October 8, 2007

How to Effectively Manage a Classroom

I have a special treat for my loyal readers today--an interview with a practicing teacher currently teaches in a large, low-SES, high-diversity urban K-8 school. She wishes to remain anonymous but you might recognize her by her blogger id--palisadesk.

The focus of the interview will be on classroom management and student motivation which is by far the biggest challenge facing many schools today thanks to NCLB which has placed enormous pressure on schools to teach students that were "getting left behind." This meant that teachers would have to teach students they had been unable to teach in the past. And, in order to accomplish this, they would first have to get their classrooms under control and establish an atmosphere conducive to learning. Many teachers, especially those teaching in low-SES schools, would find out that this would be a challenge of first magnitude. Teachers would be forced to confront the fact that they lacked the critical classroom management skills needed to control an unruly classroom.

This dysfunctional state of affairs in our education system can be concisely summarized in two sentences:

Our observations of many failed schools would ... disclose that most teachers either completely fail to manage children or rule through intimidation (yelling at children, issuing demeaning comments, but rarely praising children). The instruction that we see is technically unsound according to all the evidence on how to communicate effectively, how to achieve mastery, and how to reinforce and manage children effectively.

Generally, new teachers are thrown to the wolves, so to speak, when they get their first teaching assignments and are expected to teach with little or no training in classroom management techniques. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most teachers also have received little practical training in effective instructional techniques, making classroom management all the more difficult:

Teachers lecture for long periods of time. What “tasks” the teacher presents occur at a very low rate. There are no systematic correction procedures, no attempts to repeat parts that are difficult for the children, and no serious concern with whether children master the material. The pacing of the presentation is laborious. The material the teacher uses is far too difficult for the skill level of the children. Most of the students’ time is often spent on pointless “worksheet” activities. The students don’t like reading, math, or any other academic activity.

Most teachers are left to fend for themselves when it comes to classroom management and because education is filled with unreliable and unscientific nonsense they have no way to sort the good techniques from the bad ones. The result is that many teachers settle on the old parental stand-by of "negative reinforcement," punishing children when they misbehave, to deal with behavior problems in the classroom.

I could go on at length on why negative reinforcement is a less than optimal technique for classroom management and why other techniques, like positive reinforcement, are much more effective. But, I thought it would be better for teachers to hear it from an actual teacher who has been successful using these techniques. So, I'll start the interview off by having Palisadesk explain why negative reinforcement is not effective and give us a few examples of classroom management techniques she has successfully employed:

Negative reinforcement almost never changes peoples' behavior. That's virtually an axiom. If you want to change behavior, you have to organize the environment so that you can reinforce (reward) the behavior you want. The behavior you notice, pay attention to and reward is what you will get more of; positive methods are far more powerful than negative ones. I think every teacher (and even more critically, every administrator) should be required to read Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training.(It's about people, not dogs) That's the book that changed my life, so to speak.

There are many ways you can implement positive behavior management and the exact strategies you use depend in part on what situation you are in. If you teach a different class every period, that's quite a different environment than if you have a self-contained class most of the day. The age of the students matters, too.

For example, one year I was assigned to a new school and an extremely difficult group of fifth and sixth graders, all with both learning and behavior problems, and most seriously delayed academically. Some had intimidating discipline records; at least one was probably clinically psychotic. They were oppositional, violent (towards each other), screamed and yelled and threw things, or were passive-aggressive, and generally did nothing of what you assigned them to do. I was desperate -- every day I went home feeling like I was escaping a war zone -- and so I set up a classroom economy, a variant of what the behaviorists call "token reinforcement." I printed up bills for $1,$5,$10 etc., as in "real" money, set up bank accounts, wage and price schedules, the works. Everything students might want to do cost something, whether it was visiting the restroom between recesses, computer time or using art materials. In turn, they could earn money in a variety of ways.

