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Daniel B. Coupland is dean of the Graduate School of Classical Education, chairman of the education department, and a professor of education at Hillsdale College in Michigan. He wrote this column for the Chicago Tribune.
A 2022 survey of 615 midwestern K-12 teachers who left the profession cited poor student behavior as the No. 1 reason for their departure.
Fifty-one percent of the surveyed teachers listed “behavior” as the primary reason for quitting — more than progressive political activity, insufficient salary, parental concerns with their classroom, COVID-19 policies, safety concerns about school shootings, lack of materials to teach effectively, standardized testing, licensure expiration, or professional development requirements combined.
Such a lopsided result is not entirely unexpected. Behavioral issues can easily prevent teachers from doing their primary job — educating the hearts and minds of their students. And so, maintaining a healthy, productive classroom environment is critical to the overall success of the school. And rising levels of student misbehavior should concern all who want to see our children receive the best education possible.
Some factors that influence student behavior in the classroom are beyond the control of most teachers. They range from the minuscule and forgettable to the massive and foreboding — the weather and the time of day, students’ friendships and home life, limited space and proper lighting, health concerns and learning difficulties.
That said, time-tested practices of classroom management can help teachers overcome many of these limitations, minimize disruptive behavior in classrooms, and ultimately provide a rich and effective learning environment for students. Establishing useful routines for classroom activities, creating an effective system of rules for behavior and enforcing those rules fairly, and including parents through regular communication are a few examples of such practices. These are effective because they provide a structure within the classroom in which students can learn.
If teachers are unwilling or unable to provide boundaries in the classroom, students will go as far as they see no limits. With the student misbehavior and the resulting classroom chaos, it’s no wonder many educators become frustrated with their work and leave the profession. To stem this tide, educators must be given the authority to make important and strategic management decisions in their classrooms to create and maintain healthy, well-ordered environments for learning. In other words, they must be empowered to lead.
Of course, certain obligations come with this kind of authority. The teacher’s knowledge and character must be superior to that of the students. This doesn’t mean that teachers must be omniscient and morally perfect — students know this is impossible. But teachers should know on the whole more than the students about the content of the courses they’re teaching.
Similarly, they should demonstrate on the whole much higher moral character than the students due to their education, experience and maturity.
When teachers don’t know something, they should admit it and offer a plan for finding out the answer. When they fail to live up to high moral standards, they should demonstrate the appropriate way of accepting responsibility for their behavior, dealing with any impact of their moral failure and restoring any relationships they may have damaged. This is what good leadership looks like.
Additionally, teachers must lead their classrooms within the larger context of the school. Teachers cannot simply govern their classrooms however they see fit — as if they were unaccountable dictators. This means a teacher’s authority must function within the leadership structure of the school, which includes administrators, school boards and parents.
Finally, teachers’ leadership in the classroom must be aligned with the school’s overall mission. The school’s mission is its North Star to which all community members can and should orient their behavior and work. It defines what the school is, what it does and why it does it. The school’s mission should drive all activities related to the school — including how teachers manage their classrooms.
Effective classroom management based on sound principles isn’t a cure-all for all that ails American education. But empowering teachers to manage their classrooms by means of time-tested practices may be a key element to more well-ordered and effective classrooms. And it may also encourage good, experienced teachers to remain in the classroom rather than exit the profession for other work or an early retirement.