopez game. The Ruy Lopez is too complicated for a young beginner. I also focus on one opening principle to start, such as placing a pawn on a central square. That will be the focus of the lesson. The next lesson will introduce the development of minor pieces in the opening, with the following lesson on Castling in the opening. Keep it simple when teaching children.

Lastly, play to your strengths. When I first started teaching chess in the classroom, I tried to model myself after other chess teachers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t mimic their personalities. I finally found my own voice or personality strengths and have done well with simply being myself. Lastly, remember that teaching children requires great patience. Children have active minds that often wander. When they do, reel those young minds back in using patience as your watchword. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).