Originally published on May 18, 2017
As a secondary certified teacher, the amount of time I spent learning about teaching was ridiculously small. Perhaps I had more preparation on instruction and classroom management than I giving my college(s) credit for and my lack of training had more to do with my own lack of attention to what I was being taught and/or my own lack of prior knowledge to connect what I was learning to. Either way, the things that I learned about how to teach, i.e., pedagogy, was not enough. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to have relatively good groups of students who were respectful enough to more or less comply with what I expected.
It was not until I became an administrator that I realized the importance of routines and procedures. When you need to sharpen a pencil, this is how that works in my room. When you turn in your papers, this is how that works in my room. If you missed an assignment, this is how that works in my room. In a well-run classroom, these thing happen like magic. To the untrained eye, someone could think that the students came to this on their own in a utopian Lord of Flies way. Good educators, on the other hand, see classrooms like this and recognize that there was a great deal of work that went into creating an environment of independence and learning.
There were times when I was first an administrator and I would go into poorly run classrooms—students getting out of their seats and wandering the room, students shouting out, time being wasted, etc. and tell the teacher that s/he needed to focus on the Classroom Environment domain in Danielson’s Framework for Teaching. The issues that were manifesting fell squarely in this domain so it made sense to me at the time that the teacher needed to improve the (2c) Managing Classroom Procedures and (2d) Management of Student Behavior. There might be components in this domain to focus on, but certainly these were two heavy hitters.
It should not go without saying that I was only partially correct, if not flat out wrong in my guidance to the teacher about what to work on. While routines and responses are important they are only important when they are in service to learning. In other words, the purpose of routines and procedures is not to have a great way to pass back papers. The purpose is to maximize instructional time for student learning. Accordingly, the goal is not smooth routines—smooth routines are a means to an end and the end is learning. If you have smooth routines so instructional time is maximized but you do not have great learning experiences and opportunities for students, all that instructional time is just as wastes as if you didn’t have smooth routines. For this reason, one should never advise a teacher to focus solely on the Classroom Environment in isolation. After all, if the learning is truly engaging for the students (which is described in a completely separate domain—Instruction), the students, themselves, will attempt to create routines and procedures to maximize their learning time.
In high poverty environments, like where I used to work, the social norms around traditional school behaviors, respect for authority, and general compliance were different. Ruby Payne’s work on poverty is the best illustration of common differences between those living in poverty, middle class, or upper class cultures. You may have seen this side-by-side comparison before. If so, find it validating; if not, find it informative. This is not to say that all students/people always fit each category neatly. It’s simply to illustrate some research-based examples of how behaviors and beliefs are impacted by one’s socio-economic position—particularly if that position is generational.
While all of these categories could have an impact on behaviors and beliefs, I want to highlight the differences in the categories of (1) personality, (2) social emphasis, (3) time, (4) education, and (5) destiny. I chose these because they highlight that students living in poverty are likely to think beyond the moment and desire to be entertaining. In a classroom, that can be very challenging for a teacher who comes from a middle class background since the teacher comes from a culture that values the future and being serious. This can create tension.
Interestingly, while the behaviors of middle class students might manifest as “self-governance and self-sufficiency,” which can superficially look preferable to “social inclusion of people he/she likes” (see “Social Emphasis), this behavior can often mean that students are compliant to teacher expectations around behaviors and that teachers fail to truly look for methods of engagement to go beyond compliance. In other words, teachers can be satisfied with quiet, well-behaved students even though the students are no more interested in learning than their more raucous higher-poverty counterparts. Thus, teachers working in classrooms with compliant kids are not any better than teachers working in classrooms with students who are non-compliant if the teacher of the compliant students isn’t searching for opportunities to maximize the increased instructional time that comes with students who follow directions and meet behavioral expectations automatically. Indeed, the most important behavioral expectation is to care about learning!
While I do not often have the opportunity in my current role to coach teachers, I do get to work with administrators and instructional coaches. My best advice about how to support a teacher who may be struggling with the classroom environment is to link the work on the environment with an instructional target too. After all, you can have the best behaved classroom but if the teacher isn’t ready to teach the kids when s/he gets back all of this lost time, then what difference does it make anyway?