Classroom management skills matter as much as curriculum [Commentary]

The results of the much-anticipated PISA exams, which measure student performance around the world, are out and basically indicate a standstill for U.S. children. The most recent 2012 scores are not too far off from those achieved when the test was first administered over a decade ago. At some point we have to acknowledge that other countries are slowly creeping up and passing our nation's students. To start seeing change, we need to implement some quick, easy fixes today.

Classroom management has always been the toughest part of teaching. Good management strategies are necessary to get a classroom of kids engaged in learning. When I first entered the classroom after four years of training in elementary education, I was overwhelmed. No matter how carefully I planned a lesson, I was daunted by the idea of engaging 28 active second graders all at the same time. As one teacher described it, "trial and error in the trenches" was simply how classroom management was learned.

But apparently teachers echo my woes across the nation. According to a December 2013 report by the National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ), teacher training programs have rarely given classroom management strategies the attention they deserve. When teacher preparation programs do not teach these proven strategies or provide graduates with opportunities for supervised practice and feedback, years of research go to waste.

Establishing a positive learning environment does not come easily or automatically to most teachers. Effective classroom management skills can take years of experience to develop. And many teachers don't make it through those first stressful years of trial and error to figure out what works. Driving home from a trying day in which my students had become unruly, throwing wads of paper and basically ignoring my alternating pleas for compliance and threats of punishment, I broke down in tears.

My next teaching assignment was a part-time position in a middle school, where I had no permanent classroom. I was assigned to teach math in the music room, and then roll my cart of books and papers to another teacher's classroom, where I taught language arts while she was at lunch. So I was not surprised that one 2010 study found that novice teachers were more likely to be assigned to the most challenging schools and the most challenging students and that new teacher turnover was directly linked to student behavior and performance.

Through the nights of tears and days of struggle, I eventually found a small special education school where I could be successful. Another 2010 study, paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that within five years, 30 percent of new teachers left the profession. And attrition rates for new teachers are steadily increasing. There is a high cost associated with this growing rate of teacher turnover. In 2009, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future issued a policy brief titled the Cost of Teacher Turnover, which calculated that U.S. school districts spend at least $7.2 billion per year to continually replace teachers who leave.

My experience was not unique. My current position as curriculum coordinator at the Gateway School in Baltimore allows me to support younger teachers as they learn to manage a classroom. The NCTQ report describes a standardized approach to classroom management practices based on five research-based principles: rules, routines, praise, misbehavior and engagement.

This report now provides the teaching profession with a body of research identifying classroom management strategies that are most important for teacher candidates to learn. If students are to achieve college and career readiness in the 21st Century, then teacher training programs must equip future teachers with proven strategies for classroom management. The NCTQ says, "training that is carefully designed to prepare teacher candidates to be both effective instructors and effective classroom managers will help make the first year a happier and more rewarding experience for both students and teachers." I hope that my experiences and those of my colleagues will pave the way for better teacher training so we can elevate the career and professionalism of future teachers.

Beth Panitz is a Baltimore teacher and curriculum coordinator. Her email is

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