Education Opinion

In Defense of Classroom Management

By Nancy Flanagan — May 20, 2010 4 min read
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Yesterday, I attended a 4th grade assembly at an elementary school in my district. One of my favorite kids--an enterprising and articulate young lady named Natalie--was

presenting a check for over $1000 to Animal Rescue, the result of her one-girl media campaign, “Dimes for Dogs.”

More than 100 4th graders sat quietly on the floor as the principal introduced Natalie, who took the microphone holding a one-eyed abandoned puppy, and made a few remarks, thanking her classmates for donating and reminding them what happens to unwanted animals.

Next, the director of Animal Rescue was supposed to talk about their program and answer questions from the audience. She refused the microphone and began a kind of rambling monologue about...something. It was impossible to hear or understand her. Very quickly, hands shot up on the gym floor. Questions! We have questions! Eventually, she pointed to one boy who asked if she took rescue dogs herself. We still don’t know the answer, because she walked over and started a conversation with the boy and the kids sitting around him. Complicating things, she’d brought her own children--three toddlers--who were racing around the gym, shouting and throwing toys.

After a minute or so, the crowd grew wiggly. Seated on the floor to capture a photo, I watched the 4th grade teachers subtly swing into action. Within 15 seconds, all four of them were standing; two had folded their arms over their chests. Their eye radar was on high alert, and one teacher was casually using her glasses as a pointer. (You! Settle down!) Two boys next to me began talking, sotto voce, about their own dogs; immediately, their teacher knelt down and whispered, “I know you can’t hear her, guys--but please show respect for her work.”

The principal let the disorder go on for perhaps three minutes, then graciously stepped forward and asked the children to give Mrs. X a big round of applause for her excellent efforts to find homes for animals. The kids were then invited to do what they wanted most: pet the rescued puppies. Another four minutes, with the teachers acting as skilled herding collies, and 100+ students were lined up, petted two puppies, then returned to their classrooms. Top to bottom, the assembly took 16 minutes. But it could easily have taken three times that long, and turned into a major waste of instructional time.

Behold the power of classroom management, a.k.a. “the problem that never goes away.” In Elizabeth Green’s excellent recent piece in NYT magazine, Building a Better Teacher, she considers Doug Lemov’s laboriously assembled “taxonomy” for effectively teaching groups of children, as well as Deborah Loewenberg Ball’s more scholarly, content-focused take: Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching. The teacher who whispered to the boys was using a Doug Lemov principle: warm/strict.

You could spend a lot more than 16 minutes trying to clearly distinguish between the finer points of behavioral control, classroom management, pedagogy, pedagogical content knowledge, methods, strategies and good old-fashioned content knowledge. In the end, however, an effective teacher needs it all--and few teachers master the delicate and integrated steps of running a tight instructional ship without considerable practice, not to mention a good sense of humor, helpful colleagues and the occasional margarita.

I am always amazed at comments like this, from the NYT article:

Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia University, favors policies like rewarding teachers whose students perform well and removing those who don't, and looks skeptically upon teacher training. While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research he can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when "you could be throwing your money away?"

It’s the eternal question among teachers: Is teaching an art or a science? Rockoff evidently thinks teaching is an innate art. Honed strategies which motivate students to focus on, absorb, grasp and apply knowledge are enigmatic and ultimately irrelevant to Rockoff and other economists, as long as the inexplicable magic of measurable learning occurs. But you could also throw away a lot of money--and valuable time--trying out novice teachers to see if they possess those mysterious, instinctive good-teacher qualities. You could end up with an endless stream of would-be teachers like the Animal Rescue lady: nice, well-meaning, and clueless about getting 10-year olds to pay attention.

Why would we not study pedagogy and classroom management skills to give teachers a leg up? Why should learning the craft of teaching have to be endless trial and error? On the art/science spectrum, I come down firmly on the side of science: teaching well is something that can be delineated and continuously improved. If there is artistry involved, it’s probably centered on things like caring, sincerity and personal appeal.

Part of the disdain for research on classroom management and pedagogy comes from the perceived lack of scholarly rigor in the work. Managing and monitoring student behaviors and learning is complex work, however, involving the same range of competencies that mastery of other professions require. Attorneys must know more than the principles of law--they’re obliged to deal with clients who may not be immediately motivated to do the right thing. Dentistry is more than root canals--it also involves persuading patients to floss. Clergy will tell you that the job is 10% theology, with the remaining 90% just another kind of classroom management.

The students at the assembly got a nice lesson in compassion for animals and community service. But they also had a chance to practice being polite and respectful--and respect precedes and reinforces learning.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.