Foundational Texts on Classroom Management

Foundational Texts on Classroom Management

By Timothy Dohrer

Foundational Texts on Classroom Management 

In the past several weeks, I’ve been asked several times to talk about classroom management, a topic that is simultaneously reviled and revered. The general public believes that the concept of “classroom management” means enforcing rules and meting out punishments. The popular press often refers to it as a required cornerstone of being a teacher. And critics of teacher preparation programs (e.g. NCTQ) suggest that it must be addressed in every single course a candidate takes.

But educators often see classroom management as something much broader and more fluid than others. Certainly, a classroom environment must be “managed,” especially the many resources, papers, and furniture in a room. And yes, there are moments when a student might act inappropriately and that behavior addressed. Handling all these things takes skill and experience. But teachers know that this kind of “management” is only part of a much larger goal when working with kids. Our goal is to create a safe and respectful classroom environment where collaboration, content, and learning are the focal point. When there is true student engagement, many classroom problems disappear.

This kind of classroom management can be learned through both study and experience. I often suggest three books teachers should add to their education library and use to create their own approach to working with kids.

The Classic

Now in its seventh edition, Principles of Classroom Management by James Levin and James Nolan is what I would call a foundational book on teaching and running a classroom. The authors cover some of the basic theories behind traditional classroom management but couch it in the teacher understanding her position, power, and responsibility. Levin and Nolan suggest that teachers and students must share responsibility for classroom behavior. Teachers must change their own behavior if they expect student behavior to change. Students in constructive relationship with adults are more likely to engage in positive social behavior and be successful academically.

One of my favorite sections of the text is about power. Teachers must recognize that the position of “teacher” brings with it certain power. How a teacher chooses to take up that power is essential to developing a positive classroom culture and climate. This is where I usually take a quote from Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The same is true for teachers. Levin and Nolan encourage teachers to understand their “power base” and to use that as a tool in creating the classroom environment. The four power bases are as follows: 

  • Referent Power: Students like and respect the teacher.
  • Expert Power: Students respect the teacher’s knowledge.
  • Legitimate Power: Students respect the teacher’s authority.
  • Reward/Coercive Power: Students respond to teacher’s rewards or punishments.

While a teacher should not limit themselves to only one of these four nor are there only these four bases, but for a novice teacher these cover a lot of ground. Understanding these and using them wisely can help the teacher develop the kind of shared relationship about behavior with their students that Levin and Nolan promote.

The Alternative View

Alfie Kohn has spent much of his career offering an oppositional view of most books on traditional classroom management and packaged behavior management programs. He is often blunt and effusive in his view, not to mention funny or even shocking. The result is often standing-room only ballrooms at conferences filled with teachers and a stream of best-selling books. His most well known text on classroom management is Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community. Kohn wrote this after studying hundreds of books on classroom management and discipline. He was appalled by what he read and then what he saw in classrooms as teachers attempted to follow their suggestions. Instead of the teacher holding all the power and decision-making authority in the classroom, Kohn suggests relinquishing that control to the students by engaging them in decisions about rules, procedures, and even what and how they will study.

Kohn also believes that students should learn from their interests and that the focus of a classroom should be on learning and not simply achievement. Individual and class meetings where teachers and students talk with each other about behavior and procedures are major concepts here. So is the idea that students who are invested in the activities of the classroom are more likely to be engaged and act out less. In a later book, Punished by Rewards, Kohn extends these concepts to assessment where students should control their own assessment of learning, guided by a teacher. Teachers in Kohn’s approach should always be “working with” a student rather than “doing to” them.

The Latest

The most recent shift in the world of classroom management is restorative justice. In restorative justice practice, negative behavior is seen as disrupting a relationship between human beings. The first step in dealing with that behavior is recognizing the impact it has on the relationship. The second step is engaging the parties involved in a conversation about what occurred, how it affected everyone involved, and coming up with shared solutions to make it better. For example, a traditional response to a student bullying another student in class would be send the offender to the front office for some kind of disciplinary action. In a restorative practice, the teacher might intervene, pull the two students aside, and have a brief conversation with them. She might ask the victim to explain how he felt as a result of the interaction. Then the teacher would ask the offender to think and talk about what he just heard. The teacher would give the offender an opportunity to make amends in some way as a way of repairing the relationship between the two students. The same process can be used in small group or whole class discussion, circles, or conferences.

This approach is captured quite well in a new book called Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management by Dominque Smith, Douglas Fischer, and Nancy Frey. In this book, classroom management is “about building relationships with students and teaching social skills along with academic skills.” Indeed, these restorative practices are woven into every interaction and lesson. In this way, the practice is pro-active and preventative in addition to being reactive to situations. The authors provide many useful examples and have captured the growing popularity of this approach, especially in urban schools.

It is both inaccurate and not useful to boil down teaching to classroom management and transmitting knowledge. Great teachers know and practice the art of building human relationships between and among the students in their classroom as a way of engaging them in learning. The result is a powerful combination of intellectual, social, and emotional growth over the course of a school year. These texts capture that synergy in slightly different ways but they can all be used by a teacher to develop their own style and approach to working with a classroom of learners.

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