Classroom Management: The Hunt for a Toolbox

When I first started teaching, how each day went depended a lot on how benevolent my students were feeling. It is embarrassing to admit that. It’s not as though I didn’t know a lot about classroom management; I just didn’t know how to make it work yet. The weeks went on and I learned every day, but I still had a few students who just had a lot of energy. You know, the ones who hate sitting down at all, who you check in with before class starts so when they need them, they will have that pencil and paper ready, rather than lurking at the bottom of their backpacks under missed assignments that are slowly being turned into pulp with the help of an old banana.

Often these kids had really great attitudes, and most days I was able to keep everyone on task using my limited mental toolbox of classroom management strategies. But there were days, usually days when something different was happening, like rain or a modified bell schedule, when my class was straining at the seams, led by these special, energetic students. I could feel the moment when things started to go downhill, when productive energy got that wild note and I knew it was going to be a long day.

Then one day, a student came into my classroom asking if I had the red toolbox.

“What?” I asked in utter confusion.

“The red toolbox. Mr. V said you might have it,” the kid answered helpfully.

I knew I didn’t have any red toolbox, but since the kid was already there, I looked through any closet or drawer where a toolbox could be hiding. Had there been after-hours repairs on my classroom? Finally, I had to turn him away.

“That’s okay, he said it might be Mrs. L who has it. He couldn’t remember.”


At lunch, I got the scoop. The red toolbox is the trick that drains that little bit of extra energy while you get the rest of your class back on track. You simply write a hall pass for a student, before anything negative happens but after you see what direction things are heading, and your very energetic student rushes off to do you an important favor. Teachers in the know will look for the box, then suddenly remember that a certain teacher on the other side of the school might have borrowed it. This has to be done carefully, or students can spend forty-five minutes wandering around looking for the red toolbox. It is important to find out where students have already looked, and if you think they’ve been out of class for more than a few minutes, it might be time to say, “Sorry. I just can’t remember who has it. You’d better get back to class.”

In this age of bell-to-bell teaching, I imagine this isn’t a popular strategy for everyone. The idea is that you keep the students exposed to content whether they’re able to participate meaningfully right then or not, right? I say, let them stretch their legs for five minutes and come back feeling good about themselves for helping and ready to learn.

3 thoughts on “Classroom Management: The Hunt for a Toolbox”

  1. Alli Skül

    I am a pre-service teacher and I like this strategy for the classroom, it is very creative. I had a question regarding the “red toolbox”; what grade level where you teaching when you first learned about the “red toolbox” strategy? And if it was not high school, have you learned of any techniques like this one that have been successful at the high school level?

  2. Amethyst G.

    When I learned about this strategy, I was teaching at the middle school level. It worked well with seventh graders, but some high school students might see through it, or might take advantage of the hall pass. Of course, this is a danger at any level and it is important to know your students well. There were some students I never sent out in search of the red toolbox. What I did with these kids instead was to try to get them interested in some form of leadership in the classroom. That could mean encouraging them to come by after school to help me put up a display, asking their advice on how to fairly set up implementation of a new rule, or having them help out in class with additional components to a project.

    Everything depends on the student. It might be possible to make a more sophisticated version of the red toolbox for the high school level. Or your best bet might be to help students identify what derails them and have a plan in place for getting back on track. Sometimes it seems like every student needs something different.

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