When students file into Shira Fishman’s geometry and Algebra 2 classes at McKinley Technology High in the District of Columbia, there’s already a question written on the board, inviting students to get settled and get to work right away.
Whatever topics students may have been bantering about in the hallways must be traded for a discussion of the math problem, said Ms. Fishman, who is in her ninth year of teaching. “It can’t be silent in the room, but they’re not allowed to be gossiping and talking about parties.”
The technique is simple but deliberate: By engaging students in an activity the minute they arrive, Ms. Fishman reasons, they will instead have an energizing experience that lasts for the rest of class and keeps them too occupied to trigger a bout of defiance or disruption that could result in a visit to the principal’s office, or worse, suspension from school.
Improving or overhauling classroom-management training is one of many ways states, districts, and teacher education programs are attacking the problem of too many out-of-school suspensions and office referrals, actions that disproportionately affect African-American, Latino, and male students and those who have disabilities.
Insubordination, defiance, and disobedience—whatever those may mean to a particular school—are among the top reasons students are suspended from school.
“You can have a Ph.D. in math. If you don’t know how to handle 9th graders, believe me that can be hard,” said Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. He noted that teacher education programs require a range of in-the-classroom time.
“There are programs where the first time [graduates] teach a class is when they get a job,” Mr. Ingersoll said. “The data clearly show that schools where there are more student-behavior problems have higher teacher turnover. That’s somewhat of a no-brainer.”
It’s not the only working condition that matters, he added, but it’s one of the most important.
Mentors in Hawaii
Last school year, Hawaii crafted new standards for supporting newly hired teachers, in part to retain teachers in a region where hiring can be difficult. The state recruited 500 experienced teachers to mentor 1,500 first- and second-year ones, said Sherri Sai, who is overseeing the initiative for the Hawaii education department.
Among its primary goals is to help new teachers develop a positive learning environment and learn strategies for managing student behavior.
In Louisiana, state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, a Democrat, worked to pass legislation two years ago that requires districts to provide classroom-management training for teachers.
Training can cover positive-behavioral interventions and supports, conflict resolution, mediation, restorative practices, discipline, and adolescent development. In addition, administrators must look at discipline data to see what additional classroom-management training their teachers may need.
New teachers often see classroom management and lesson planning as two unrelated endeavors, said Keri Shimomoto, the director of the New Teacher Center Hawaii, which is working with the state to carry out its $10 million mentoring program.
“New teachers feel rushed. The focus is academic achievement,” said Sherilyn Waters, a 24-year teaching veteran and now a mentor teacher. Teachers have pacing guides that tell them how much material they should cover in a day and fret over falling short, she said, but “to get there, we need to master our classroom first.”
Each Hawaii mentor has as many as 15 mentees. The mentor meets with them at least weekly, face to face and one on one. Mentors go through training before taking on mentees and additional training after a year of work.
New teachers can discuss any issues of concern with mentors, but “classroom management, that is one of the things that comes up frequently,” Ms. Waters said. Describing many new teachers, she said “they have a lot of theory, but then they’re faced with those 20-something kids staring at them [and] it gets a little challenging.”
For example, while observing Sasha Inouye, a first-year kindergarten teacher at Kalihi Elementary in Honolulu, Ms. Waters stepped in when she saw children about to get the green light to walk into class from the hallway, although students were fidgeting and playing around.
“I whispered in her ear, ‘Wait until they’re ready. Ask them to show you that they’re ready,’ ” Ms. Waters said. She guides teachers to decide for themselves what their expectations are for students, communicate that clearly to them, and be consistent in those requests and expectations.
That vision is critical, said Ana Menezes, the vice president of new-teacher effectiveness for the New York City-based TNTP, formerly the New Teacher Project. Teachers must run through dozens of scenarios that may seem mundane.
“Pencils break, and they need to be sharpened. You can imagine a classroom if you haven’t thought through what to do when pencils break,” Ms. Menezes said. For example, she said, will a teacher let every student get up whenever they want to sharpen their writing utensils? Or have everyone line up and do it at once?
The TNTP has retooled its training for new and preservice teachers to zero in on those skills even at the expense of other skills, she said.
“The way it was for us was more through discussion or role play,” Ms. Menezes said. “The honest truth was, it didn’t translate when they were with their own kids.”
Now, instead of describing warm-up exercises or “do now” activities that Ms. Fishman and other teachers use, trainees get examples and are asked to practice and use them with students.
Ms. Fishman is a former mechanical engineer who found the work unfulfilling. She turned to teaching and had one intensive summer of training from the TNTP before taking on a classroom.
“When I was a younger teacher, I worried more about delivering the content—but not in a way the kids would want to learn it. The kids were bored,” she said.
She finds examples to give students about how the work might present itself in another class and in the real world.
