If you want to educate others, you yourself need to be educated. If you want to have any kind of influence on young people, you yourself need to stay young and continuously work on yourself.


Simon Gfeller, Swiss teacher and author (1868 - 1943)

Teaching Practice
classroom management, clarity, firmness, ‘withitness’, rhythm, vitality, human presence
By: Trevor Mepham, June 2018,

The Art and the Science of Classroom Management

Classroom Management- is there really any more to it than knowing where the scissors are kept? Or, how a teacher might get a class of children to line up, with chairs, and file into a hall in an orderly fashion? Apparently so, if the library shelves of teacher training programmes are anything to go by.

On a recent visit to the library at a nearby University, a glimpse at the fiche revealed a grand tally of 835 titles referring to classroom management. One of these tomes describes classroom management as:


“The orchestration of classroom life: planning curriculum, organizing procedures and resources, arranging the environment to maximize efficiency, monitoring student progress, anticipating potential problems.” (1)


Set against such a haul of titles it is interesting to note that in his lectures and discussions with the teachers of the First Waldorf School, Rudolf Steiner makes few specific references to classroom management. Instead, he has much to say about the invisible and intangible elements of classroom life and the relations between pupils and teachers. For example, in a lecture in 1920, Steiner highlights the importance of working with the children in an artistic way.


“We must as teachers become artists. Just as it is quite impossible for the artist to take a book on aesthetics in hand, and then to paint or carve according to the principles laid down there, so should it be quite impossible for the teacher to use one of those instructor’s manuals in order to teach. What the teacher needs is true insight into what the human being is in reality, what he or she becomes as he or she develops through the stages of childhood.” (2)


Rather than taking the view that these two rather different perspectives are simply contrasting, it is more helpful to regard them as complementary and contrasting. 


The essence of effective classroom management is being able to do the right thing in the right way in the right place at the right time. Nothing more or less is required. Techniques and instruments will count for naught in the absence of know-how and pedagogical instinct. 


When problem-free, classroom management is simple and clear, like a tree standing in the forest. At its best, classroom management is a non-event; it is unnoticeable, like health and well-being. From another perspective, classroom management is a complex and technical subject. A break-down in classroom management is apparent where nerves are frayed and time is frittered.


To Manage

Managing is a skill. It is also an attitude. It is not leadership exactly, but it includes it. Neither is it simply concerned with power and position; responsibilities and service are just as much features of management. Taking charge, having control, being accountable and acting with certainty are dimensions of management, but so too are sensitivity, flexibility, an ability to communicate and get on with people and a facility to enthuse, motivate and engender trust in those whom one meets and works with.


Four aspects of classroom management can be outlined, which, metaphorically, can be described as dimensions: 

1.     The point and the line. Another way of describing this aspect would be ‘centre and periphery’. The teacher needs to combine an awareness of the centreof the class - the prevailing mood, the essential qualities and dynamics - with an alertness to what is happening on the margins, or the periphery of the class at any given moment;

2.     The plane, orthe surface. The landscape of classroom management consists of the daily, down to earth planning, organizing, deciding and implementing of decisions and actions. This is the pragmatic underpinning of classroom life, the caring for quality, which provides safety, certainty, regularity, continuity and a general sense of well-being in the pupils and the teachers;

3.     In geometrical terms, the third dimension is concerned with volume. In this context, the third dimension of classroom management is concerned with the substance and breadth of preparation and meditative study and the heights and depths of the sleeping hours. The volume of classroom management is the linking of the days inwardly and the intention to provide educational continuity by allowing the power of sleep and the helping hours of the night to work; 

4.     The fourth dimensionis hard to pin down, although it is a pivotal factor. To describe it, one must go into the intangible realms of pedagogical instinct, human fallibility, authority and teacher-ness. In this dimension of classroom management, the teacher is moving ,in the task, towards self-direction, self-recognition, self-disclosure and self-transformation.


The Four Rules

If the four dimensions of classroom management can be sketched on a single page, there are some other models or schemes that are briefer still. A ‘four rule’ framework outlined by Smith and Laslett (3) is sparing enough to fit on the back of an envelope. The directness and practical forthrightness of this model may lack sophistication and elegance, yet as a bullet-point formula, it has a certain pragmatic conviction to it. The ‘rules’ relate to timing and pace, activities, transitions and human dynamics. They are:

  1. get them (the pupils) in
  2. get on with it (the lesson)
  3. get on with them (the pupils)
  4. get them (the pupils) out

While these rules may not constitute an integrated blue-print for classroom practice, it is probably true to say that many of the complex and seemingly intractable problems of classroom management can be traced to difficulties which occur in the application of one of these four rules. 


