Special Report

Classroom Management as Reflective Practice

By Amy Wickner — October 14, 2013 4 min read
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A new book proposes ways for educators to rethink classroom management with a critical eye to their own practices and the evidence provided by research and experience.

In From Discipline to Culturally Responsive Engagement: 45 Classroom Management Strategies (Corwin, 2013) Laura E. Pinto offers an introduction to cultural competency and responsiveness, a primer on three major approaches to classroom management, and a handbook of strategies to try out in the classroom. The book calls for educators to take on nontraditional practices—such as cultural competency, inclusion, and mindfulness about their classroom practices—while also acknowledging the challenge of altering ingrained habits.

Pinto’s book is built around two diagrams: a cycle of classroom management and a classroom-management spectrum. The cycle is a planning tool, while the spectrum is meant to prompt reflection.

Pinto suggests that teachers use the cycle diagram to analyze their classroom-management strategies, actions, or habits. For example, teachers might try to understand their current tendencies by answering the questions in the cycle and looking for ways to improve at each stage. When reflecting on specific experiences, they may use the diagram to understand where on the cycle a given situation began, working backward and forward to determine alternative actions in response to or in anticipation of a similar incident in the future.

Throughout her book, Pinto stresses the use of mindfulness, seeing it as a heightened awareness of the implications of particular actions (and the connections between them). The classroom-management spectrum is one possible aid to help teachers visualize how different kinds of classroom-management actions and styles are related.

Pinto defines three positions on the spectrum as follows:

The discipline focus embodies an authoritarian approach to student-teacher relations. It relies on lists of teacher-created rules, corresponding consequences for breaking rules, and a control-based approach to the learning environment. The reward-and-routine focus positioned in the middle of the spectrum implies use of positive reinforcements rather than discipline, though it still relies largely on teacher control, albeit through a combination of strategies. The engagement focus is founded on the understanding that if students are engaged in meaningful and relevant learning activities attuned to their individual and cultural needs, issues of “misbehavior” disappear as the students are fully committed to classroom activity.

For every anecdotal example and classroom strategy in the book, Pinto prompts readers to consider where each might fall on the classroom-management spectrum. Teachers might also use the spectrum, she suggests, for self-assessment—placing one’s current teaching practice on the spectrum, setting goals for moving that placement, and gauging the distance on the spectrum between one’s own practice and the classroom practices of others.

While Pinto gives comparable space and attention to all three positions on the spectrum, she argues for the “engagement focus” as the preferred classroom approach. The importance of cultural competency and cultural responsiveness are key factors in her case for engagement and inclusion. By contrast, the “discipline focus” and “reward-and-routine focus,” she argues, indiscriminately place both power and control—though not necessarily responsibility—in the teacher’s hands. In effect, Pinto’s case for the “engagement focus” approach rests in large part on an alternative, possibly more expansive, conception of educators’ responsibilities to students.

In defining cultural responsiveness and competency, Pinto stresses that “what may seem obvious and ‘normal’ in one culture may be completely unfamiliar or uncomfortable in another.” Questioning “common sense” and how it is determined may prove useful to teachers reflecting on their cultural competency.

But while Pinto disapproves of the principles underlying the “discipline” and “reward-and-routine” focuses, several strategies representative of these practices are included in the 45 classroom-management strategies of her book’s title. To fully embrace cultural responsiveness and inclusion, she suggests, teachers must account for the possibility that certain groups of students may be more comfortable, or even thrive, in response to these strategies. Family and community expectations also play a role in determining whether “discipline” and “reward-and-routine” strategies are acceptable in the classroom, and when certain “engagement focus” practices may not be.

Teachers as Learners

Pinto invites teachers to learn and reflect alongside their students, framing her discussion of classroom management around principles and practices that form the underpinnings of adult learning, as documented in research. “Some teachers often talk about how they come to the realization that they teach in ways that are the same as or similar to how they were taught in school,” she observes. Bridging the gap between teacher and learner in this way suggests that compassion—by teachers for their students, for themselves, and for each other—is central to teaching and learning culturally responsive engagement. In order to best help learners, Pinto argues, teachers must themselves be in the mindset for learning.

For this reason, From Discipline to Culturally Responsive Engagement might be particularly well-suited for mulling over in a book club or professional learning community, as Pinto suggests. The book’s final chapter includes sample agendas for a school-year-long series of collegial meetings that teachers can use to work through the strategies described in the book. Reproducible worksheets are inserted throughout the book, to be used as templates for peer- or self-assessment and to prompt group feedback.

As Pinto repeatedly reminds readers, individual teachers, diverse student populations, and specific classroom situations in various combinations all require different approaches to classroom management. She insists on self-reflection and mindfulness not to imply that teachers must assess themselves and claim one (and only one) spot on the classroom-management spectrum, but to argue that classroom management can be an ever-changing, ever-evolving practice. Many of the strategies in the book are quite specific—Pinto says that a few are taken directly from her own classes—but for the most part they offer the stems of strategies and avoid prescription.

A teacher may need to use each of the 45 strategies here at some point in his or her career. Pinto’s hope is that they will do so with an understanding of their own motivations.

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