Published Online: October 14, 2013

Instructional Coaches Dissect Classroom-Management Challenges

“Probably the biggest issue with which I struggle as a teacher is classroom management,” Ilana Garon, an accomplished high school English teacher in New York City, recently admitted on her blog.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that she’s not alone. A 2011 survey of teachers and school administrators by Staff Development for Educators, for example, found that 86 percent of respondents cited classroom management as one of the biggest challenges facing new teachers. Similarly, in a 2006 survey by the American Psychological Association, teachers ranked classroom management, along with instructional skills, as a top area of need for professional development.

Perhaps not surprisingly, instructional experts and teacher-coaches see it as major problem area as well, with some lamenting that schools of education tend to focus far more on curriculum issues and developmental psychology than on the mechanics of running a classroom.

But instructional leaders also say that in most cases teachers can develop their classroom-management capacities—assuming they’re willing to re-examine their practices and attend more closely to the details of their interactions with students.

New teachers in particular have a natural tendency to think they can get by in the classroom on the strength of their personality or academic accomplishments, said Doug Lemov, the co-founder of the nonprofit school-management organization Uncommon Schools, in New York City. “So a little suffering can be good practice” if it leads them to address possible gaps in their approach, he said.

Common Problems

Educators who don’t have a solid foundation (or interest) in classroom management, instructional coaches say, tend to make relatively common and easy-to-detect errors. Primary among them is the failure to set clear—and developmentally appropriate—expectations for students, typically in the form of carefully laid-out procedures and routines for classroom activities.

“When there isn’t a solid routine established by the teacher, kids will misbehave,” said Elena Aguilar, an instructional and leadership coach in the Oakland, Calif., school district. “[Teachers] see kids being defiant, where I see lack of clarity.”

Teachers often “don’t realize how much they need to break down [their expectations] for students” to give them the “technical skills” they need to follow through on a task, Aguilar added. Procedures may need to be “scaffolded” or incrementally staged for some students. This is particularly true with younger students but can be a factor even in high school classrooms, she said.

Similarly, Lemov, who is also the author of Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, stressed that expectations need to be taught and practiced with students. “You can’t just assume that kids know what it means to pay attention, for example,” he said. “You need to give really clear instructions, using an economy of language.”

Randall S. Sprick, a lead consultant for Safe and Civil Schools, a staff-development organization, said that teachers should teach expectations “like a good basketball coach. You go over [them] regularly, teaching kids how to follow routines and procedures.”

That kind of emphasis on mechanics may sound impersonal or rigid, but teachers “need structure in order to build relationships with students, especially in large classrooms,” Sprick said.

Some teachers, even very passionate ones, “forget they are managers of children and resources, so they aren’t really oriented to think that way,” according David Ginsburg, an independent school-leadership and instructional coach based in Philadelphia. “Love of the content and great lessons aren’t enough. Teachers need [to do] upfront planning around management and organization.”

Steering, Not Controlling

The behavioral issues stemming from a lack clear of expectations in the classroom often lead to a second major error teachers commonly make in managing their classrooms: becoming overly reactive.

“Getting angry at off-task behavior can trigger further problems,” said Lemov. “It gives the power to students by showing them that they can get you off course. It also distracts from the students’ self-reflection about the situation.”

In a similar vein, Ginsburg noted that, in attempting to reassert authority, teachers often err in “going down the path of creating controlling, adversarial relationships with kids.”

“If the teacher’s agenda is about controlling, then it’s a recipe for disaster—for further behavioral problems and withdrawal,” said Ginsburg. “There needs to be structure and procedures, but it shouldn’t feel like prison. If that’s the culture, teachers won’t get the collaboration they need from students.”

Sprick said that in training teachers in classroom-management skills, his organization stresses the importance of interacting positively with students and “correcting calmly, consistently, and respectfully.” Otherwise, he said, problems and resentments can “fester.”

Gaining Awareness

Beyond the general imperatives of setting clear expectations and maintaining composure, instructional leaders and coaches frequently highlight the importance of close observation and finely-tuned awareness to effective classroom management.

“Little things have big muscles” in the classroom, said Lemov, explaining that teachers at Uncommon Schools are trained to exhibit “visible perception” as a way of cultivating student engagement. Teachers need to “notice whether students do what they are asked to do, show that they care, intimate that they are looking, and scan the classroom regularly,” he said.

Close observation and monitoring are likewise central tenets of the Safe and Civil Schools teacher-training program, said Sprick, the author of Coaching Classroom Management. By showing students that they are to paying close attention to students’ actions and responses, teachers can foster on-task behavior. “Most of us go the speed limit when a police officer is visible, and houses are always cleanest when company is coming,” Sprick explained by analogy.

For instructional coach Ginsburg, the role of observational skills extends to becoming more aware of students’ particular needs in the classroom. A student may be acting out, for example, because he or she wants to be called on more often or is avoiding a task or assignment in light of past failures. To uncover such issues (as well as positive developments), Ginsburg stressed the “importance of circulating through the whole class” and acknowledging the work each student is doing. “That’s the ultimate reward for a student—acknowledgement from an adult.”

Oakland instructional coach Aguilar, who is also the author of The Art of Coaching, said that many teachers need to gain a greater perception of how racial and cultural factors can contribute to classroom problems. Teachers should be conscious of whether they are interacting differently with particular groups, or making assumptions about students’ actions based on unfamiliarity or stereotypes. Just becoming aware of such tendencies can lead to positive changes and fewer power struggles in the classroom, she said.

A Different Lens

Since teachers often personalize and blame students for classroom-management problems, instructional coaches say that a key part of helping them resolve such issues is encouraging them to take a different perspective.

“I help them reframe the situation,” said Aguilar. “It’s important to get it out of the personal experience.” For example, she may try to show a teacher that the problem isn’t solely that “students are being obnoxious. [It’s that] they don’t have what they need from you.”

“Anything coaches can do to give kids more of a voice in the way they are experiencing the teacher’s management can help,” she said, adding that conducting a survey of students can be an eye-opening practice for teachers.

Similarly, Ginsburg said that a big part of his work involves “helping teachers see connections between what they’re doing and what kids are doing. It’s easy to see that a child is acting inappropriately, but we need to be open to the idea that it’s something we did or didn’t do that’s contributing.”

Teachers who are struggling with classroom management often “don’t see the forest for the trees,” he said. “They want to address the misbehavior, but that’s addressing the symptom rather than the source.”

Because it’s difficult to self-correct classroom-management problems, instructional coaches often advise teachers to video-tape their lessons or have a peer observe their work and provide feedback. “Look at your strengths and weaknesses,” advised Sprick. “Are you lecturing too much, or paying more attention to negative behavior than to positive behavior?”

Lemov said that teachers, even experienced ones, shouldn’t be ashamed of going back to reconstruct their management plans and practice “the little things” to improve student-teacher interactions.

“People think it’s demeaning to the profession to think about the nuts and bolts,” he said. “But chemical engineers aren’t concerned about that, just to give one example. They aren’t worried about being too micro. In actuality, it shows an anxiety about an endeavor to be apprehensive about going deep into the details, even the most mundane.”

Teaching is “too valuable and powerful” for that kind of thinking, Lemov said.

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