The Three Prongs

If this ‘back of an envelope’ format is too ponderous, then the following three-pronged cue could fit on the back of a postage stamp with room to spare. Content, technique and contactare major themes of classroom practice. When a teacher faces a difficulty or a doubt, which, in concrete terms, is difficult to describe, or pinpoint, the chances are that the problem is located in one of these three broad areas. Many examples are imaginable of the sort of problem or difficulty referred to: losing the thread in the telling of a story, addressing the low self-esteem of many of the children in mathematics, or the fact that the teacher often seems to have to resort to threats to maintain order.


Technical Problems

In terms of the scientific method of classroom management J S Kounin (4) carried out some research in the 1960’s and 70’s, looking at specific matters of classroom technique. 


flip-flopis where a teacher skips from one topic to another and then zig-zags back and forth between them in a confusing and ambiguous manner. With a dangle, an instruction, or comment would be left incomplete and therefore likely to cause some confusion. In a thrusta combination of forcefulness, poor timing and going off at a tangent are featured. The teacher attempts to deal with a disturbance clearly and robustly, yet ends up uttering sentences that verge on the surreal. 


Kounin also focuses on techniques dealing with general attitudes to discipline. Attention is drawn to the ‘ripple effect’of a teacher’s manner and the difference between clarity, firmnessand roughness. Researchers concluded that when a child is cautioned or reprimanded, the behaviour of the whole class is affected. It was found that when a teacher is clear, there is a reduction in non-conforming behaviour in the class; when a teacher is firm, the non-conforming behaviour sometimes declines; while in response to a rough or sharp approach, children rarely change their behaviour and demeanour in a positive direction.


Learning Needs – Human Needs

The work of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow offers another perspective that is helpful with regard to the health and running of a class and a classroom (5). The theory describes an incremental framework of essential human needs, and applies equally to learning and educational needs. According to Maslow, the progressive fulfillment of these needs enhances a person's quality of life and enables a person to fulfill their human potential.


There are six broad levels to Maslow's 'pyramid' of human needs. 


Within a classroom, factors such as a cold or stuffy room temperature, a poorly-lit blackboard, children who are hungry or sugar-saturated, may serve to restrict the children's capacity to pay attention and be active in their learning.


The second level of need: in a classroom, if, for whatever reason a child does not feel safe and perceives that life in the classroom is not 'all right', then this disposition will mitigate the child's learning experience.


The third level of need - a sense of belonging - is connected to the criterion of safety, although it is a refinement of it and more concerned with the person's inner state. To feel part of a class, or a group of colleagues, or a school community is a potent and qualitatively significant experience for most people. 


The fourth layer in Maslow’s pyramid is to do with aspects of ‘esteem’. Esteem is concerned with more than simply having a certain station in life, or role within a group, or carrying out agreed tasks and functions. 


The fifth and sixth layers of Maslow’s pyramid are focused on learning. To begin with, attention is on the realization of achievement in learning and individual progression and development. Then, the focus moves towards the realization of learning and the development of understanding in such a way that one’s own particular interests are transcended and the learning acquired is garnered for the good of all and for the love of learning itself.


By Implication

A working framework for classroom management consists of a series of complementary couplets. Activity and stillness, initiative and responsiveness, planning and improvisation, breadth and detail, flexibility and certainty are integral features of this framework. Fundamentally, teaching is an active business that can and should be prepared beforehand and pondered and reviewed afterwards, but which, first and foremost, exists and unfolds in the present. The polarity in classroom management is ‘Bohemian broad brush’set against ‘Herculean micro-management’(6). The task for the teacher is to find the balance between the uncertainty and chaos that accompanies creativity and the restrictive, curtailing nature of form and structure.


Having established a foundation for classroom management, a fascinating paradox arises concerning the teacher’s expertise and professionalism. It might seem inept for a teacher to meet a question, or a problem, with an attitude which can be summarized as, “I don’t know”.


Two questions are integral to the science of classroom management and the process, which the questions imply, is essentially an artistic process.  


·       Do I have a sense and an idea of what it is I don’t know?

·       Do I have an appetite to learn what I don’t know?


From a basis of interest, care and ‘not knowing’, which dwell together in the teacher’s consciousness, the teacher can be very active in an unfolding process. In many aspects of pedagogy, including classroom management, a path of development can be traced, which leads from the teacher’s starting motives of care, interest and ‘not knowing’, towards help, transformation and ‘the right thing’. In a sequence which is not linear, the path proceeds from the starting point described above, through stages of observing, noticing, knowing and understanding, which lead towards truthful perception, or insight, which manifest in practical activity and helpful guidance.


In a lecture given to teachers, Steiner referred to the learning community in which pupils andteachers participate and he also pointed to the fact that imponderables are among the most important things in the teaching and learning process.


