A 'classroom' is any environment where learning takes place. A priority for beginning teachers is establishing and managing a quality learning environment. There are 2 related facets to the classroom:
- a focus on learning, not just doing
- managing the environment so that learning is possible.
Where theory and practice come together
Managing a classroom is where the theory of teaching and the practical implications of day-to-day teaching come together.
...The greatest impact on successful classroom management is effective teaching where students are engaged in learning. (Great Teaching, Inspired Learning: what does the evidence tell us about effective teaching?, NSW Department of Education and Communities, 2013).
Beginning teachers have limited experience, so haven't had the opportunity to develop a repertoire of classroom strategies to overcome all classroom challenges. They require substantial support to manage the many variables of the learning environment, including:
- student behaviour
- intellectual engagement
- student interaction
- physical space
However, a quality learning environment is much more than student behaviour and discipline. Establishing a learning environment begins well before the students enter the classroom, and impacts on every aspect of teaching.
What the research says
There is a significant body of research regarding the importance of creating and maintaining an environment that makes effective teaching and learning possible.
As far back as 1984 Veenman conducted an international review of perceived problems among beginning teachers, and cited the greatest challenges, perceived by beginning teachers across differing education systems, as being:
- classroom management
- motivation of students
- dealing with the individual differences among students
- assessing student work
- relations with parents.
Later in 1999 Britton, Paine, & Raizen found that, in countries as different as New Zealand, China and Switzerland, beginning teachers also expressed these same problems as the most pressing difficulties they faced.
While evidence of the need to provide more support for beginning teachers has been apparent for over 30 years, creating and maintaining an environment where teaching and learning can occur, continues to be at or near the top of the list of areas where beginning teachers feel they need the most support.
Managing student behaviour
The 2010 'Staff in Australia's Schools' survey found that managing student behaviour was one of the top 5 areas in which school teachers indicated they needed more professional learning.
According to the countries surveyed in the 2012 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS, OECD 2012), new teachers spend less time on teaching and learning, and more time on classroom management, and they report lower levels of self-efficacy than experienced teachers.
Johnson, Down, Le Cornu, Peters, Sullivan, Pearce, and Hunter (2010) also found that pre-service training does not equip teachers to meet the demands of classroom teaching. (Ramsey, 2000, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Vocational Training, 2007, Roehrig & Luft, 2006).
This is particularly so in the area of classroom management.
Hudson (2012) concludes that one of the areas where beginning teachers require more support is behaviour management.
What has been done so far?
The research indicates that in many cases little has been done to overcome this long-term need.
Despite the evidence above, Caldwell and Sutton (2010) found that beginning teachers continue to receive inadequate support in establishing positive classroom teaching and learning environments. This inadequate support refers to both pre-service training and training during induction processes.
Furthermore, the report summarising TALIS results (OECD 2012) emphasises that, regardless of the school or classroom situation, schools can provide more support for beginning teachers, 'in a number of ways including offering professional development around classroom management'.
Such evidence begs the question about whether support for beginning teachers has focused on the real issues.
Boyd et al. (2008) suggests that it's useful to determine what the real issues are. For example, a request for help with setting routines and behaviour management, may mask underlying issues of relationships with students, or a lack of careful planning, a lack of involving students in constructing their learning, or a lack of providing differentiated learning opportunities.
What more can be done?
In an Australian study, Johnson, Down, Le Cornu, Peters, Sullivan, Pearce and Hunter (2010) found that where there was explicit acknowledgement of the 'complex, intense and unpredictable nature' of teacher's work, and this acknowledgement was accompanied by 'realistic expectations' of beginning teachers and the amount of support they needed, the beginning teachers were most successful.
In these cases beginning teachers were:
- mentored by colleagues working in similar year levels or curriculum areas
- involved in collaborative planning for teaching and learning (including assessment and reporting)
- supported by school-wide policies and support systems for the management of student behaviour.
The elephant in the (class)room?