This takes a lot of time-consuming preparation at the front end -- getting the "money" ready, having a schedule of available things to purchase, and scheduling in time to keep the records, exchange and deposit money and so on. I hated the complexities involved, but I did like the results -- I saw a turnaround almost immediately.

Initially, requirements were quite easily met to earn classroom dollars -- so many minutes on task, so many items completed, homework handed in etc. Every week the prices changes (not unlike the real world), and the most valued reinforcers, like computer time, went up in price while less popular ones (like using the library) went down. A by-product of this system is that students got fairly proficient at operations with decimals and real-word money skills as well as understanding some basic economic principles around supply and demand. It was possible for every kid to earn enough to get something s/he wanted, and over the course of the year all of them developed reasonably good work habits.

I could have phased out most of the system -- in fact I did "fade out" many of the specific rewards -- but the students enjoyed being little capitalists so much I couldn't shut it down completely. An unexpected result, which I have never had a behaviorist explain convincingly to me, was that the kids were so thrilled with the secondary reinforcer (classroom paper money) that they stopped trading it in for rewards (the real reinforcer, supposedly). They sat there at their seats like youthful Scrooges gleefully counting their piles of bills! It was a riot. But it was a lot of work to set up and administer. I had the help of a bossy but well-organized girl in the class, whom I appointed banker, and a teaching assistant part time who helped with keeping the paperwork and money supply straightened out.

In any system that uses concrete reinforcers, you have to keep raising the ante, so to speak, and demanding more for the same payout. That year was the only time I did the full classroom economy deal, but it saved the day. An important point: we did not have fines. It wasn't necessary. If kids didn't do what they were supposed to do, they didn't earn the $$ they needed for whatever. The rules stayed flexible so that I was in the position of controlling the environment, not the kids -- I wanted the kids to learn to control themselves.

Once the system was up and running, I had no further serious compliance problems, and could get on with actually teaching them with good curricula (including DI). In the second half of the year we did some cross-curricular project work on ancient civilizations, forensic science and other interesting topics that we could not have considered doing with the mayhem at the outset. This was before the internet was a valuable resource, and I had only books to go by, but I think there are web resources about classroom/token economies now. It is a lifesaver in seriously disruptive classes, but it is imperative that the teacher understand something about the process of "shaping" - getting incrementally closer to the behavior you want. Karen Pryor's book is a good introduction; it's well-written, very funny and easy for a non-behaviorist person to understand.

We'll pick up the interview in the next post, with a discussion of another effective classroom management technique--the "You-me" game.

Continue to Part II.


Anonymous said...

Why is it that most of the teacher bloggers teach sped? I don't know what students palisadesk teaches now, but her example uses learning disabled kids, one of whom might be clinically psychotic. I've seen this from many other teacher bloggers as well.

I often teach low income minority children with much lower than average skills, and I have next to no classroom management problems. I'm sure I'm not all *that* unusual. I can't even imagine having to institute some time consuming capitalist system (clever as it sounds) on my own time just to make kids listen. I'm sure some of this is due to the population she's teaching.

So where are the teacher bloggers teaching low income kids with no problems other than low skills?

KDeRosa said...

Cal, I don't think these kids are sped kids.

Anonymous said...

To clarify about Sp Ed, my district is extremely "inclusive" and has been for decades. Virtually all learning disabled, behaviorally challenged or mildly cognitively delayed students are included in regular classrooms. Teachers are expected to modify and differentiate as per the IEP.

The vast majority of the students I have taught are not Sp. Ed. but there are usually Sp. Ed. students in every group. That was true of the group in this anecdote and of the students I teach now. Fewer than 2% of our K-5 grade children have Sp. Ed. designations; that rises to maybe 3-4% in middle school. Naturally the percentage of low achievers is much MUCH higher. It is almost irrelevant if a kid is sped or not.

I have been in a school with low-income kids with relatively few discipline problems in the school; the fact that it was K-5 and mostly Asian in demographic may have made a difference. The other schools I have worked in are all variations on a theme, even though the specifics of the populations have been quite different from each other. They are not considered "good" places to work but I always liked a challenge. I am there by choice.