“If we had really been capable, at the beginning of the year, of everything we were able to do at the year’s end, then our teaching would have been bad. We have given good lessons because we have had to work at them as we went along. I must put this in the form of a paradox. Your teaching has been good if you did not know to start with what you have learned by the end of the year; your teaching would have been harmful, had you known at the beginning what you have learned at the end. A remarkable paradox!” (7)


From Principle to Technique and Back

In the business of classroom management, general principles have to be applied to unique, differentiated educational situations. Hence, the need for art and science in this domain. Elkind makes this general point in a book on adolescence and adolescents,


“One problem with techniques is that they are just that, techniques. They are not founded on the basis of established psychological research and theory nor upon moral or ethical principles. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.” (8)


In managing a classroom, general principles and expectations provide the groundwork in which specific situations are handled. This happens in such a way that an environment of general well-being and preparedness for learning is established, in which pupils and teachers share recognition, acceptance and respect.


In terms of expectations of, and rules for, behaviour and conduct, it is crucial that there is a tangible connection between the agreements and shared principles of a group of colleagues and the situation of the individual teacher working with a particular class. Where colleagues have worked to clear an area of ‘common ground’ concerning behaviour, transitions, rules, habits and so forth, this can be a hugely concrete, economical and supportive feature of the working day. The establishment of a taken for granted zone of do’s, don’ts and working habits can make life simpler, more efficient, less repetitive and generally more interesting, for children and teachers alike. However, on its own, this area of ‘common ground’ is not a sufficient condition for classroom health and harmony.


This points to the need for a teacher to be both an artist and a scientist in pursuit of classroom management. Yet, for these two qualities and gestures to provide a valid working proposition, the teacher must add an element of individual or autonomous authority (9). Acting as a bridge between the kingdoms of art and science, the teacher’s authority works to provide credibility, integrity to each and integration to both. Kounin (4) described this quality of authority as a state of ‘withitnessIn popular terms, this is the teacher who is thought to have eyes in the back of the head, ears in every wall and general omniscience.



Essentially, the effectiveness of classroom management resides in the person and the practice. There are books galore on techniques, strategies, things to do, things to avoid, ‘top tips’ and examples of good practice. However, manuals, checklists, theories and strategies will not serve as replacements for teacher presence and pedagogical awareness. These elusive and indefinable qualities can perhaps be described in the following terms: In order to manage a learning environment well, the teacher needs to have a sense for place, a sense for time and a sense of timing. Married to these senses, a real care and interest in the children and their learning will offer a positive foundation for a healthy classroom dynamic and ethos. Finally, an ability to express this interest and care with clarity and a sense of purpose will strengthen the teacher’s educational foundations.


In broad terms, the key to understanding the riddles of classroom management – the imponderables– lies in the nature of art, while the knowledge of classroom management – the nuts and bolts– is suited to a scientific treatment and method. The quality of classroom management is served when one-sidedness and extremes are avoided. In other terms, classroom management is enhanced when both fixation and dispersion are avoided. In their place, when the qualities of rhythm, vitality and human presence are able to flow through the lessons, then classroom management is not only present but also unnoticeable!



Trevor Mepham  is Principal of the Steiner Academy Frome, a publicly-funded 'Free School' in Somerset, England. In previous jobs he was Principal of the Steiner Academy Hereford, and Co-Director of the Steiner BA Programme at the University of Plymouth. Prior to that, he worked as a Class Teacher at the South Devon Steiner School. He has also worked as a classroom adviser and served as a member of the Executive Group of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF) and the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education (ECSWE). He is a Trustee of the charity, Children of Peace - an organisation committed to working with the children of Palestine and Israel to build peaceful, positive relationships for a future generation.


Edited by Katharina Stemann, February 2018



(1) Lemlech J (1988), Classroom Management, Longman, New York

(2) Steiner R (1983), Meditatively Acquired Knowledge of Man, Lecture 1, Steiner School Fellowship Publications, Sussex

(3) Smith C & Laslett R (1993), Effective Classroom Management, Routledge, London

(4) Kounin J S (1970), Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York

(5) Maslow A H (1998), Towards a Psychology of Being, John Wiley & Sons Inc.

(6) O’Neil O (2002), A Question of Trust – the BBC Reith Lectures 2002, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

(7) Steiner R (1983), Meditatively Acquired Knowledge of Man, Lecture 1, Steiner School Fellowship Publications, Sussex

(8) Elkind D (1998), All Grown Up and No Place to Go, Perseus Books, New York

(9) Mepham T (1997), The Value of Authority in Education, Paideia, No. 13


Further reading

Jersild A (1955), When Teachers Face Themselves,University of Columbia Press, Columbia

Reps P (1980), Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Pelican Books, London 

Steiner R (1966), Study of Man, Lecture 9, Rudolf Steiner Press, London

Steiner R (1981), A Modern Art of Education, Lecture 1, Rudolf Steiner Press, London

Urieli B (2001), Male and Female,Temple Lodge, London  

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