“That doesn’t mean every minute of every lesson is the most fun they’ll have all day. They’re going to be solving equations and graphing lines,” Ms. Fishman said.
But “if you’re trying to teach math and writing a ton of equations and have the kids sit silently,” she said, “I’m pretty sure that’s going to lead to some serious classroom-management issues.”
Now in her classes students keep busy, though that doesn’t mean students are working quietly and independently all the time. But in her class, nonacademic disruptions are not the norm. Developing that approach has taken time, she said.
Ms. Fishman must be doing something right: This year, the TNTP gave four other teachers a prize for superb classroom techniques named after her.
The ‘Hardest Job’
Nine years into teaching, Ms. Fishman is excited that the TNTP is reworking its training to concentrate on a specific set of classroom-management techniques.
“First-year teachers still have the hardest job in the world,” she said.
No teacher, however, will have a perfect day, every day, in which students are so enamored of their lessons they never misbehave, Penn’s Mr. Ingersoll said.
“If you’re totally boring as a teacher, of course there would be much more restlessness in the classroom,” he said, but “it can be demoralizing to the really good teacher” to be blamed for a student’s outburst.
Discipline and behavior have to be dealt with schoolwide, he said, not just at the classroom level.
In addition to its work in Hawaii, the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based New Teacher Center works in districts all over the country, said Cynthia Brunswick, the organization’s vice president for induction programs. It pushes for the kind of two-year mentoring taking place in the Aloha State.
Classrooms are, in essence, filled with land mines of disruption and disciplinary episodes that teachers must be prepared to defuse. Preparing a classroom is key to snuffing out at least some of those potential explosions.
“A lot of teachers will learn this over time,” Ms. Brunswick said, but getting training like from her organization “makes the learning a lot quicker.”
“Every time you have to go to the overhead, you have to pull the screen down, you have to turn your back. The noise starts to grow,” she said. If that translates to “ ‘I’m going to get frustrated; I’m not going to be able to teach,’ take that trigger, start to plan for it.”
Sending disruptive students out of the classroom may be a temporary solution, but if the students come right back, teachers may feel their principals don’t support them, Ms. Brunswick said, even if “they know that suspension is not something you can do every time a student is sent out of the classroom.”
Connecting With Students
In contrast, “if a student builds a respectful rapport with the teacher, most likely they’re not going to start that stuff with that teacher,” Ms. Brunswick said.
Those relationships are critical, said Lisa Stone, the director of design for the New York City-based Teach For America.
The TFA’s training for teachers, which spans several weeks during the summer and continues as its members begin the school year, emphasizes building those connections.
“It’s not just about the skill in the moment; it’s how much you know your kids,” Ms. Stone said.
“We saw a lot of teachers putting a lot of effort into getting to know their kids, eating lunch with them, eating breakfast with them, just to get to know them as people.”
Then, she said, when a student is having an off day, a teacher can determine what may be needed to head off a discipline problem.
In that emphasis on relationships and in other ways, Teach For America, like the TNTP, has revamped its training, also homing in on classroom-management skills. One newer strategy: New teachers are fitted with earbuds; coaches with walkie-talkies look on, giving real-time feedback.
“They are coaching you in the moment. They might say, ‘Restate the directions; those weren’t clear. That student has his head down, ' " Ms. Stone said. The teacher, she said, might also hear “ ‘Look, you did it,’ ” the sort of comment that builds confidence.
“I can talk to you in theory. When you’re new, that’s really hard,” she said. “We have found this is particularly effective.”
Hooked Into Learning
At Smokey Road Middle School in Newnan, Ga., Principal Laurie Barron said she and her staff threw away first-day-of-school traditions that had dominated her nine years in charge. That and other shifts in teaching style have helped the school cut discipline referrals from an average of 120 a month to 20, she said.
Instead of droning on about rules and consequences when school began this year, teachers taught their most interactive lessons.
Students flew paper airplanes outdoors to learn about velocity, wind speed, and resistance. For a lesson on force vs. mass, they inflated helium balloons and learned how to keep them from rising.
“One of our teachers rapped, all day, about math and science,” said Ms. Barron, the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ 2013 Middle School Principal of the Year. “It was just an incredible day.”
She and her staff wanted students to be excited about every class. The students received brief instruction on school rules, and then on the second day, Ms. Barron gathered groups of students by grade to go over details like requirements for promotion and the school grading system, whether students’ opinions matter (yes), and who is available to help them if they need it (every adult in the building).
She hoped that engaging students on the first day would foster quick bonds with teachers powerful enough to keep students on track and in class—where missing an exciting class is the punishment.
Library Intern Amy Wickner contributed to this article.
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2012 edition of Education Week as Heading Off Trouble Before It Starts