Cepeda on Classroom Management

Esther Cepeda writes in her syndicated column

In my first full-time teaching job, a supervisor disabused me of the classroom-management silliness my teacher-preparation program had drilled into me.

A battle-hardened veteran devoid of educational mumbo jumbo, she gave it to me straight: Be firm, show 'em who's in charge.

My teacher-education program had sporadically and ineffectively preached what I called the mommy/best friend philosophy of classroom management. The idea was to coddle and entertain students into engagement, creating a bordering-on-party atmosphere to get kids actively learning.

Traditional methods of conveying authority in the classroom -- such as arranging desks in rows with assigned seating instead of in peer pods or giant circles -- were frowned upon. A classroom was not a teacher's to run, we were told; it was ideally a collective of learners wherein everyone had equal standing.

That works well in doses, sure, but "learners" get used to the unconventional very quickly. Consistent order is ultimately the only thing that keeps teachers from being eaten alive by their students.

A month into my first school year, the supervisor observed my classroom technique and then wrote up a simple two-page analysis of my morning's teaching with very upbeat and specific tips for keeping my students on task. "Describe good behavior as a model," "Make everyone 'freeze' during instructions" and many others I'd simply never been exposed to.

The only solid piece of "advice" on the topic of classroom management I can recall from my teacher-training program was to ignore the old high-school teacher rule-of-thumb to never smile until Christmas. Not exactly a wealth of effective techniques, but the prevailing attitude was that trial and error in the trenches was simply how classroom management was learned.

Cepeda's experience was one of our motivations in creating the Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education, from scratch. 

It's not that classroom management is the only important topic.  It's not.  Of course.  Sometimes if you even argue that classroom management is worthy of its own class, you get attacked as believing that's all that matters. 

It's just that it is one important topic for any type of teacher prep.  And most Ed Schools teach it half-heartedly, a few sessions baked into some other course.  Rarely practical stuff.   And even that half-hearted stuff is often "knowingly" ineffectively. 

By "knowingly" I don't mean they have the right ideas but transmit them badly -- classic ineffective teaching that we're all guilty of sometimes.  It's that they have the wrong ideas, and some faculty know they're wrong, because of their recent alums and a sheaf of teacher data shows this!  

Over on JoanneJacobs.com, a commenter named Julie T observes:

When I was in ed school about 10 years ago, our prof had us line up. We had to place ourselves in a line according to our classroom management philosophy – from authoritarian to democratic. I was the only one in a class of 40 students to even approach authoritarian. The whole class laughed at me, because I guess I was supposed to drink the Kool-aid and espouse democratic classroom management.

Now, seven years of classroom teaching later, I’m a very effective manager who hardly ever yells. I do build a room of mutual respect and rapport. But guess what? You have to be the one in charge! I wish ed schools would teach that.

The seasoned professors at some Ed Schools, those who know better because they themselves were effective schoolteachers once upon a time, often feel the prevailing academic climate of some faculty (typically who haven't been in real K-12 classrooms in years) and many grad students. 

Moreover, classroom management is the only topic that, if you don't master it, vitiates every other thing you learn.  Being good at curriculum or assessment or understanding the social forces that shape each kid....doesn't help much when kids believe you're a pushover, and won't try hard during your lessons, or for your assessments, even if you have some insights into how they arrived to your classroom in such bad academic shape. 

Cepeda continues:

The only way this dilemma will be solved swiftly is if current and prospective teacher candidates start insisting that education programs clearly articulate their methods of teaching classroom management.

It's not such a stretch.

Once the very teachers who will be at risk of leaving education quickly start demanding solid classroom-management instruction, education programs will have to deliver it or risk getting left behind.

I hope she's right.  We shall see.

Related.  NCTQ (I'm on advisory board) recently issued a report on this topic, and Stephen Sawchuk's EdWeek article includes a counterpoint -- that Ed Schools are good at teaching classroom mgmt.   

Programs "have incorporated neuroscience, they have incorporated the research on resiliency, on motivation, and the behaviorist approaches," she said.  Moreover, new accreditation standards demand greater documentation of evidence that candidates can effectively manage classrooms. And accreditation, not the NCTQ, "is the expression of professional consensus on these matters."


I just don't know if programs, between all the neuroscience and resiliency, tell future teachers what they might do when a kid shoots a rubber band, or sleeps in class, or says "F off" loudly to another kid, or playfully teases another kid but it escalates into a fight.  Or what to do when a "really good kid" has a reasonably-founded belief that carrying a knife provides some amount of deterrence from bullies on his way to and from school. 

For all that stuff, rookie teachers typically have to ask the veterans.  After that stuff happens.  And particularly after small things escalated to big things.

You know what this reminds me of, a little bit? 

No Excuses charter school sometime resistance to the critical friends always pushing us to put more "higher order learning" into our lessons.  Under duress, it's hard to distinguish those who want to eliminate charters from the face of the earth (which is a distinct group of folks) and those critics who genuinely can improve the institutions (a smaller group). 

For Ed Schools, if they'd actually lighten up a bit and listen to the critique of NCTQ, the rookie teachers -- particularly in urban schools -- would improve....and down the road, they'd be more likely to do the kind of "cool curriculum" that professors genuinely hope for.  NCTQ is a friendly critic. 

But Ed Schools have their own enemy: professors in other departments who scoff at the relatively low GRE and SAT scores of masters in teaching candidates, and the scholarship of the doctoral students, and even professors themselves.  They suggest the university would be better off shutting down the Ed School.  This book describes some of those dynamics.  I know of at least two top-ranked programs in the USA considering closing their masters in teaching, partly because of these concerns.