I belong to a listserve of Gr 4-8 teachers and several (teaching regular classes, not sped) report using classroom economies to varying degrees, so it's a strategy that is adaptable and works for different people. Someone with better teaching skills than mine might well never need it. I am only average in that department, so need all the help I can get from good curricula, management techniques and so forth. I'm no Jaime Escalante or Marva Collins. I admire those who can teach effectively without using such methods and materials, but I'm not one of them.

Anonymous said...

I was responding to her description of them as "all with both learning and behavior problems, and most seriously delayed academically". As written, that sounds like a sped class. I do understand mainstreaming; it just wasn't clear from your description.

Instead, you are saying that, in your opinion, they all had learning and behavior problems, but they all hadn't been so labelled? You had to come up with this system to teach a low income group of 5th and 6th graders (presumably black and Hispanic) who were well below average in skills, but only some of whom were sped? I admire your creativity, but I can't help wondering why it takes so much work to keep them in line.

I always read these other stories with shock, because I simply can't imagine a student actively not listening to me.

So assuming that I'm not just the world's best classroom manager, I wonder if any demographic and age factors make that much of a difference.

My generally positive experience with low income students comes from groups having the following characteristics:

All the low income students I teach are Hispanic and black (primarily Hispanic). I don't speak Spanish.

Most of the low income students I teach are high school students; in my experience, these kids are the most motivated. They see the future out there and are worried about it. Demonstrate value to your instruction and they'll try.

I have also taught reading and writing after school programs to junior high school students (6-8), which is, in my experience, the most difficult age for group teaching--they have nothing to gain from learning and little to lose from acting out. My group had much higher test scores after three months, but they took considerably more work to manage. However, other teachers in the same program had far more problems--kids running wild, not showing up, breaking things, and so on. I honestly wondered if I'd just ended up with the good kids, but they were randomly assigned.

I've also taught summer school reading and writing programs to 4-6th graders, who I find much easier than junior high students.

All of these students are suburban poor (midpeninsula Bay Area, which is pretty poor). These are the kids that NCLB revealed to be doing very badly, often in good schoools. In most cases, the kids are well below grade level capabilities.

I am usually given strict DI procedures and content, but I also usually ignore the instructions unless they are valuable and provide my own content when I think it's better. My kids always have off the chart improvements, so no one complains.

I'm paid less than any public school teacher, working part-time, no benefits. I'm not complaining about that; I do it for fun. I make plenty from private tutoring.

The other key difference may be that I am only teaching skills that even the most disillusioned kid will find valuable--reading, writing, math for test prep, getting higher test scores, and so on. I can't imagine having to teach things like ancient civilization or forensic science to kids who can't read at grade level.

So maybe, if I was stuck in an inner city classroom teaching forensic science to 12 year olds who read like second graders, I would have an uncontrollable class. I just can't imagine it, though.

But then, I read most teaching blogs on classroom management and am simply aghast. Maybe most people are simply beginning from a tier of ineffectiveness that I can't comprehend (I'm not referring to you, palisadesk).

My original question still stands for anyone who might care to speculate--why is it that so many of the bloggers, particularly the TFA bloggers, seem to end up in sped? I've alway wondered what was up with that. Surely, if there's any point to spending two years in the trenches, it should be spent teaching students who can best benefit from the instruction.

Anonymous said...

It's Liz from I Speak of Dreams.

Cal said:

My original question still stands for anyone who might care to speculate--why is it that so many of the bloggers, particularly the TFA bloggers, seem to end up in sped? I've alway wondered what was up with that. Surely, if there's any point to spending two years in the trenches, it should be spent teaching students who can best benefit from the instruction..

Oh, I see. SpEd = stupid.

Thanks for clarifying that point.

Anonymous said...

