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Are Aspiring Teachers Learning Classroom Management? It Varies

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For many first-year teachers, getting a handle on classroom management can be one of the hardest parts of the job. 

Yet the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based group that advocates for more rigorous teacher preparation, has found that just 14 percent of traditional teacher-preparation programs require candidates to demonstrate their ability in five research-based classroom management strategies. Thirty-five percent of programs require candidates to demonstrate their ability in four of the five strategies that NCTQ says have been proven to lead to positive effects on students' behavior.

Those strategies are: establishing rules and routines that set expectations for behavior, maximizing learning time, reinforcing positive behavior, redirecting off-task behavior without interrupting instruction, and addressing serious misbehavior with consistent, respectful, and appropriate consequences. 

"There is just as much reason for a kindergarten teacher to be taught and to practice these strategies as there is for a 12th grade [Advanced Placement] teacher," said NCTQ President Kate Walsh. "They're universal."

NCTQ asked programs to submit observation and evaluation forms used by supervisors or mentor teachers to measure how student-teachers or initial licensure candidates performed during their first year in the classroom. They also asked for any accompanying rubrics or guides. While NCTQ's document-review process has been criticized in the past, programs are now given a chance to submit additional evidence once they see their preliminary scores, and NCTQ only evaluated programs if its analysts were able to review all relevant forms.

NCTQ scored 979 traditional teacher-prep programs and 40 alternative programs on their approaches to classroom management. The analysis found that a third of non-traditional programs required candidates to demonstrate their ability in all five strategies.

Since 2013, when NCTQ first began measuring classroom management training, there has been a sizable increase in the number of programs that focus on evidence-based approaches. That's been aided by the fact that Massachusetts and Missouri now require student-teaching evaluations that require candidates to model four of the five essential classroom management strategies. (Massachusetts omits the strategy addressing serious misbehavior, and Missouri does not require candidates to reinforce positive behavior.)

Even so, 13 percent of traditional programs require candidates to model just one or none of the five strategies. 

While establishing rules and routines and maximizing learning time are the most commonly taught classroom management strategies, fewer than a third of programs teach candidates how to reinforce good behavior with praise. Research shows that when done well, praise from the teacher can improve student behavior and increase a student's self-motivation to learn.

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But teacher-preparation programs have historically been reluctant to teach praise due to concerns that students won't be intrinsically motivated to learn, Walsh said. 

She pointed, however, to work from psychologist Daniel Willingham, who says that effective, meaningful praise is sincere and emphasizes process rather than ability. If done right, students will feel motivated to succeed.

"Praise is extremely effective, but there's a right way or a wrong way to use it," Walsh said. "You don't say, 'You're so smart,' to a child, you say, 'That was really smart thinking you showed here.' You're not labeling them, you're praising the act."

A Need for Effective Mentor Teachers

NCTQ also looked at how about 1,180 traditional teacher-preparation programs and 59 alternative preparation programs approach student-teaching. Programs were asked to provide student teaching handbooks and syllabi, correspondence between programs and school districts about the selection process of the mentor teacher, applications from mentor teachers, and contracts between the programs and the districts. Again, they were given a chance to review their score and submit additional evidence as needed. 

NCTQ says that for clinical practice to be high-quality, it must occur over a period of at least 10 weeks and take place for most or all of the school day. Candidates must be observed at least four times during the semester and receive written feedback with each observation. And the teacher-prep program must play a role in selecting a mentor teacher who is deemed effective based on student learning. 

The majority of traditional teacher-preparation programs—65 percent—earned a "C" grade on their clinical practice. While nearly all programs require at least 10 weeks of student-teaching, and 71 percent of programs provide what NCTQ considers to be a sufficient number of observations by a supervisor, most programs do not have any involvement in selecting a mentor teacher.

Only 4 percent of programs confirm the instructional and/or mentorship skills of the teacher assigned to a teacher-candidate. Instead, the programs typically accept whoever the district selects—which is often whoever volunteers.

Research has found that first-year teachers can be as effective as typical third-year teachers if they spent their student-teaching experience in the classrooms of highly effective teachers. But researchers have also found in the past that highly effective teachers might be reluctant to serve as mentors because it's a lot of work that doesn't come with a lot of pay. According to a 2016 study, the average mentor teacher receives about $200. 

Also, Walsh said, many effective teachers are reluctant to volunteer to serve as mentors because they don't know the quality of the teacher-candidate who could be assigned to them. She said programs should ensure the quality of their candidates just as they should play a more active role in ensuring the effectiveness of mentor teachers. 

"Teacher-prep programs cannot send student-teachers into working classrooms who don't possess minimal knowledge of things like how to teach reading," she said. "They have to stop insisting every student-teacher be placed regardless of their quality, and school districts have to screen for quality [of their mentor teachers]." 

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has also called for increased collaboration between school districts and teacher prep-programs to ensure that candidates are supported throughout their clinical experience. This is especially important this school year, AACTE said, as many districts remain fully remote. 

The NCTQ report highlighed Atlanta's Fulton County school system as a place where teacher-candidates are matched with a high-performing teacher for a full school year. The candidates, who are supported throughout the year with frequent observations and professional development, have the guarantee of a teaching job upon graduation. (The program manager, Marsha Francis, was named a 2020 Leader to Learn From by Education Week for her work to improve the student-teaching experience.)

Image: Sixth grade students sit in class at Valley View Elementary in Rocklin, Calif., on Oct. 9. —Max Whittaker for Education Week

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