Conventional wisdom about classroom management is often only half-true

iStock_000010045687XSmallMany teachers are familiar with much of the conventional wisdom about classroom management. While there’s a great deal of merit in what generations of teachers have passed along to each other, many maxims about classroom management should not be taken too literally, says Joshua Englehart in a recent issue of The Clearing House.

There are many important exceptions and considerations that must be taken into account in applying CW to classroom management, writes Joshua Englehart, a veteran teacher and  principal who draws on his experience working in an urban middle school and elementary school to round out the picture of 5 of these widely accepted classroom management rules.

Below are 5 of the most popular of these working principles and Englehart’s thoughts about why they do not always fit the bill in managing a classroom.

You have to be a good manager to be a good teacher

A structured and orderly environment is important for learning to occur. Students need a certain level of comfort and predictability to stay focused on a lesson.

But it’s not only the teacher’s ability to manage distractions in the classroom that keeps students focused on learning. It is also the quality of content and instruction. There’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg” question in the interplay of good instruction and sound classroom management, Englehart says.

Which comes first, quality instruction or quality classroom management? The truth is that they are mutually reinforcing elements, Engelhart says.

“Instruction and management should not be conceived of as two discrete aspects of teacher responsibility where one follows the other. Rather, they should be seen as two intimately interrelated sides of the same coin.”

Different strokes for different folks

Teachers vary widely in their individual strengths, weaknesses, personalities and temperaments. While it’s true that teachers favor those classroom management strategies that mesh well with their styles and personalities, effective classroom managers do share two attributes: “Withitness” and emotional objectivity.

“Withitness” is a sense of awareness of what students are doing at all times and the ability to head off problems. Emotional objectivity is the ability to carry out student discipline in a neutral manner without taking things personally or holding grudges.

Teachers do not need to be born with these qualities, the researcher writes. These are skills that can be acquired through such practices as observing master teachers, reframing of perceptions of behaviors to identify the source and monitoring thoughts and expectations.

Teachers should focus more on developing this mindset than on selecting from particular intervention techniques, the author writes.

It all boils down to clear communication and consistent enforcement

Clearly explaining rules, expectations and consequences when rules are broken and consistently enforcing those game rules is an approach that does work well for most students. But this is not enough for the 20-30% of students who account for most of the disruption in the classroom. These students need something more, the author writes.

“For these kids, school personnel must make efforts to understand the problem behavior, including its possible origins and potential conditions and solutions that can improve it,” the writes the author.

Because of the time and energy needed to address these students’ needs, many teachers feel their duty ends with setting expectations and enforcing the rules. But not reaching out to students who need more help will fail to address many of the problem behavior that occurs in the classroom.

Relationships with students are everything

It’s true that students are motivated to please teachers who they like and will work to maintain those positive relationships by avoiding negative behaviors, the researcher writes. These positive relationships create the fertile ground for effective classroom management.

“They provide a sense of emotional security that would otherwise be missing for some kids, and they provide important models for social interaction,” says Englehart.

But this is not enough for the 20-30% of higher-needs students who are responsible for much of the disruptive behavior in the classroom, he says.  Teachers must demonstrate empathy with these students, help them define the problem and collaborate with them to find solutions. This is not likely to take place without a successful relationship, but more specific interventions are needed for some students.

There’s just so much you can do with kids who aren’t taught how to behave at home

Teachers should be wary of the notion that he child “has not been taught right at home,” the Englehart writes.

“In some cases it is not that the child ‘has not been taught right’; it is that the interaction patterns that he or she has been taught at home are different from those expected at school (and cultural difference is not always divided along racial lines).”

With this in mind, teachers can reframe the motives and intent of students and also help students understand that certain settings call for different sets of behavior. This provides students with social understanding and skills that will be critical in their adult lives.

“Five half-truths about classroom management,” by Joshua Englehart, The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, Volume 85, 2012, pp. 70-73, available online Dec. 19, 2011. 

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