Like many teachers, I spent much of my first year failing spectacularly at classroom management. At 23, I was hardly older than many of my students, and I seriously questioned my right to exert any Control over them. I knew intellectually that refusing to own my authority would do nothing but harm; I just couldn’t seem to act consistently on that knowledge.

Then one day, one of my students came in during my planning period. “I’m trying to get my stuff done, but the class is so loud that I can’t concentrate. Can I work in your classroom?” He had a note from his teacher, a pencil and paper, and nothing else. I said yes, of course, and for the next 20 minutes we sat in congenial silence, he writing steadily at a desk in one corner, I grading papers at my desk in another. Then he stood up, said, “I’m finished! Thank you”—and headed back to class.

That was the wake-up call I needed. The next time a student disrupted my class, I focused neither on her nor on myself: I looked instead at those around her, the ones just trying to get their stuff done. Who cared what I myself deserved? My students’ right to education was indisputable, and that I could defend with conviction. From then on I was stricter, more certain of my purpose. “Let them learn!” proved much easier to say than “Let me teach!”

Advice on classroom management often emphasizes technique: how to establish and maintain Control. Good technique is essential, of course, but I’d argue that it’s far from sufficient. We also need to remind ourselves—and our students—why we demand climates of order and respect in our schools. After all, the point is not to control students; it is to provide environments that enable student learning.