Classroom Behavior

Tips for better behavior

It's just a couple of months into the new school year and already the three full-time behavior specialists in the Toledo (Ohio) public school system have a backlog of teachers requesting their assistance. The specialists, all experienced and well-trained former teachers, are available to help their colleagues develop plans to help manage students with serious behavioral problems.

While even her fellow Toledo Federation of Teachers members have to get on the waiting list for her services, behavior specialist Denise Conrad took time between school visits recently to offer some tips based on what she has learned from eight years on the job. Like many things in school, much of this is common sense, but it doesn't hurt to go back to basics sometimes.

Notify parents immediately. On the same day that Conrad or her colleagues Kathy Pilewskie and Kristin Kaser observe a student who's having behavior problems, they call the child's parents to talk about what they plan to do to help that student instead of waiting until something more serious, like a suspension, takes place. "If you say something nice [about the student], you get the parent's cooperation right away," Conrad says. And the better the communication and cooperation, the more likely the behavior problem will be resolved.
Have a small number of clear classroom rules.

Three to five rules, stated generally and positively--such as raise your hand to speak, rather than no interrupting--should be enough to cover most desired behavior. Even if you already have the rules developed and written, Conrad suggests, let the students come up with ideas and discuss the rules before you post them. That way, the students will feel more responsible for enforcing the rules.

Implement a system of rewards and reinforcement. Some teachers balk at the idea of rewards for what should be expected classroom behavior, but Conrad points out that we all respond to incentives. And effective incentives to get unruly students to behave don't have to cost anything. If you use a large chart to tally discipline offenses, for example, put it by the door and give some sort of recognition--like a star for younger students--for the ones who usually misbehave but avoid getting on the chart that day. That way, the student gets a little reinforcing boost on the way out the door.

If a reward for one student seems inappropriate, try group rewards, such as extra reading time, when the student in question behaves appropriately. "For a lot of kids in this district, school is the best part of their day," Conrad says. "We need to make it as positive as possible."
--Daniel Gursky

8 steps you can take now

We're about a dozen weeks deep into the current academic year, and teachers across the country are busy fine-tuning their classroom approach. Richard Harned, a high school social studies teacher from Kenmore, N.Y., says sometimes it's a matter of "looking at your classroom with fresh eyes" and identifying a few practical steps to improve learning.

For example, take a look at your classroom set-up and see where the bottlenecks are, advises Harned, a trainer with the AFT's Educational Research and Dissemination (ER&D) program. Does the desk arrangement fit the workflow? Are the logistics contributing to confusion and instructional "dead time"?

In his own classroom, Harned discovered that students were taking too much time handing in homework and passing out papers. He remedied this by attaching rows of mail pouches, each marked with a student's name, to the classroom wall. Pupils now go straight to the pouches every class period to pass in work and pick up new materials. It cuts down time, and students seem to enjoy the new responsibility and this little piece of turf set aside just for them, he reports.

Harned's tip was just one of several concise, useable, concrete strategies that American Teacher received from trainers in ER&D, which helps teachers make use of research-based instructional and managerial strategies in the classroom. Here are a few other strategies you may want to consider as you tweak and tune your practice in the 1999-2000 academic year:

It's important for teachers who work with instructional aides to have open, ongoing communication about the behavior management system they're trying to set up. When it comes to classroom management, don't get "played off" against your classroom assistant. The last thing you want, says Lori Hagen, a special education teacher from Albuquerque, N.M. and an ER&D trainer, are inconsistencies or miscommunication between teacher and aide when it comes to rules. It can easily lead students to follow the type of script, played out in so many homes, that begins, "But Dad [Mom] said I could!"

Look for assignments that go light on the worksheets, says Pat Festa, an ER&D trainer and elementary math teacher in Scranton, N.Y. A 1996 study of eighth-grade math achievement by The Education Trust, in fact, shows that student scores tend to fall as worksheet use rises. Even earlier research has consistently shown that too much independent seatwork in any subject area is negatively correlated to student achievement. Students benefit from interactions with teachers that provide corrective feedback. Festa looks for ways to base a math lesson on a well-crafted story problem, one that lends itself to multiple solutions. And he tries to avoid key phrases when posing the problems--"in all," "all together," "how many are left"--that tell students they simply have to add or subtract two numbers.

