Photo by gajman on Flickr.

Yesterday, in the first part of this series, we examined three different pathways to teaching. Today, we look at one of the biggest challenges for any new teacher: classroom management.

One veteran of Teach for America (TFA), now in his third year of teaching at a DC charter school with a high-poverty population, says that what’s needed for effective classroom management is hours and hours of practice.

Greg (a pseudonym) recommends that training include standing before a “class” of adults pretending to be misbehaving students. When the “students” call out without raising their hands, for example, the teacher-in-training has to dole out a “consequence,” every single time.

“In the classroom things are happening all at once,” Greg says. With so much coming at you, you’re liable to let infractions pass. But, he says, you have to impose some sanction every time a student breaks a rule, or “it goes out of control.” And for a new teacher to be able to do that, it has to become automatic.

Greg didn’t get that kind of training from TFA, which sends its recruits to a summer boot camp before they start teaching, and he says he struggled with classroom management for his first two years.

Even classroom management in a school that doesn’t have a high proportion of low-income kids can be tough. Kylie Hiemstra is a first-year teacher at John Eaton Elementary School in Cleveland Park, on her own with a class of first-graders. Only 18% of the school’s students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced meals, as compared to 99 or 100% at some DCPS schools.

Still, Hiemstra, a recent graduate of the College of William and Mary with a degree in elementary education, says that classroom management “is the most difficult thing.” She had what she describes as a “really awesome” 10-week student teaching experience as part of her undergraduate training, and she’s found it tremendously helpful to observe other teachers at Eaton. But she says she wishes her course on classroom management—which met once a week for 5 weeks—had been longer.

During her first weeks, she recalls thinking, “I don’t know how to make 26 of you do what I want you to do!”

Making the transition to flying solo

Do residency-type programs, which place trainees in classrooms with experienced teachers for a year, make this aspect of first-year teaching easier? Yes and no. Meghan Quigley, who spent a year as a resident with Urban Teacher Center and now teaches 4th-grade math at Achievement Prep PCS, says making the transition from second-in-command to flying solo was difficult.

She says she had a great relationship with her host teacher last year and learned a lot, but in May the teacher left for grand jury duty. All of a sudden, Quigley had the class to herself.

“I was doing everything that [my host teacher] was doing,” she says, “but it wasn’t working.” She hadn’t needed to be the disciplinarian before, and the students weren’t used to seeing her in that role. “It was hard for them and hard for me,” she says.

But when she stepped into her own classroom this past fall and was able to start from scratch, things went much better. “The first day of school I was very prepared,” she says, “and more confident than I thought I would be.” She’s found she doesn’t have to focus much on keeping order, because she’s got that under control. “Now it’s things like, how can I differentiate my instruction—the kinds of things a teacher should be thinking about,” she says.

“Anna,” who did her residency year with another program and now teaches 1st grade at a DCPS school, had a similar experience. Although she learned a lot during her residency year, she says that exercising authority as a resident “can be confusing for kids because you’re not the lead teacher.”

For her, teaching summer school between the residency year and her first year of teaching provided the necessary practice in classroom management. She taught for 4 weeks with another teacher in her program, but they were equals. That, she says, is when “the training wheels came off.”

For any first-year teacher, it’s a tremendous help if the school as a whole has adopted a consistent approach to classroom management. If all teachers are using the same approach and the same language, students know what to expect. And teachers know they can rely on the administration to back up any sanctions they need to impose.

Read more tomorrow in the third and final part of this series.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.