Student behaviour is only a part of establishing and maintaining an environment focused on teaching and learning, but it is what most teachers mean when they cite 'classroom management' as an area of need. What they really mean is student behaviour.
For example, in a survey of 500 teachers, teachers with 1-3 years of experience were almost 3 times as likely to say that student behaviour was a problem in their classrooms, as compared with teachers with over 3 years of experience - with 19 per cent versus 7 per cent. (Melnick & Meister, 2008)
Establishing and maintaining an environment focused on teaching and learning is more about preventing problems, rather than solving problems after they occur.
As such, student behaviour needs to be examined in the context of classroom design, curriculum, and instructional strategies.
The effects of lack of support?
There are serious effects if beginning teachers don't receive the support they need to establish and maintain a quality learning environment focused on teaching and learning.
Rejecting research-based instructional practice
Often, difficulties with classroom management can prompt new teachers to reject the research-based instructional practices they learned in college (such as cooperative learning and project-based learning) in favour of a steady diet of lectures and textbooks. (van Hover & Yeager, 2004).
These practices are solely teacher-oriented and don't focus on the environment for teaching and learning. They may also be inappropriately advocated and modelled by more experienced teachers.
'Send to the office syndrome'
Another consequence of inadequate or inappropriate support, in establishing and maintaining an environment focused on teaching and learning, is the 'send to the office syndrome'. Often, this is the only strategy that beginning teachers believe they have, and is the result of a focus on student behaviour alone, rather than the set of interconnected variables that all contribute to the teaching and learning environment.
Note: while students whose behaviour is harmful or dangerous should be referred to the principal immediately - and most schools have procedures for these circumstances - the principal and school executive need to send a clear message to teachers and students alike that 'sending to the office' is a last resort and will be seen as a major issue requiring more serious consequences.
It is generally known by expert teachers that 'sending students to the office' too often, for things they should deal with themselves, does not solve the problem of student behaviour in the classroom. Each 'sending to the office' for minor classroom problems sends a message to the students, and the higher authority, that the teacher isn't able to handle the situation.
Beginning teachers can also feel unsupported when students are 'sent to the office' and nothing happens as a result. This can be avoided when beginning teachers are supported with strategies to avoid escalation of behaviours in the classroom which often result in the beginning teacher having no other options left and nowhere else to go other than 'sending to the office'.
It is also important that when students are 'sent to the office', that it is not seen as a reward or a way of getting out of class. In all but extreme cases, the student should be returned to the class as soon as possible to continue with their learning.
To avoid the 'send to the office syndrome' beginning teachers should seek help early on when the problems are easier to solve. Additionally, the school needs to be monitoring such classroom issues and stepping in early to provide adequate and appropriate support.
How can the NSW Quality teaching model help?
The NSW Quality teaching model of pedagogy can support creating and maintaining a classroom environment that is focused on teaching and learning.
The model has 3 interrelated, and research-based dimensions, which represent classroom practices that have been proven to enhance student learning outcomes.
In understanding how these 3 dimensions interconnect to create an environment where teaching and learning can take place, beginning teachers have a starting point to remove 'the elephant in the (class)room' and overcome the 'send to the office' syndrome.
The NSW Quality teaching model of pedagogy can be used by teachers to plan learning sequences or lessons, and to reflect on learning sequences or lessons. It can also be used by school personnel to provide constructive feedback following lesson observations.
Schools can support beginning teachers with the classroom. They should:
- ensure that all aspects of creating and maintaining a classroom focused on teaching and learning are covered during induction processes, rather than just focusing on student behaviour
- ensure that all teachers understand and use the NSW Quality teaching model of pedagogy
- ensure that all teachers and students understand school expectations for classroom conduct
- consider student behaviour in the context of classroom design, curriculum, and instructional strategies
- encourage reflective practice that examines classroom environment issues in relation to the teacher and teaching, rather than blaming students
- demonstrate and co-teach the establishment of classroom procedures and routines
- provide time to observe 'expert' classrooms in action
- observe lessons and provide feedback in relation to all aspects of the classroom environment.