Having dealt with a lot of sped teachers, I often find them to be the most dedicated. They look at their charges as challenges, not liabilities. As a parent, these teachers made the burden of what we had to face so much easier. They always seem to care in a way that I don't see too much with reg ed.

This is why I think full inclusion is often not the best answer for some kids. I have never seen a reg ed teacher thrilled with the sped kids in his/her class.

And yes, Cal, sped kids can learn also, but not at the same speed or in the same way.

Anonymous said...

Cal, there's a whole urban jungle out there where chaos is the rule, not the exception. I didn't know it could really be like that until I was assigned to such a school, but they exist all over. Correspondents in my groups from other cities report similar situations. Fred Jones told us that he found that some teachers --likely you are one of these -- bring a repertoire of effective strategies with them "naturally," seemingly born that way. When he analyzed it, he found that what these effective teachers did without really being aware of it were things that other, less gifted, teachers could learn to do, and become effective teachers and classroom managers themselves. They, however, had to work at it -- some assiduously and over a long period of time. I am definitely one of this latter group.

Lots of elementary teachers go into the field because they like kids, enjoyed learning in school, are caring and nurturing, etc. They may have no idea how to get groups of kids to follow routines, listen to directions, stay on task etc. I didn't. These nice folks get eaten alive in "tough" schools. I know, it almost happened to me. And I have to laugh at the title of Ken's post -- I am no expert at all on effective classroom management. I work hard at it every single class, all day long, every day, with mixed results. It does not come naturally at all. But there are many people like me, and learning some of these things can mean the difference between burnout, breakdown or career change, or some success and satisfaction in making a contribution to kids' lives, if only on a small scale.

I learned nothing at all in pre-service courses about how to get kids to listen, cooperate and complete assignments. Most of my (mainly young and recently hired)colleagues tell me they didn't either. The idea is if you present interesting lessons the kids will just learn and do what you ask. This is not true and very unfair to the novice teacher. The behavior issues are the major cause of high staff turnover, stress ailments, absenteeism, breakdowns, etc. Many of our "tough" schools have a 30% turnover in staff every year, with "behavior problems" the number one reason given for teachers leaving.

On your point about teachers going into special ed, in my district the opposite happens. Many people start in special ed -- it's where the jobs are (and were when I started, too -- I taught special ed classes for a few years after I was first hired in this district. Paradoxically, I had no management problems there , because the classes were small and there was support staff and individual attention for kids ). Once teachers have tenure and some seniority they can move into other areas. I don't see many people starting out in general ed and moving to special ed. It's mostly the opposite. Those who stay in sp. ed. often see it as a real vocation. I don't care much about labels any more, I've seen too many "sp. ed" kids who were just instructionally disabled, and "general ed" kids who have real learning challenges.

Matthew K. Tabor said...

My original question still stands for anyone who might care to speculate--why is it that so many of the bloggers, particularly the TFA bloggers, seem to end up in sped?


I don't have to speculate - I know the answers.

I currently subscribe to 304 blogs and feeds, all but ~10 of which are education-related. First, most ed blogs don't focus on special education - I am not sure why you would conclude that "so many of the bloggers" are special ed. teachers. They are well-represented in the blogosphere, but that is largely explained by the expansion of special ed. accommodations and personnel and that it is a more rapidly-developing discipline than, in contrast, one like K-12 history. Disciplines on the move tend to drive their practitioners to communicate better and more often - so, we have a good sample of special ed. bloggers.

There are several other reasons for certain disciplines being better-represented in the blogosphere than others, but the ones I just gave suffice. Simply put, your claim is baseless and can be explained away both anecdotally and with data. I invite you to take a look at Scott McLeod's [Dangerously Irrelevant] recent ranking of ~50,000 education blogs. Though special ed blogs are, as I said, well-represented, in no way do they dominate the education blogosphere.

I've alway wondered what was up with that.

