In August of last year I returned to California from Japan after completing two years on the JET Program. The transition was anything but easy. First, I returned to the same moribund economy that had caused me to take my job in Japan in the first place. As September approached and I had already sent out dozens new applications every day to schools across Southern California, I began to seriously consider the possibility that I would not be able to find another job in teaching. But, I got lucky. Although I failed to be hired as a lead teacher, I did get a job as a long term substitute for a 6th grade class at a local San Diego charter school- an assignment that took me right up to winter break.
I was initially attracted to the charter school where I ended up because it appeared to me during the interview to be a charter school that predated the charter “movement.” Although highly focused on student achievement, the philosophy seemed more Maria Montessori than Michelle Rhee, and the principal had publicly spoken out against the test prep culture that had taken over the nations’ schools. I was not only happy to have work, but excited about the school itself. I was certain that it would be vastly different from my first-year placement with TFA, and indeed it was. At my first school, an atmosphere of mistrust and depression pervaded the student body; at this school the students seemed genuinely happy to come to school, cohesion among the staff was strong, and an atmosphere of trust was evident between the teachers and students. Rather than feeling fearful, I could feel happy about coming to work each morning.
Nevertheless, the job was challenging. I was quickly reminded again how critical classroom management would be to my success in the classroom, and if there’s one thing that I took away from the experience above all others, it’s that a teacher can gradually improve at many things as the year progresses, but not classroom management. It needs to be strong from the moment a teacher takes charge of a class, as it can be nearly impossible for a teacher to regain control and respect once they have lost it. I was relieved that my classroom management skills had improved significantly since my TFA days, and I was able to teach successfully to most of the students. However, I let just enough things slide in my first few weeks that the most disruptive students took it as a green light to talk and carry out minor mischief. I found myself relying on issuing consequences to them far more than I would have liked, which inevitably slowed the pace of the class. Although I was far more successful during the twelve weeks than I was during my first twelve weeks in TFA, this remained an irritant.
I’ve devoted massive attention to improving my classroom management skills since I was a 2007 corps member, and I still find it challenging. I can’t be the only one. All of this makes me wonder, yet again, why TFA doesn’t take classroom management training more seriously. When I tried to make a simple and helpful post on the TFA facebook page of my university in June warning incoming corps members about how critical classroom management would be, the administrator’s first reaction was to remove it. http://emmanuelparello.teachforus.org/2012/06/14/institute-reality-vs-positive-messaging/ (Luckily, I was later allowed to re-post it). In my own institute in 2007, management was often discussed in broad terms such as “holding students to high behavioral expectations,” without a whole lot of specifics. Nearly every corps member that I knew struggled with classroom management during their first year to the detriment of student learning. Even after multiple experiences teaching students, classroom management still can be hard for me. It’s even harder for first year corps members. If I were working at institute, I would impress upon incoming corps members that nothing else that they attempt to do will work without strong management. If they don’t focus on it and understand key principles before they step into the classroom for the first time, they can expect a year full of wasted effort and disappointment.