Classroom Management and Student Engagement

There is obviously a difference between classroom management and student engagement but to what extent? And do we even understand the difference between the two? Let me be the first to speak on some of my faults: I am guilty of “hushing” my class when I deem their “noise level” a little too high for the task at hand. I was that kid who couldn’t get a darn thing done if the classroom was too…what’s the politically correct word to use here?… “Distracting,” I guess. So, as I look around my classroom, I am sympathetic to those faces that seem to be swimming upstream by carrying the extra burden of zoning out distraction before they can actually zone in on the work. But I also believe, especially at the grade level that I teach at, that a gradual release of responsibility should be instilled and students should begin to develop their own “free choice” mechanism in terms of their goals and attitudes towards individual success. I could micro-manage the heck out of my kids and have every moment of time when I am not directly instructing the class turn into an atmosphere where it feels like “test time” instead of learning or practice-on-skills time. But I am sorry to those who feel it should be like that; I can’t teach and expect kids to learn like that. Learning gets messy, it gets loud, it is also something that should not be minutely controlled.


This is where the dichotomy between classroom management and student engagement comes in. Many feel that when students are quiet, listening attentively, and subsequently scribbling away with their lips sealed and their eyes glued to their papers, that they are engaged. I “behaved” like this in university while studying for exams. But I would contend that what I was not doing was learning, it was merely preparing to regurgitate. Ask me now to comment ad nauseam about any topic from my 300 level History of France in the Pre-Modern Times course…I might be able to get out a few names, and that’s at the most! I also behaved during silent reading times in elementary school when my teachers told me that non-fiction (for the largest extent pertaining to me, sports books) were not “good reading choices” and urged me to pick up short stories about fairies and spaceships. “See, this has a plot, Matthew. It has developing characters and a conflict. This is what you need to be reading.” So, I sat there and was engaged by conservative measures. Simply meaning, I sat there quietly and stared at my book. Many a day went by during silent reading time where I picked up these “good books” and daydreamed while staring at the same paragraph for 30 minutes. To the teacher’s eye, it was great classroom management. See, everyone is reading quietly and into their books. For me, I would have rather tested out how far I could plunge a fork into my eye before I went blind.


Perhaps you could argue that the whole reading issue and gender politics surrounding elementary language arts is a completely different topic (In fact, I would if I were you!). That is neither here nor there. My small point is that what we consider student engagement often masquerades as simply classroom management. Students are quiet during tests because a portion of their academic-selves are engaged. But the other portion knows that they have to be quiet. Students sometimes experience learning by being loud with their peers. That, to me, reflects engagement in a topic. I guess at the end of the day, as teacher, you need to find your balance and weigh equal parts engagement with management. The next question is…which one is more important?


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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