Alternative certification programs like TFA are largely used to meet pressing demands in high-needs schools. Right now, the most pressing areas tend to be special education and math/science. There are many openings and a shallow pool from which districts can draw; so, alternative cert. programs track their members into those positions more frequently than other disciplines.

That's why it seems like there are lots of TFAers in special ed and, consequently, why there are lots of TFAers blogging about special ed.

Surely, if there's any point to spending two years in the trenches, it should be spent teaching students who can best benefit from the instruction.

I'll let others handle this one.

Anonymous said...

Matt, I must have read your reasons incorrectly, because it appears you first said that my claim was baseless, and then agreed that certain disciplines (such as sped) are better represented than others. To the extent that I had a "claim" (which is an odd way of putting it), it involved the higher representation of sped teachers.

It actually wasn't a claim at all, more of an observation--one that palisadesk pointed out wasn't even true in her case.

As for the high dudgeon displayed by you and a couple others, I'm not sure where that's coming from. Teachers usually take two years to hit maximum effectiveness, from the research I've read. Given their inexperience, it seems obvious that new teachers would be more effective teaching students with only one problem (low academic abilities) or two or more problems (low academic abilities, behavioral problems, learning or processing disabilities). Students with serious problems would be considerably less able to benefit from a poor instructor. How some of you turned this into an insult to sped kids is beyond me.


"I don't see many people starting out in general ed and moving to special ed. It's mostly the opposite. "

Oh, I agree. That was what I was wondering. It seemed that the overrepresentation was caused by their newness. Thanks for confirming that impression.

Perhaps classroom management is just an innate ability. That would account for my shock when I read of teachers doing things that simply don't compute. I've noticed a similar disconnect among good and bad parents--that is, parents who can easily manage children and parents whose ineptness just boggles the mind.

Three qualities that inept teachers (and parents) lack:

1. Authority--you will do what I said because I said so, and that's reason enough.

2. Detachment--I don't have to try not to take things personally. It never occurs to me to take anything personally in the first place.

3. Enjoyment--not a desire to do good, not a desire to help people, just a simple pleasure in explaining things and providing value to the student.

Without these three qualities, the teacher will have a lot of trouble achieving the one thing they need from their students: trust.

I expect my students to trust me on two points. First, that I know what I'm talking about. Second, that I will never waste their time any more than it already has been by their being forced to sit in class.

"Lots of elementary teachers go into the field because they like kids, enjoyed learning in school, are caring and nurturing, etc."

That makes a stunning amount of sense. And the thing is, none of those qualities really matter to effective teaching.

Anonymous said...

Whoops--one edit:

effective teaching students with only one problem ...THAN teaching students with two or more problems

Matthew K. Tabor said...

First, I'm not offended at all - the problem is that your points [implied and explicit] are wrong. I was clear about why in my first comment.

You said that "most of the teacher bloggers teach sped," which is completely untrue. My comment explained why there's a solid number of special ed blogs [and could have expanded - special ed teachers are, on average, younger and more prone to using technology, they've undertaken training more recently, etc.]. I referred you to a comprehensive list that provides data to back up what I said. Saying that special ed is represented in the blogosphere more strongly than, for example, Latin, doesn't run counter to my conclusion that what you implied in your questions is without merit.

A grace period for instruction would be excellent. We'd have teachers who were better prepared and, consequently, would be more effective. We'd avoid the tenures of inexperienced teachers that we currently endure, however long or short they may be, until a teacher eliminates his major pedagogical flaws.

Unfortunately, public education - and particularly high-needs schools - doesn't have the luxury of a minor league farm system.

High-needs schools have to fill positions immediately. If they don't, they'll have to hire far worse candidates than TFAers without much experience.

If you'd like to go to the schools served by TFA and other alternative certification programs and tell parents, staff, administration and Boards that they're just going to have to wait two years to fill their open positions - but that research has shown that their 24-month wait will grant them better teachers - be my guest.

Tracy W said...

