Forget Traditional Classroom Management, Build Student Agency the Right Way

Jan 18, 2022

Classroom Management…let’s rethink it shall we?

You probably agree with me when I say that some days, I would rate myself a 10/10 on my classroom management skills. Then, there are other days when I could easily rate myself a 2/10. 

It’s tough to keep it consistent all day, EVERY day, but classroom management affects the structure and flow of our lesson plans as well as our general classroom environment.

So, instead of focusing on the typical conversation about how to better our classroom management skills, the essential question we are going to chase after here is the following:

What can we do to get our own students to spark and manage their OWN learning without us having to exert so much energy in that department? 

Think of how more effective and productive our classrooms would be if we as teachers could allocate that energy elsewhere like feedback or support. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities and maybe with a little practice, we can get our students there!

Let’s talk about the following:

  1. The two roadblocks that prevent our students from being self-starters and self-managers
  2. The essential ingredients required for student agency
  3. The three crucial needs that must be met in order to tap into our students’ internal motivation

Alright, alright, alright! Let’s go!

To start, I am going to have you take a quick assessment with regard to your students. So, as I ask you these questions, I want you to write down your answers, or count on your fingers the number of questions you say “yes” to. For clarity, I want you to think about these questions with regards to your normal day-to-day. I am not asking you about those occasional rumble-grumble days. Rather, I want you to focus on the average day-to-day, the average teacher-student interaction that occurs in your classroom.

  • Do your students tend to make excuses for work that is not completed?
  • How many times in a day are they putting the blame on someone else?
  • Are your students unmotivated to improve?
  • Do your students always want to move on to the next thing?
  • Are your students generally apathetic because they don’t feel like their actions in the classroom even matter?

Check out your answers. Check out your fingers. Ha!

If you are feeling any of this energy in your classroom, then your students aren’t really digging into your classroom work and learning the way that you want them to. They are very low in their self-determination and aren’t excited about what they are learning. Unfortunately, the reason they aren’t very motivated…that they aren’t very self-determined is because…

Traditional classroom management strategies are a prescription for control. 

Instead of prioritizing our students’ intellectual, social, or ethical development, we tend to prioritize the idea of getting our students to do what they are told. We give them lessons. We give them the steps and walk them through the entire lesson from start to finish leaving very little room for them to problem-solve or learn on their own. 

So, we can’t be surprised, then, when the students aren’t motivated. The work is not exciting for them. It’s not THEIR learning. It’s OURS. 

So, what do we do?

I want to discuss the two roadblocks that are bottlenecking this, because if we can put these roadblocks into perspective, then we can start clearing the path and forge ahead in a different direction.

So, here they are.

ONE - Students are governed by this lawnmower teaching. I know, I know. What the heck is that, Jill? Well, I created the term after I read about the concept of lawnmower parenting. I took what I learned there and equated it to the classroom because it works well for what I am talking about.

So, lawnmower teaching is mowing down the path for our students by removing any and all obstacles for them. In doing this, they don’t stumble along the way and they have this wonderful learning experience free from struggle. We take them step-by-step through the learning process to give them an overall better learning experience. We have good intentions, right? But…

If our goal is for students to start the learning process and manage their own learning along the way, then we need to step off. We need to quit micromanaging them. It is okay for them to stumble. It is okay for them to fall because if they are falling as a result of trying new things and discovering the world on their own, then they will always be falling forward.

TWO - We need to address this learned helplessness in our students. More often than not, we as teachers follow an over-crafted curriculum with each day planned out with, let’s be honest, our own over-controlling lesson plans. There is very little whitespace in these plans for students to explore their own genuine inquiry and natural exploration of the world around them.

They need to have the time and space to learn about their own interests. If we don’t give them the white space to do that, that’s creating this sense of helplessness. They go through all of our over-controlled lesson plans…going through all of the motions, doing just enough to get by, and it's not giving them the motivation to take charge, build leadership skills, or manage their own learning and growth. 

Now, I know this is all hard to hear. I have been there! If you look at what the American Psychological Association says about high-stakes testing, it constrains curriculum coverage. So, we don’t have that white space. It also curtails teachers’ ability to respond to the things that our students are interested in the day-to-day; it doesn’t give us enough time! Am I right?

But essentially, we are going to have to MAKE the time for students to own their own learning. 

What are the ingredients for student agency?

I strongly believe that if our students feel even a bit of self-agency, the self-motivation flame will burn. Think about it! We all have a NEED to be self-advocating. We desire autonomy and once our students feel even a little bit of independence in the learning space, they will want more of it.

The first ingredient is agency. If you want your students to have more agency in the classroom, then your lesson plans need to be more relevant and more meaningful at the personal level. In essence, your lesson plans need to be the industry standard for everything to be personalized these days. If our lesson plans aren’t personally meaningful to our students or even relevant to their lives, we aren’t going to get them invested.

Additionally, your lesson plans need to be driven by student interest. (Check out my blog on student-led projects if you need help with this!) This is so hard to do because all the content we are obliged to cover doesn’t give us as teachers that much say in the matter, but we have to take our own teaching power back. WE know our students better than most and our number one job is to meet their needs and one of their needs is agency!

Last but not least, the work our students are doing should be self-initiated. We need to find the secret sauce of internal motivation to get them to self-initiate. We need to eliminate the hierarchy of our classroom and meet them where they are…

This leads me to the three crucial needs that we need to meet in our students to create that internal desire to learn. Instead of using suckers and donuts (I am guilty of this) to manage them, dangling the carrots and sticks in front of them to learn, let’s try meeting these three crucial needs.

  1. They need to feel competent. All of our students have great qualities and interests, but unfortunately don’t always feel competent in the classroom because we don’t tap into those interests. So, again, if we restructure our lesson plans to include more of their interests, they are going to feel more competent, thus more confident!
  2. They need to feel autonomous. We need to provide support for them to feel like they can try new things and explore different ideas in order to develop general answers to their areas of interest.
  3. They need to feel like they are relating and connecting to others. Building that sense of belonging and community with others in the classroom allows them to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. They will then feel like they are being heard and that others are generally listening to them and responding to what they have to say. It’s not just a contrived thing in the classroom…they aren’t just stuck in groups working “as a team.” Rather, they perceive themselves as part of a whole and that their voice matters.


So here is my challenge for you!

Do an audit of your instruction right now! How much of your day-to-day generally includes these ingredients for student agency? How much of your instruction generally speaks to these three crucial needs of competency, autonomy, and belonging?

If you need more help with this concept, I do have an entire professional development resource available for you for FREE. It is called Audit Your Instruction and it is a resource that helps you reflect on all aspects of your instruction, not just student agency and motivation. So, grab that resource here!

We can make this change in our classrooms. We CAN help our students build self-agency, but to do it, we need to light the fire within, not just fill the pail.


Connect with me on Facebook or follow me on Instagram! See you there!


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