By David Washburn
It doesn’t get the attention that curriculums and test scores do, but classroom management — the art and craft of keeping a room full of 20 eight-year-olds, or 35 teenagers, engaged and under control — is among the most challenging aspects of a teacher’s job.
And it’s something for which new teachers are often the least prepared. Historically, a typical teacher credentialing program in California offered a one-credit course in classroom management, and some not even that, according to interviews with teachers, school administrators and those who run the programs.
A 2012 survey cited in a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that over 40 percent of new teachers reported feeling either “not at all prepared” or “only somewhat prepared” to handle a range of classroom management or discipline situations. The same report said it was “the top problem” identified by teachers.
“Classroom management is extraordinarily absent in teaching certification programs,” said Mike Lombardo, director of prevention supports and services for the Placer County Office of Education.
But this is beginning to change. California school districts, responding to pressure from parent groups, youth advocates and the state, are eschewing punitive discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, and asking teachers to focus much more on the social and emotional needs of their students.
A big push is coming from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which is responsible for establishing best practices in teaching, from subject area standards to special education. In June of last year, the commission rolled out a revised set of performance expectations that, among other things, require new teachers to be steeped in alternatives to traditional discipline.
Using “principles of positive behavior intervention” and implementing practices that “provide a safe and caring classroom climate” are key aspects of the credentialing commission’s new expectations.
“This has been a much bigger change than in years past,” said Teri Clark, the credentialing commission’s director of special services.
New rules in an era of discipline reform
The changes in teacher performance expectations, along with a similar overhaul of the expectations for school administrators, are the latest signal that teachers are no longer as free to remove disruptive students from their classrooms as they were in the past.
In recent years the state Legislature has outlawed suspensions for willful defiance of school authorities and disruption for grades K-3 as data have overwhelmingly showed that these suspensions are disproportionately meted out to students of color and those with disabilities. A handful of districts, including Oakland Unified and Los Angeles Unified, have outlawed willful defiance/disruption suspensions for all grades.
And some school boards — including those overseeing the Los Angeles and San Diego unified school districts — are passing measures like a “school climate bill of rights,” which, among other things, mandates that schools employ restorative justice as an alternative to traditional discipline when students get into fights or cause other trouble.
Finally, suspension and expulsion rates are one of the indicators that are included in the California School Dashboard, the centerpiece of the state’s new school accountability system. Using color-coded symbols, the dashboard measures a school’s success is reducing suspension rates along with other indicators, including English and math test scores and English learner progress.
Among the alternatives being emphasized in the new performance expectations is restorative justice, a practice that prioritizes relationship building and making amends over punishment when someone misbehaves.
“[Beginning teachers should] promote students’ social-emotional growth, development and individual responsibility using positive interventions and supports, restorative justice and conflict resolution practices to foster a caring community where each student is treated fairly and respectfully by adults and peers,” according to the new expectations.
Also emphasized is trauma-informed teaching, which addresses how the trauma children experience at home and in their neighborhoods affects their behavior and learning at school.
The new expectations call for teachers-in-training who began a credentialing program in September 2017 to not only have studied these new behavior management approaches, but demonstrate proficiency of them in the classroom by the time they graduate in June 2019.
“Before this year it was much more hit and miss across the different cohorts,” said. J. Kris Rodenberg, associate director of the School of Teacher Education at San Diego State University. “Some would give more attention to classroom management and behavior interventions than others. Now we have much more uniformity — we know that in class X the professor must address Y number of standards.”
A lack of expertise?
But establishing the standards is just a start, say Rodenberg and others who run teacher credentialing programs. They still need to find the faculty in teacher preparation programs who have practical experience with approaches like restorative justice and PBIS, then find student teaching placements, and eventually jobs, where new teachers can practice those skills.
“I don’t know if your average professor even has the background to talk about restorative justice and classroom management,” said Kelly Johnson, who is an adjunct professor in the teacher credentialing program at San Diego State University. “In many cases it’s been a long time since they’ve been in the classroom, or they weren’t a classroom teacher for very long and don’t know the tricks of the trade.”
Brad Strong, who is senior director for education policy at Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy organization, was a member of the workgroup that helped the teacher credentialing commission write the new standards. He says they are a big step in the right direction, yet he’s concerned about how long it will take for them to take root in teacher preparation programs.
“We know there are tons of faculty paying considerable attention to this,” Strong said. “But we have a long way to go to ensure that candidates leave these programs with the knowledge and skills they need in the classroom.”
But that raises another question: If they do leave the programs with the necessary skills, will they go to a place where they can put them to good use? Interviews and a survey by EdSource reveal that awareness of restorative justice and other alternatives to traditional discipline is high, but implementation is spotty.
“When you land your first job, your go-to is not what was in your credentialing program, it’s the school’s policy,” Johnson said.
Rodenberg said students in San Diego State’s program are introduced to new approaches to classroom management and they practice them in class. “Once they go out into the field, we would hope that they try to apply it,” she said. “The reality though is it is very difficult to assess the degree to which our student teachers are able to apply what they learned in the classroom.”
Strong hopes that problem will be solved with better surveys of teachers in the field, which is part of the system overhaul and, going forward, a key component of the accreditation of teacher credentialing programs.
“I know there is much work to be done to ensure that positive school climates, classroom management and restorative justice are deeply imparted to candidates in the programs of professional preparation,” Strong said. “The cycle of accreditation is now going to be deeply informed by candidate surveys, mentor teacher surveys and school-site leader surveys on competence of student teachers in these areas.”