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What Can We Learn About Classroom Management From Abraham Lincoln?


The New York Times has a fascinating article today about Lincoln and The Mormons. It explains that he basically made a deal to leave them alone and they left him alone. This is what he told a Mormon leader:

When I was a boy on the farm in Illinois there was a great deal of timber on the farm which we had to clear away. Occasionally we would come to a log which had fallen down. It was too hard to split, too wet to burn, and too heavy to move, so we plowed around it.

In other words, there are some battles not worth fighting, which also happens to be a community organizing axiom.

I also think it’s also a good classroom management guide. We need to “keep on our eyes on the prize” and not get sucked into distracting conflicts.

If a student just keeps on forgetting to bring a pencil to class, I just give him one from a big box of golf pencils I buy at the beginning of each school year. If they don’t have paper, I have stack. I’ve got bigger fish to fry, like helping them developing intrinsic motivation to read the first book in their lives and develop an appetite for learning.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Thanks for this. I am currently student teaching in a public high school in order to get permanent certification. Previously, I worked in private schools for almost twenty years. I got a major lecture today from my cooperating teachers about just this issue–that I don’t give consequences for heads down, phones, prearedness–I’m too nice! I’m too busy worrying about staying organized and trying to get the kids to use higher order thinking skills!

  2. I never understand the teacher who will go to battle all class period with one student over the little things. Power struggles for no return on the investment are just not worth it.

  3. This is a terrific post and one that I wish every teacher would read–and every college of ed student. Who among us hasn’t had a argument with a student that they didn’t need to? I certainly have and I realized a while ago, as you explain, that it’s just not worth it. That’s not to say that I still don’t…this post serves as an excellent reminder.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  5. Hi,

    Yes, I agree that this strategy – what Bill Rogers calls ‘tactical ingnoring’ – is very effective because it takes away opportunities for students to hijack the learning by gettting unwarranted attention and using up some lesson time.

    There is, however, sometimes a fine line between what we as teachers can ignore and what is behaviour that could potentially undermine both teacher authority and the classroom climate.

    This is particularly true about the way students speak to the teacher. For example, sometimes students can reply to a teacher request in a light hearted way, so, for example, they might say ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ or something similar in a kind of mock dismissive way and everyone knows this is simply a bit of fun that is not motivated by malice or intent to undermine.
    Yet the same phrase might be used in a really dismissive way with the intention of challenging the teacher’s authority.
    As teachers we have to make judgement call about whether we let this go as part of tactical ignoring or whether we intervene to make it clear to the student concerned that this is not an appropriate way to speak in class. If left unchecked the student may feel it’s ok to speak in this way in class whenever they choose.

    It’s often a tough judgement call because more often than not the student, when challenged, will claim they were just being light hearted and didn’t mean anything nasty, even though our gut instinct tells us the opposite is true.
    In such a case it’s wise to talk to the student privately after the lesson to explain your concern and to give the student a chance to understand how you want him/her to change the behaviour in class.

    Sometimes we’ll get it wrong and either over-react or let things slide so much that we lose student respect for a while. Over time, however, if the teacher – student relationshipis reasonably sound, we can probably find the right balance and focus on the ‘big picture’ rather than get bogged down with the minor distractions.

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