Sep 03 2012

Is Bad Classroom Management Destiny?

My number one complaint about TFA for the past few years has been that the student teaching component of the institute is not long enough (12 to 18 days, one hour a day) with classes that are too small (often less than ten students).  It is not possible to learn how to manage a full size class this way, no matter how long you spend on detailed lesson plans or reflect on what your classroom management ‘system’ will be.

Without classroom management, you can’t be an ‘effective’ teacher.  You will spend too much of your energy each day trying to get the class to listen, you will not complete your lessons, you will not have energy at the end of the day for planning for the next day.  It is a vicious cycle.

I’ve been reading the blog of Mississippi Delta middle school math teacher called ‘Anna in the Delta.’  This is a very well written blog and I really appreciate the honesty that I’ve read.  To me, she is having an extremely ‘typical’ TFA experience, particularly for a middle school teacher.

In her recent post she writes about an incident where a student stabbed another with a pencil and trying to break up the near fight afterwards, finally rescued by the teacher next door.  Reading this, I am extremely sympathetic since this is not very different from what I was experiencing around this time 21 years ago.

Since I’ve written a book just about discipline and another that has two pretty big chapters about it, new teachers sometimes email me to ask for advice about how to ‘tame’ a class that has gotten out of control.  Anna in the Delta has not asked for my advice, but there could be others who are a bit less brave about sharing their struggles who might be going though a similar experience and wondering.

I used to talk to groups of TFA teachers during induction or institute about classroom management.  TFA eventually stopped letting me do these during the summer but a few years ago they offered to let me come speak to corps members in November who were having classroom management issues.  I declined the invitation (the last invitation I ever got from TFA to do anything) because I truly believe something that is not going to make a lot of people happy to hear — that it is too late.  First impressions are important and the old expression “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” is very true in the classroom.

I know there are many stories about teachers who have ‘had enough’ and ‘decide’ that things are going to ‘change’ but I think most of them are lying.  I know from my own experience that the kids let up on me a bit when there was about a month left of school, but that was out of pity rather than respect, and not after torturing me for nine months.

Classroom management is about prevention.  That’s really what I was good at, not ‘taming’ a class that was completely out of control.  That’s what my first book ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’ was about.

So Anna can expect what I experienced which was a gruesome uphill battle for the entire year.  This is just the beginning of September.  She “ain’t seen nothing yet.”  This story about the pencil will be looked back at in a few months as when she “had just one bad class.”  TFA support people will try their best, but it will be too late for them too.  The whole “a stitch in time saves nine” applies to TFA training.  If they would do a better job with the summer training, they would not need all the support directors.

If I’m right about this, it means that Anna will need a lot of courage to even make it though the year.  Like me, her voice will be gone by October.  She will feel like she is going to war every day.

As much as I love to be right, I truly hope I’m wrong this time.

If it is any consolation, I think that a middle school teacher can’t do that much ‘damage’ to her students since they only see her for a little bit of time each day.  The damage will be suffered mainly by the teacher herself.  It is a shame that TFA refuses to improve the training model so this wouldn’t have to happen so often.

So things are bad because of mistakes this teacher has already made, and though I don’t know exactly what they are, I see two things in this post that are worth thinking about.  First there is something about how she challenges her students to ‘math raps’ — bad idea.  Now I am a big fan of creative math lessons and even fun ones, but not before classroom management is firmly established.  Math raps make kids want to misbehave.  It is unfortunate, but true.  Also, she wrote about how she is going to conference with the girl who started the fight and “Tomorrow I am going to talk to S at the beginning of class and tell her that she might be angry with life (her home situation is pretty mess up), but under no circumstances can she take her anger out in my classroom on my students who are there to learn.”  I don’t think is is a good idea.  To assume the girl misbehaved because she was ‘angry with life’ rather than maybe just because she doesn’t respect the teacher, for whatever reason, could alienate the student.  Also, note that already so early in the year this teacher has used the expression “students who are there to learn.”  I think that this girl was also there to learn, but didn’t feel like she was learning.  Maybe she doesn’t think that math raps qualify as learning.

