Esther Cepeda: Order in the classroom
CHICAGO -- In my first full-time teaching job, a supervisor disabused me of the classroom-management silliness my teacher-preparation program had drilled into me.
A battle-hardened veteran devoid of educational mumbo jumbo, she gave it to me straight: Be firm, show ’em who’s in charge.
My teacher-education program had sporadically and ineffectively preached what I called the mommy/best friend philosophy of classroom management. The idea was to coddle and entertain students into engagement, creating a bordering-on-party atmosphere to get kids actively learning.
Traditional methods of conveying authority in the classroom—such as arranging desks in rows with assigned seating instead of in peer pods or giant circles—were frowned upon. A classroom was not a teacher’s to run, we were told; it was ideally a collective of learners wherein everyone had equal standing.
That works well in doses, sure, but “learners” get used to the unconventional very quickly. Consistent order is ultimately the only thing that keeps teachers from being eaten alive by their students.
A month into my first school year, the supervisor observed my classroom technique and then wrote up a simple two-page analysis of my morning’s teaching with very upbeat and specific tips for keeping my students on task. “Describe good behavior as a model,” “Make everyone ‘freeze’ during instructions” and many others I’d simply never been exposed to.
The only solid piece of “advice” on the topic of classroom management I can recall from my teacher-training program was to ignore the old high-school teacher rule-of-thumb to never smile until Christmas. Not exactly a wealth of effective techniques, but the prevailing attitude was that trial and error in the trenches was simply how classroom management was learned.
According to a new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), an analysis of 122 teacher-prep programs found that while effective research-based classroom management strategies exist, most programs don’t draw on or share this research with prospective teachers.
“Most programs can correctly claim to cover classroom management,” the report notes. “However, instruction and practice on classroom management strategies are often scattered throughout the curriculum, rarely receiving the connected and concentrated focus they deserve.”
Is it any surprise, then, that so many teachers flame out after their first harrowing year? They’re sent in to tackle what is a tough job, even under the best of circumstances, with few tools for managing the most fundamental prerequisite for student engagement and learning.
Part of the reason is the deeply ingrained belief that teaching is an art, a craft and, above all, a calling that can’t be reduced to agreed-upon techniques and strategies. It is a passion that is supposed to separate good teachers from bad.
What other profession can you think of that, effectively, tells its graduates that they can “live on love”?
Just as with so many other aspects of education standards, there’s little consensus among policymakers about whether and how classroom management should be practiced or taught. What’s worse is that, according to NCTQ, even the programs that do train candidates on specific strategies often focus on those with less research support, such as using proximity or eye contact to re-engage students.
“Regrettably, while we found some programs which did quite well on certain aspects of classroom management, we did not find any one program that did well across the board: teaching the … most proven strategies and creating opportunities for practicing them with plenty of strong feedback,” said Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ. “The field’s leadership continues to send strong signals that teachers who can deliver a sufficiently engaging lesson will never have a behavior problem they have to solve. Any teacher can tell you that just isn’t the case.”
The only way this dilemma will be solved swiftly is if current and prospective teacher candidates start insisting that education programs clearly articulate their methods of teaching classroom management.
It’s not such a stretch. Items such as flexibility in student teaching placements, post-graduate employment assistance and fast tracks to advanced degrees are already used by prospective teachers to determine which program can offer the highest chance of success.
Once the very teachers who will be at risk of leaving education quickly start demanding solid classroom-management instruction, education programs will have to deliver it or risk getting left behind.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.