I often teach low income minority children with much lower than average skills, and I have next to no classroom management problems. I'm sure I'm not all *that* unusual.

As someone who went through school and remembers a bit of what I was like at that age, I think you are unusual. I went to a single-sex girls high school that was a public school (state, for any Brits) but drawing on a wealthy area, and we managed to get three of our teachers to leave the room in tears in 4th form. Not that I'm proud of it, but we were at the time.

CrypticLife said...

"Perhaps classroom management is just an innate ability."

No, it isn't. There may be some personal qualities one might have that would make them well-suited to managing a classroom, but classroom management itself is a learned skill. It can be taught, and teachers can get better at it.

I'd suggest you review these posts carefully even if you don't feel you have any behavior management issues. Posts by Mamacita and Dennis Fermoyle suggest that a lot of experienced teachers have problems with students in their classrooms. Suggestions such as these may help you in advising teachers who do have difficulty (who may certainly be worthwhile as teachers for other reasons). In fact, I'd suspect you'd be better equipped to translate dry academic knowledge into actual practice than many.

If managing a class so that you can't even imagine someone not listening comes so naturally to you, it's a shame not to pass that on.

Anonymous said...

"You said that 'most of the teacher bloggers teach sped,' which is completely untrue."

Herein lies the problem, as I pointed out earlier. I am, seriously, boggled that you perceived this as a claim, rather than an observation that seemed obvious--namely, sped teachers seemed overrepresented in the blogging community. I restated it long before you entered the conversation in my followup post: "why is it that so many of the bloggers, particularly the TFA bloggers, seem to end up in sped?"

So you converted it to a claim and then rushed to disprove it. In reality, I had so little notion of "claiming" anything that your recitation of facts did nothing but amuse me. You're just a tad hyperliteral for casual ol' me.

Even funnier was that, to the extent I had a question, your attempt to prove me wrong in fact made me think "Ha! I was right. New teachers are sent to sped more often." And for that, I thank you. I love being right about my casual observations.

"High-needs schools have to fill positions immediately. If they don't, they'll have to hire far worse candidates than TFAers without much experience."

This doesn't make sense as written, but I suspect you mean that high need schools have to put new teachers where they have openings and that they can either use TFAers or go with even less qualified (that is, less intelligent) people.

You are implicitly assuming, I think, that schools have no control over their open positions. They can't just assign more experienced teachers to sped because the existing teachers have seniority and would refuse the positions.

If your assumption is correct, then sped teachers are in short supply for a very different reason than math teachers. We don't have qualified math teachers. We don't have willing sped teachers. Thus, beginning teachers without math skills are shunted to the undesirable jobs.

If--note the big if--new, non-math teachers are shunted to sped because those are the only jobs available, then that's a big problem.

Given that new teachers leave the profession in large numbers, it seems worth wondering what percentage of those teachers are leaving because they have no desire to teach sped and, when they realize that's all they'll get, move on to something productive (working in Starbucks, for example. But don't be hyperliteral again.)

If, say, 5% of new, non-math teachers are in sped, then maybe it's not a problem. If that number is closer to 40%, then I wonder if anyone has examined what percentage of new teachers leaving the profession come from sped.

If new teachers are leaving the profession because they are forced into sped, then perhaps everyone should be told before they sign up that odds are they will be teaching sped for X years.

Has any research been done on this? For example, what percentage of TFA's teachers are sent to sped, and how many of them requested sped? I ask because I've never seen it mentioned in media coverage, and I wonder if it's just politically incorrect, as opposed to not relevant.

"It (classroom management) can be taught, and teachers can get better at it."

I don't think "innate" precludes acquisition through learning, does it? I wasn't implying a dichotomy.

As for advising other teachers, I took a pass at it in my previous post. In my experience, though, most teachers have strong ideological values that would probably be violated by my advice for classroom management.

Troy Camplin said...

This economics idea is pure genius. Proof that economic systems create ethical behavior.