Anyway, I do hope that Anna continues blogging.  Teaching middle school math my first year is what nearly killed me.  To quote Nietzsche “What does not kill me makes me stronger” so Anna, if she makes it through the year (I’m rooting for her), will be a very strong second year teacher.

8 Responses

  1. I actually do think it is often possible for a teacher who got off to a bad start management-wise to fix things. Well, if it’s off to a bad start because the students actively dislike the teacher or because they find him or her ridiculous, maybe not so much, but if it is off to a bad start because of disorganization or just general ineffectualness I have seen people turn things around (maybe not perfectly, but enough that learning can happen) by learning to maintain a calm, professional demeanor and adopting a consistent, firm approach. It is an uphill slog, though.

  2. Anna

    Next time you use me as an example for a blog post, ask my permission first. Yes, I know my first year will most likely be hell, but stumbling upon an entire post about how bleak you think my prospects are is infuriating, especially since I have little enough support as it is. If you have constructive advice or feedback, email me and we can continue this discussion then.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Hi Anna,

      I know you’ve got enough to worry about without also having to worry about me scrutinizing your struggles. Honestly I wrote this because I’m angry at TFA ‘for’ you. You’re having to go though the ‘trial by fire’ because they did not provide you with sufficient training. You say that you have little enough support, well where is TFA to help you now? The fact is that they really only ‘need’ a small percent of TFAers to be successful so they can shine a spotlight on them and show how much more federal money they deserve.

      So where does this leave you? Well, if you want to read my early posts from 2008-2010 you can get a lot of my advice. Much of my advice, though, is not so relevant for you now because it really applies to what to do to prevent getting into the situation you are in now.

      I do not plan to write about your year while it is going on. I don’t need to do an “I told you so.” Whether I am right or wrong about how tough your year will be, the only point I was trying to make was that you should be angry with TFA. I know that it may not seem productive, or proactive, to be the victim. I know that TFA encourages you to concentrate on your ‘locus of control.’

      And maybe it is possible to turn around your year. Just because I wasn’t able to turn around my first year doesn’t mean that it is impossible.

      My experience with middle schoolers is that they need extreme amounts of structure. Maybe the direct instruction part of the lesson can be about 15 minutes at the most and then they have to practice, practice, practice. Most days are pretty boring in that way, but they can build their skills and — I think this is really important — prove it to themselves that they have learned by getting a good grade on a quiz or something (which you should make much easier than you want to). If turning around a bad first year is possible, that would be, in my opinion, the best way to start.

      Good luck to you.


    • Did you ask your students and their families for permission to write publicly about them?

  3. Fernanda

    Dear Mr. Rubinstein,

    Regardless of what your stance on TFA is, it is the way you went about it that comes off as mean-spirited and quite frankly, ignorant, despite your 21 years in education.

    First off, I agree with Anna that if ever you are going to write something about someone or their work on a public forum, you should always ask for permission. It’s just simple, straight-forward common courtesy. And I don’t feel that judging someone’s teaching from their blog is an adequate manner of doing so, because you don’t see how these “math raps” work in a classroom setting or the student’s responses to it. From what I gather, you have never even met this teacher or any of these students, so how can you pinpoint what the cause of their misbehavior is? Not every student is the same, and after 21 years in education, I’m sure you know that already.

    What would have made this a worth-while post would have been to hear your experience. What were your initial short-comings/errors, and how did you overcome them? What worked and what didn’t, and how does this compare to TFA’s way of doing things? If you were part of TFA, write about your experience with it, and what you liked and/or didn’t like. Or if you weren’t, how about asking someone whose gone through TFA about their experience and whether or not it prepared them enough for managing their own classes? Just don’t forget to ask that TFAer if you may mention them in your post. Get the information directly from them (not a blog post), and maybe take the time to observe them in the classroom before drawing conclusions about their teaching.

