Classroom management is how a teacher manages the students in his/her classroom. It sounds simple, but this concept covers everything from desk arrangement to class norms, consequences and rewards to parent communication. Classroom management is about motivating, entertaining, supporting, disciplining, leading, coaching, challenging, and nurturing. But, unfortunately, it is also about fault. In today's society, we have a "public education crisis." The crisis? That any misbehavior or inadequacy on the part of the student is considered to directly reflect the quality of the teacher's instruction.

Kid misbehaves? Can't read well? Doesn't do homework? It's not the student's homelife that's dysfunctional, or that the child is starving or hasn't had a vision test in 10 years. It's not the 4 hours of sports and dance classes every evening, the child's intelligence, or his/her work ethic. It's the teacher. It's always the teacher.

Almost all surveys of teacher effectiveness report that classroom management skills are of primary importance in determining teaching success, whether it is measured by student learning or by ratings. Thus, management skills are crucial and fundamental. A teacher who is grossly inadequate in classroom management skills is probably not going to accomplish much.1

Rudolph Dreikurs, the famous psychiatrist, once said, "We should realize that a misbehaving child is only a discouraged child trying to find his own place; he is acting on the faulty logic that his misbehavior will give him the social acceptance which he desires."2 To that end, educational strategists have taken Dreikurs' work and crafted six reasons for students' challenging behaviors.

  1. Attention
  2. Avoidance/Escape
  3. Control
  4. Coping
  5. Play
  6. Revenge

In theory, once the cause of the student's behavior has been determined, the educator can work with the student to remedy that cause, thus eliminating the problem. It is important to remember that one should never challenge a student in front of the class, as this will just escalate matters. Establish clear boundaries while still respecting the student. Reinforce when they do something well. Reward them, if possible, with something they enjoy so that the classroom environment remains a positive one, instead of a punitive one. This is what educators learn in college. This is the theory.

When teachers have a student for whom standard classroom management is not working, the first question is generally, "What are you doing to help this student succeed?" Many teachers get defensive when asked such a question. It implies a deficiency on their part, rather than the admission that there may be a problem elsewhere in the student's life. Should teachers be held responsible for not reaching 100% of students? The idealist in all of us believes teachers can have a positive effect on all students and that all teachers should be able to reach all kids. But then there's reality...

A few weeks ago I had to take class time to discuss proper hygiene. I teach Literature. Deodorant vs. anti-perspirant will never be on a standardized test. Recently I had to conference with two female students in the hallway, coaching them through a heated disagreement while the rest of my students read independently. No one will measure my job effectiveness by how many friendships I patch. So why do these things? It's all part of classroom management. As the hygiene issue went unchecked, students were becoming increasingly disruptive. "It smells over here." "That kid's gross." And the girls? They hadn't turned in assignments in three days because they were so preoccupied with their social issues.

Before teachers can educate students, they have to address the students' most basic needs. Nourishment, self-esteem, socialization, confidence--how can a teacher fix the problems of a generation, 25 kids at a time, in 47 minutes a day? Nevermind teaching the curriculum! And those are the situations that are more or less manageable. That's the easy stuff.

What about the child who hasn't done a single assignment in my class all quarter? Who doesn't show up half the time and the other half of the time plays dumb, though he's smarter than every other child in the room? Who, just recently, brought instruction to a screeching halt by breaking another student's pencil, throwing it across the room at someone, and then defying me to do something about it?

What do I do then? Determine his goal in misbehaving and go through the steps outlined above? Yeah right. Been there, done that, didn't work. So what do I do now? Do I sacrifice the peace and calm of the other 24 students to accomodate one child's ridiculously unacceptable behavior?

No way. I wrote him up and sent him to the office. Look, I agree that if my classroom were one student large and it were all about this boy, I probably would have stopped to have a long talk about whether or not he was vying for control of my room. And truth be told, I have done all the things I was trained to do in such a situation. Hell, I've even thought outside the box a bit, bent some rules to reach him. But as often as not, those techniques don't work any more than the original ones would have. And in that case, let's get real. The kid committed theft, vandalism, attempted assault, and direct insubordination in less than 30 seconds. He is directly endangering other students, who are here to learn.

The idealist in me cries for this child, for whom so many things have gone wrong. But the reality is that the administrators will turn his failure back on us. They'll want to know if we redirected his behavior, if we gave him extra chances, if we treated him fairly, if we modified our instruction for his needs, if we were proactive, if we communicated often enough with parents, if we established boundaries, if we gave him choices, if we did an environmental analysis, and so on. And at the end of all those questions, at the end of all that management, if he doesn't respond, it will have been for naught. It is the teacher who will fail. I will fail.

I sometimes feel like I'm standing in front of the ocean with a plastic cup, hoping to turn the tides, knowing I'll be blamed for their eventual ebb and flow. But I haven't traded it in yet. The practice isn't as easy as theory leads us to believe, and sometimes the politics of the moment make teaching a thankless, draining profession. Still, there's the small voice of the idealist inside me that whispers, "Practice makes perfect. Keep practicing." And I do.

1. Learning from Teaching by Jere Brophy and Carolyn Evertson (1976)
2. Discipline without Tears by Rudolph Dreikurs and Paul Cassel (1972)