CORVALLIS - Prospective and experienced teachers alike spend a lot of time every year learning about better ways to teach math, science, reading, spelling and social studies. But experts are now saying that the one subject which may help them teach more effectively is frequently overlooked.
"Teachers who lack developed skills in this area almost inevitably experience difficulty in the area of management," said Barb McEwan, associate professor of education at Oregon State University. "Yet, despite its obvious importance, classroom management is the topic least attended to professionally.
"It's ironic," she added, "because every teacher I speak to says successful classroom management is the key to all learning."
McEwan is a nationally recognized expert on the topic. She is co-editing a book called "Classroom Discipline in American Schools" with University of Washington professor Ronald E. Butchart. She also is the author of "Practicing Judicious Discipline" and "On Being the Boss."
Classroom management, she says, is much more difficult in the 1990s. Classrooms are growing larger and more diverse, "mainstreaming" has brought more students with learning disabilities into K-12 classrooms, and school budgets are being pinched, forcing the elimination of counselors, aides and other valuable resources. The needs of students in the average classroom is greater than ever.
As the challenges increase, McEwan says, educators who work with teachers need to help them meet the needs of their students by providing resources and support for classroom management issues.
"Teacher education programs around the country tend either to ignore the subject of classroom management or embed it in other courses so that a good deal of necessary information is lost, or never discussed," McEwan said. "The mistaken idea shaping these programs seems to be that if the curriculum is interesting enough, classroom management will just take care of itself.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," she added.
In reality, McEwan says, successful classroom management involves an "eclectic set of skills," including counseling ability, understanding legal issues, and the use of management strategies based on human rights and social responsibility.
"I try to have my students ask themselves what teachers can do to help their students grow into responsible adults," McEwan said. "Don't just teach for the moment, prepare them for the future."
McEwan said a growing number of teachers find classroom management a constant source of struggle and anxiety. Most of them, she says, share a common trait - the fear of losing control. That fear often leads teachers to abandon democratic management practices and revert to more punitive steps they feel will end inappropriate conduct.
Punishment rarely, if ever, works, she said.
"Surprisingly, a lot of experienced classroom teachers were not model students when they were in school," McEwan said. "When I ask them to recall their most vivid experiences, almost all of them point to a situation in which they were disciplined and felt humiliated. They remember that acutely, 20 or 30 years later, as if it happened yesterday.
"I've heard how they were placed in dark closets, restrained in chairs, or made to sit under their desks. I have yet, however, to hear from a single adult who says these experiences taught them to behave in a more appropriate way. What they remember are feelings of fear and humiliation."
Instead of punishment, McEwan believes in helping students make restitution. If a student mars a school wall with graffiti, he or she can help the custodian clean it up. Counseling also is effective, she added. The teacher may initiate a series of heart-to-heart discussions with the student, a meeting with parents, or appropriate community service. Putting students out in the hall, or even suspending them, is rarely effective, she said.
So what do you do when an unruly student continually disrupts the class?
"Problems will always happen," McEwan said. "It goes with the job. You can't wait until things fall apart to address them. The first thing teachers need to do in September is to work with the class to develop expectations for behaviors. Outline the way problems might be addressed. If a problem goes on day after day, the teacher needs to look at the cause of what's going on with that person rather than addressing the symptoms.
"It may be a problem at home, it may be a medical situation. When a teacher says, 'I'm in over my head,' they need to bring in appropriate resources - a counselor, a special needs teacher from the district or ESD (education service district), or the police or child protective services, if abuse is suspected."
McEwan said school districts need to do a better job of supporting teachers in their efforts to use positive classroom management practices. She encourages "peer tutoring" by other professionals to help teachers who may be having problems, or hiring consultants to sit in on classes, if needed.
"A lot of teachers, new and experienced, think of classroom management as a series of secret formulas that will allow them to control their classrooms," McEwan said. "They think these issues can be reduced to a magic bag of teaching tricks. That is unrealistic.
"It's hard work and teachers need support and information to get the job done."
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Barb McEwan, 541-737-5987