    The fact that you tell Anna how she should feel in your response, that she should be mad at TFA, and that you don’t “need to do an ‘I told you so’” post derives from a myriad of assumptions about her, her experience, and how it will go. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be to come across a post that was written about you, without your knowledge, that scrutinizes you and your methods, at the beginning of your teaching career, without even having watched you in action– and that is exactly what was done here.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Hi Fernanda,

      I’ve already written extensively about my own first year. My first book ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’ covers that and I also spoke about my first year a lot in the workshops I presented which you can find links to in my blog. I’m very honest about how much I struggled and how many mistakes I made.
      This is why, I guess, I have this anger about how TFA continues to neglect to prepare people properly. 21 years ago it was understandable that they didn’t know how to warn me properly, but now? TFA sugar-coats what teaching is like for many, if not most, of the CMs and then the new ones get a false sense of confidence and get blown out of the water.
      Any amount of ‘math raps’ for 7th graders in the first month is too much is my opinion. I could be wrong, but it is my opinion.
      Also when someone puts a blog ‘out there’ I’m not so sure that others need permission to link to them. My blog is linked to all the time. I prefer that when someone links to me they don’t just quote me, but put an actual link so people can see what I wrote in the proper context. I’ve never been asked to give permission. So many blogs refer to other blogs. That’s just the nature of blogging so I don’t think I’m going to be the only one who asks permission.
      This ‘critiquing new CMs’ is such a small part of what I write about. Generally in the beginning of the year I do it a little since it might help someone who hasn’t started yet from making the same mistakes that I see here.
      Well, sorry if you were offended by my post. I supposed I do get pretty worked up when I see CMs who, by no fault of their own, are poorly trained and suffer because of it. It’s really not fair to those CMs.

  4. Sowmya

    Wow, could we stop with the unsolicited advice? I mean, man, do you have anything better to do that sit on your ass and criticize TFA blogs all day?

    Using the singular pencil stabbing incident to criticize and determine Anna in the Delta’s prospects for the entire year… assuming that Anna in the Delta’s math raps make up the entirety of her instruction methods?–Don’t you think that’s a little bit myopic? Yeah, you may have been a middle school math teacher, but there is clearly some arrogance you need to shake off before trying to be of assistance of others. No wonder TFA told you to stop talking to their corp members about behavior management in the classroom! You have an incredibly condescending way of discussing what you do which I think actually makes YOUR prospects for being an effective teacher incredibly slim. Don’t make first year teachers feel bad about how they are tackling a job with an incredibly steep learning curve just because you need a forum to express your political views against Teach for America. If you want to talk about this stuff, leave Anna in the Delta and her peers out of it. Don’t pretend like you’re trying to support Anna at all with your comments… the motivation for your post is actually your own incredibly selfish need to toot your own horn and make others feel small. You can take your my way or the highway attitude back to your classroom and alienate your own students, but don’t undermine other teachers’ confidence because of your own insecurities.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      You sure seem angry. Nobody is forced to read what I write. Fortunately there’s a group of people who do like to read my analyses of different things and that’s really who I’m writing for. They read this because they know I’m going to speak my mind and even if I’m wrong about what I’m saying, it will, hopefully, be thought provoking.
      I really don’t criticize TFA blogs all day. I think out of about 300 blog posts, maybe 10 are of that nature. And a post like this only takes about 20 minutes to write, so it isn’t all day.
      For 20 years I’ve been sending the message to new teachers that I think it is impossible to turn around a bad start to a school year. It’s just what I think. That’s why the bulk of my advice is how to avoid the common new-teacher mistakes that cause teachers to lose control. I’ve really been consistent with this message for probably about as long as you’ve been alive. This post was really nothing new in that way.

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