It's the thing most likely to drive a new teacher from the classroom. It's been known to sabotage well-planned lessons and turn teachable moments into a complete waste of time. It's also fingered as a root cause of low test scores, academic underachievement, poor school morale, and violence.
The issue is lack of discipline. Maintaining control of a class has never been easy, but many educators worry that the job is getting harder as children come to school with more emotional baggage, less parental supervision, and a greater sense of entitlement than previous generations.
"Parents today are more career- oriented; often they both work," says Gregory Wayne Hamilton, assistant professor at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "That means kids are coming with more needs, sometimes knowing less about relating to adults than they did 30 years ago."
As a result, teaching classroom management has taken on new urgency. Teachers who were once routinely dropped into classrooms with the expectation that experience would be their guide are getting, at least, some preparation.
"In the last five to eight years, I have seen schools of education do a much better job with this," says Theresa Jenkins, elementary school liaison for the Jefferson County school district in Louisville, Ky., and a former principal. "They get students into the classroom much earlier, sometimes starting in their second year, and they stay there for weeks or even months."
In a 1999 national survey of public school students by the Horatio Alger Association, 43 percent of teenagers said they felt that the misbehavior of other students was hurting their learning. That same year, Recruiting New Teachers, in Belmont, Mass., surveyed school districts nationally and found that 83 percent of teachers and administrators said poor classroom-management skills were the most significant barrier to the success of new teachers.
Other surveys in recent years have consistently reported that large numbers of young teachers who abandon the field cite classroom management as one of the top reasons for leaving.
Michael Grinder, founder of ENVoY, a program based in Vancouver, Wash., that teaches class management skills, says kids are either dogs eager to please or cats, who are much less accommodating. Teachers, he says, "expect to have a classroom of dogs." But "there are a lot more cats than there used to be."
In addition, "beginning teachers feel more sensitive and afraid" when it comes to discipline, often fearing violence, says Professor Hamilton.
Many educators agree on certain fundamentals for a disciplined classroom, including the need to establish clear expectations and a routine, and to be fair and consistent with rules.
Equally important are fostering a sense of community, helping children feel safe, and teaching engagingly.
All of these things are easier said than done. As a result, education schools are taking such steps as discussing videotaped case studies, offering online support groups, and recruiting experienced teachers to serve as mentors, says Kathleen Fulton of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future in Washington. "This has always been an area of concern, but I think now there are more resources to deal with it, including technology-based resources," she says.
Some districts also call in outside experts. Several years ago, Ruth Sidney Charney helped found The Responsive Classroom, sponsored by the Northeast Foundation for Children in Greenfield, Mass. As a teacher, Ms. Charney became aware that, while many academics were studying curriculum, few looked at classroom management. "A lot of the curriculum was failing because teachers didn't know discipline," she says.
Charney focuses on concrete practices, like a classroom meeting held each morning, to foster intangibles such as a positive sense of community. Teachers should clearly understand, she says, that they are not just teaching academic subjects but are also helping students to develop self-control, cooperation, and responsibility.
"If we see our job as teaching algebra instead of teaching students to be kind and decent citizens, then we are jumping over the important part and we are also making it harder to teach algebra," she says.
Mr. Grinder of ENVoY says he has helped teachers by honing their verbal skills and making them more conscious of body language. "There are skills that can be isolated and described," he says. But he also believes that some teachers have a particular gift that simply can't be taught. Schools sometimes discourage new teachers, he says, when they tell them to imitate particularly gifted or charismatic teachers.
"You can't put student teachers in with legendary teachers and ask them to reproduce techniques based on idiosyncrasy or charisma," Grinder says.
Yet feedback from experienced colleagues can often improve teacher performance, says Ray Johnson, an educational consultant who until recently headed up a K-8 Detroit public school.
He remembers a very good teacher in his school who sometimes struggled to keep her class in line. He sat in on the class and immediately noted that she rarely moved from her desk, allowing certain potential troublemakers in the back of the room to disengage from the lesson without her realizing it.
He encouraged her to move around, being certain to maintain contact with the students most likely to drift. Once she did this, her classroom-management problems dropped dramatically.
The way desks are arranged or the décor of the classroom can either promote or discourage teacher control, says Mr. Johnson.
But too few school systems are finding money to do the extra training required. "We scream this all the time: more teacher training," Johnson says. "But I don't see a shift towards time and resources for doing it."
Charney says she has to laugh when she remembers her own attitude as a new teacher. "My sense was that if you just motivate kids and have an exciting lesson, they will work," she recalls. "It takes so much more than that."
Three teachers with longtime classroom experience share what they believe to be the essentials of a well-run classroom:
John Johnson, eighth-grade teacher at IS 53 in New York: In September, I size up the class and figure out who the leaders are. I write up rules and a syllabus and give it to the kids and send it home to parents so everyone knows exactly what to expect. I send letters home, with a copy to the assistant principal, if there is a serious problem. The classroom should be a safe environment. Students should feel comfortable, and the teacher should be in charge, but not a control freak. The teacher should exude confidence in himself and his subject matter, and make students feel he likes them. There is no one right way.
Jeanne Bustard, prekindergarten teacher at Friends Select School in Philadelphia: The two overarching things are appropriateness for the age, and working on respect and learning what that means and how we treat one another. These two things are primary and everything else falls under them. Talk to students about how to treat one another. Don't ask them to sit and listen or focus for too long, but at the same time expand their ability to do that. Much discipline is preventive, making sure things work, talking a lot before things happen, making things stop quickly.
Lynn Fuller, sixth-grade teacher at Indian Camp School in Pawhuska, Okla.: The main thing I do is to set my rules and consequences from Day 1. The key is consistency. I'm a little controlling, but I feel I have to have a safe environment for my kids to learn in. A lot of people say choose your battles, but if I let little things go by, they turn into big problems. If you ignore the little rules they break, they move on to the big things. If you're going to have a rule you don't enforce, don't have it. I had to figure this out and it was pretty hard. They tell you strategies you can use, but mostly you have to work it out for yourself.