In researching one of the stories for Education Week's recent "Rethinking Discipline" series, I learned how critical teachers' classroom management skills are to their real mission: engaging students in their learning.
States and districts are coaching teachers, especially those newer to the profession, in all sorts of ways, but one method especially caught my eye, or should I say, my ear.
Teach For America is using one tool that works live and in the moment to advise teachers as they work with their students. Teachers are fitted with earbuds, while a mentor equipped with a walkie-talkie watches them in action, giving them cues and suggestions in real time.
It was life-changing for Laura Fletcher, a 3rd grade teacher at McDonough #32 charter school in New Orleans.
"It is a wholly different experience to have someone in your ear ... literally reshaping your habits," Fletcher told me.
Fletcher had just a few brief sessions of coaching this way, but they helped her address an issue the second-year teacher had struggled with for a while. Something she experiences every day in her classroom: She gives students a clear set of directions, and while students are initially on task, their resolve quickly unravels.
"I'll be across the room helping one student and I'm starting to hear murmurs or shifts," she said. "I looked up across the room. Four kids had stopped their work and were turning to chat with each other."
In the past, she would have given each of the students a warning for clearly breaking the rules. Not anymore.
"What the coach said was, 'Narrate what the student in front of those kids is doing. So-and-so is working silently,' " Fletcher said. She gave it a try. "Magically, two kids working next to him started working silently."
Two other students turned to look at her, making eye contact. Though she didn't say anything else, the remaining students got Fletcher's message. "It's a way of me saying 'I recognize the two kids who have returned to the expectation. You are not currently following the expectation. Are you going to or not?' As has happened in 99 percent of the cases, the kids returned right to work."
She avoids assigning consequences quickly now, except to the 1 percent of students who don't resume their work.
A focus on positive behavior is one of many approaches that is gaining more traction in schools, Fletcher said. (As part of the series, for example, I visited one school that has really taken this approach to heart.)
Initially, the concept had Fletcher thinking educators were rallying behind "sunshine and rainbows and gold stickers," she said. Now she understands it's about "making the majority of things that you say be things that you want to see: Kids following directions, working hard—so kids who are not at that point redirect themselves."
Earbuds and walkie-talkies or not, many young teachers find live coaching can be invaluable. A low-tech version of this took place in Sasha Inouye's kindergarten classroom at Kalihi Elementary in Honolulu this school year. Inouye has a mentor, provided by the New Teacher Center Hawaii. Mentor Sherilyn Waters helped Inouye modify her discipline plan and create a visual reminder for students. Everyone starts out at green on the stoplight. Yellow means their first warning, and losing five minutes of free time at recess. Red costs students all of their free time. And black? Calling students parents.
Inouye said she had just been reminding her young charges—most of whom had no preK experience—of their spot on the light, but Waters advised her to create a visual reminder for her students.
And once, when Waters wanted Inouye to set better expectations for how students should line up and collect themselves before filing into class, Waters just whispered in the new teacher's ear.
"'Wait until they're ready. Ask them to show you that they're ready,' " Waters told Inouye.
Back in New Orleans, Fletcher said that old adage about practice making perfect doesn't quite hold true. "Classroom management is such a complicated tool. Really it only functions when it's being used correctly. You can practice it over and over again. If you're not practicing correctly it's not going to work."
The real time coaching, used with about 3 percent of Teach for America's corps of teachers last school year, "gives me the opportunity to have this tiny slice of perfect practice," Fletcher said. "Perfect practice makes perfect."