Colleges do little to train teachers in discipline

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Whitney Wall, a 3rd-grade teacher at Pope Elementary, laughs ruefully at the memory of her early years of teaching, struggling to manage classrooms in New York City and Baltimore.

Wall says that as an education major in college, she learned little about discipline. But she praises Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline, the classroom management program used at Pope. “Discipline was something I was thrown into. I wish I had had this program my first year, instead of trying to make it up as I went along,” she says.

Wall’s situation is common. Most university education programs merely survey classroom management methods without giving teachers solid training in any one system, says Jerome Freiberg, professor of education at the University of Houston, who developed Consistency Management.

“It’s very hard for a college to make a commitment to one approach. They want people to have a variety of [options] and then choose. On the surface, that makes sense,” Freiberg explains.

“The problem is, new teachers don’t have the expertise to make those decisions.” As a result, teachers rely on the experiences they remember from their own schooling.

That approach is especially ineffective when teachers come from a very different background than their students, says Victoria Chou, dean of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The management challenge becomes harder, she notes, when classrooms include a wider-than-usual range of reading abilities, a higher-than-average number of kids with disabilities and a higher number of over-age, low-achieving kids—factors prevalent in urban schools.

The most common mistake new teachers make is being too easy and friendly with students. To be effective, novices “shouldn’t smile until the new year” and need to establish an impartial adult presence, says Judith Sands, who mentors new teachers at Pope and coordinates its Consistency Management program.

Classroom observations and student teaching, which are mainstays of college programs, are “not real enough” to teach discipline effectively, Sands adds.

“Until you actually have a group of children sitting in front of you who are your responsibility, you just let people tell you how to handle situations in class,” says Norma Richard, who coaches first- and second-year teachers who trained at the Academy for Urban School Leadership. It’s not until year two of having their own classrooms that teachers can handle them, she adds.

Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, recommends that teacher education be overhauled so that all prospective teachers spend their senior year in residency at a school. “There is no substitute for being in a school and having responsibilities in the school.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.