How Leaders can Support a Teacher Struggling with Classroom Management
By Petra Claflin
Over the course of my career at YES, I’ve been a teacher for 6 years, a dean of instruction for 2, and spent another 2 years as an instructional coach. During that time I’ve seen a lot of teachers struggle with classroom management and a lot of leaders support them. In some cases it was the school director or the dean of students and in other cases, it might be the grade level chair.
What can be really difficult for leaders is that they often fail to intervene adequately because they want the teacher to be the cultural leader of the classroom. They don’t want to come in and lay down the law and then have it fall apart again five minutes later. And they don’t want to enforce lots of consequences that result from the teacher’s lack of authority. While the teacher definitely needs to be the leader of the classroom, struggling teachers need significant support if they are going to be successful. Leaving things to the teacher to fix may make sense in theory, but in practice it sends students the message that you are okay with their behavior and that they don’t, in fact, have to do anything the teacher says. It also can add to the stress and feelings of failure that teacher is already facing.
Here are some strategies I’ve seen our most successful leaders employ that support both the teacher and the students:
- Openly align with the teacher –My favorite example of this comes from our president, Jason Bernal, when he was a school director at our Southwest campus. He was working with Elisa Gibbs, then a new teacher, now a middle school math content specialist. During her first year she would approach him after an unsuccessful class or situation and the next day he would come in and talk to the students about what a great teacher she was and how he was going to enforce whatever consequences she gave to them. Notice he didn’t go in and give any consequences, he just made clear he was supportive of the teachers’ consequences. This not only sent the students the message that their behavior was not ignored, it gave Elisa a huge confidence boost to know the school leader supported her and so she was able to immediately be more confident managing the class.
- Jointly confer with students and/or parents – I have talked to countless new teachers who have been advised to call parents about discipline situations. For a teacher who is really struggling with management, this is an overwhelming and terrifying proposition. Talking to parents in general can be daunting for new teachers, but imagine how scary it is when you feel like everything you’re calling about is actually your fault! And when you feel like you need to call 10+ parents every day in order to cover all of the behavior concerns! Parent and student conferences about discipline situations are best done jointly with new teachers. This allows the leader to further back up the teacher and also gives the teacher a model of what it looks like to have a successful conference.
- Role play student situations/conversations – When a teacher is facing consistent behavior problems, they are probably spending most of their mental energy during class on figuring out what to do as incidents crop up. For their success and their stress level, planning and practicing how they’ll handle specific situations can be really effective. Develop a short, assertive response that fits most expectations and have the teacher practice delivering it assertively outside of class. That way, when situations arise in class they have a ready response they can deliver confidently and clearly.
- Spend time strategically in the classroom – Your presence in their classroom is crucial and there are several ways you can make sure it’s impactful and short-term. Often a struggling teacher will not discipline students when the school leader is in the room because they don’t have to, but this is a wasted opportunity. If you give the teacher specific strategies to use or you’ve role-played and practiced, then you can make clear to the teacher that you’re observing to see those strategies in action. Since you are in the room, it gives the teacher the chance to manage effectively with little risk that the students won’t comply. This also allows the students to see that you are supporting the teacher as the leader instead of stepping in to discipline for her. And the more time you’re able to be in the classroom in the beginning, even if you’re on your computer in the back, the more the students will understand that you and the teacher take very seriously the success of the class and that you’re paying close attention to their behavior and progress.
This may seem like a lot of time to devote to one teacher in an already hectic schedule. One way to alleviate that is for 2-3 leaders to share the responsibility and divide up the support. It could be a grade level chair or even another experienced teacher who is invested in helping. Another way to think about it is to compare 2-3 weeks of intensive support that sets a teacher up for success versus an entire year of putting out fires and dealing with escalating discipline situations. So as soon as you can tell a teacher is starting to struggle, jump in there! The sooner and more strategically you can intervene, the better the chances of success for the teacher and her students.
What strategies have you used to support your teachers?