Keeping abreast of professional literature can play a big role in effective teaching, says Paula Harris, an elementary teacher in Fruitland Park (Fla.) Elementary and an ER&D trainer. "I have probably learned more [from professional journals] than from most courses I ever took in college or grad school," says Harris. It's a way for teachers to recognize that they are the most important learners in their classroom, she explains. "If they continue learning professionally, then their students will benefit from their improved teaching."

Carve out the "parents as partners" message early and often, says Angela Hutten, a teacher at Lyon Magnot School in Waukegan, Ill. The big emphasis should be on the fact that, regardless of their own academic skills, parents can help their children learn by creating a good home learning environment, "a quiet place where the child can do homework." On that note, Harned also emphasizes the importance of getting the district to help you communicate with limited-English-proficient parents in their own language when notes go home.

Don't underestimate gimmicks when it comes to building students" interest, says Festa. He often interjects the names of actual students into the math problems he poses, and the students are drawn into the exercise. Also Festa sets up an explicit pattern for calling on students--four corners of the room, for example, or left side/right side--as a guard against calling on the same students over and over. "That's an easy trap to fall into," he says. And setting up a pattern for soliciting answers, particularly with younger students, is often effective in keeping kids involved in the work.

When your blood pressure rises, slow down your reaction time in class. It's easy to fly off at the end of a long, stressful day when a tart response or disruption from one pupil really punches your buttons, observes Amalia D. Mueller, a teacher at Saturn Riverfront Education Center in St. Paul, Minn., and a trainer in ER&D's Thinking Math unit. But that's precisely the time when you need to make a conscious effort to think before you react. "Once the words come out of your mouth, you can apologize but you can't 'undo' what you've said,"

Know your own learning preference--you tend to teach to it. When it comes to your own education, are you most at home with the formal structured lecture? Small-group problem solving? Independent study? It's important to recognize the vehicles you, as a student, prefer because they will tend to play a large role in the strategies you favor as a teacher, advises Joyce Kareem, an ER&D trainer and multicultural education resource teacher with Pittsburgh public schools.

What they're always telling you about personal finances--"pay yourself first"--isn't a bad rule for budgeting your professional time as well. Make the time to seek out experienced teachers and share your tips and concerns, councils Hagen. Scour your school and union newsletters for opportunities to talk and interact with colleagues. Those exchanges make you a better teacher.

And on that point, Hagen makes an unabashed plug for ER&D. If you're looking for professional development based on a candid peers-helping-peers approach, rather than a lecture format, then ER&D has a lot to offer, she says.
--Mike Rose

Good teaching: It matters

Remember "teacher-proof" materials that were supposed to ensure that children learned in spite of the ability of their teachers? It's nonsense! Effective, well-prepared teachers make a huge difference in both the quality and quantity of learning that goes on in the classroom.

A report from the Education Trust (Education Watch 1998) notes that differences in the quality of instructional materials available to students "pale in significance compared to the impact of good teaching on student achievement." The report pointed to studies in Boston, Tennessee and Texas showing that students whose initial achievement levels were comparable had hugely different academic outcomes depending on the quality of their teachers.

This is one reason why good professional development for educators is among the top issues for the AFT. Through the union's Educational Research and Dissemination network, its ongoing research on best practices for teaching reading and interest in more closely tying professional development to the curriculum, the AFT is helping our members in the classroom do their jobs better.

The union has developed principles for professional development, which call for depth of content knowledge, training that is rooted in the best research and the need for the training to contribute to measurable improvement in student achievement. The principles note that educators must be convinced that any proposed change in professional development "isn't just another fad." Finally, the AFT launched a strong battle in Congress this year to ensure that federal funds will be set aside specifically for professional development among K-12 educators.

For more details on the principles of professional development (click on "teacher quality"), the AFT's Educational Research and Dissemination program, teaching reading and more, visit the K-12 area of the AFT's Web site, www.aft.org.

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