Published Online: November 28, 2012

First Person

Classroom Management: More Than a Bag of Tricks

Cindy, a well-educated and highly qualified recent graduate pursuing a 4th grade teaching position, has a ready response for the principal's interview question, "How do you plan to manage your classroom?" She confidently replies, "I plan to develop a system where students will earn points for good behavior during the week and receive tickets to enter a raffle for prizes at the end of the week."

Across the country this spring, thousands of graduates from hundreds of teacher-education programs will enthusiastically prepare for the job search in hopes of landing a teaching position for September in a difficult market. And like Cindy, they'll be asked a question or two about classroom management during their interviews. Many prospective teachers will respond with answers similar to hers, expressing a plan that uses an extrinsic-reward based system.

This plan, while not uncommon, unfortunately conveys a narrow view of classroom management. With her answer, Cindy implies that she equates effective classroom management with bribing students to behave appropriately. However, students deserve to be held to a higher behavioral expectation than bribery confers. After all, don't we want students to develop into independent, critical thinkers who are capable of self-regulating their own behavior? How will that be possible if they are continuously bribed to behave or participate in academic activities?

Teacher-Prep Problem

However inadequate her answer may be, Cindy's lack of understanding about effective classroom management is not her fault. Her response is indicative of a larger issue—the lack of training in classroom management in teacher education programs. Despite the importance of effective classroom management, the majority of teacher-preparation programs still do not require or even offer a course with an explicit focus on this topic, according to the Handbook of Classroom Management. As a result, beginning teachers continuously cite classroom management as their No. 1 concern. In fact, according to researchers Richard Ingersoll and Thomas M. Smith, 40 percent of beginning teachers leave the profession within the first five years, and concerns about student discipline problems are second only to poor salary as the reasons cited for their dissatisfaction with teaching.

Considering these statistics, it's critical to examine the reasons for the lack of training in classroom management. One of the primary reasons is that many educators often think of classroom management as no more than "a bag of tricks." A quick search for the term classroom management on the rapidly growing Pinterest, a virtual pinboard-style social photo sharing website that's popular with teachers, provides evidence of this mentality. The majority of pins, as they are called, related to classroom management are of "bag of trick" type techniques or "cutesy," extrinsic-reward based systems. For example, a popular image is an empty Windex bottle that has been decorated and labeled with the phrase "quiet spray," implying that a teacher can spritz her class and magically they will all quiet down. There are also numerous images of school stores that represent systems where students earn play money for exhibiting appropriate behavior (and possibly pay fines for misbehavior) and purchase various prizes. These images perpetuate a limited and faulty mindset about classroom management.

Another reason for the lack of training in classroom management is the common belief that classroom management can't be taught. Rather, many believe, management is something that you just have to learn through experience. That is simply not the case. In the Handbook of Classroom Management, teacher educator and researcher Jere Brophy states, "Classroom management can be counted among the major success stories of educational research in the 20th century." As a result, we now have a set of well-established research-based principles and strategies used by effective classroom managers that can be taught, observed, and emulated.

Prevention Is Key

In order to place highly effective teachers in every classroom across the country, it is essential that we address this issue and help teachers develop an understanding of classroom management. So, if classroom management is not a "bag of tricks," what is it? According to Carol Weinstein, author of Elementary Classroom Management: Lessons from Research and Practice, classroom management includes all the actions teachers take to develop an environment conducive to social, emotional, and academic learning. These actions include: 1) organizing the physical environment; 2) creating rules and routines; 3) establishing caring relationships; 4) planning and implementing engaging instruction; and 5) addressing discipline issues.

Effective classroom managers spend time planning and implementing specific strategies to address each of these key areas. For example, research conducted by teacher-educators Edmund T. Emmer, Carolyn M. Evertson, and Linda M. Anderson demonstrate the importance of spending time during the first three weeks of school teaching and demonstrating the classroom rules and routines so that expectations about student behavior are clearly communicated. In addition, effective managers spend time developing relationships with students by getting to know their academic strengths and weaknesses, learning about students' interests outside of school, holding high expectations for students, sending positive notes or emails home to students' parents to make them aware of their accomplishments, etc. These tasks require thoughtful and purposeful planning rather than a quick "bag of tricks" approach.

Central to developing and implementing an effective classroom management plan is the understanding that the majority of these actions are ones teachers take to prevent behavior problems from occurring. In other words, if teachers proactively address each of the key areas of classroom managment, they will actually minimize the amount of misbehavior that occurs. The idea that prevention is key to classroom management is not new. Jacob Kounin conducted classic research on this in 1970 and Emmer, Evertson, and Anderson did so in 1980. Yet, it is fascinating that these classic, powerful research findings are still overshadowed by this misguided "bag of tricks" mentality. In truth, if teachers are knowledgeable and develop a repertoire of research-based, effective strategies in each key area, they will prevent misbehavior and, ultimately, find little need to develop a "bag of tricks" or use an extrinsic-reward system.

The bottom line is that effective classroom management sets the stage for learning. Without an orderly environment, classrooms are disorganized, chaotic, and not conducive to effective instruction. Therefore, it is imperative that educators combat this "bag of tricks" mentality and develop a thorough understanding of the process of classroom management. Only then will we have accomplished the real first step toward placing a highly effective teacher in every classroom.

A different version of this piece originally appeared in The NJEA Review. It is reprinted here with permission.

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