Teachers need to take charge of their classrooms

Prospective teachers learn a lot about individualized instruction in faculties of education. That’s because teachers are encouraged to personalize learning, for each student, as much as possible. To a certain […]

Prospective teachers learn a lot about individualized instruction in faculties of education. That’s because teachers are encouraged to personalize learning, for each student, as much as possible.

To a certain degree, this makes good sense. An inflexible cookie-cutter approach to education serves no one well.

At the same time, the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of individualization that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most teachers teach groups, not individuals. While classrooms are obviously made up of individual students, teachers are responsible for the entire group at the same time.

In other words, teachers need to take charge of their classrooms. Unruly classrooms are not places where quality learning takes place.

Unfortunately, most education faculties fall short in this area. When I was an education student, I learned next to nothing about effective classroom management. It was something I had to figure out on my own. Many other teachers find themselves in a similar situation.

This places an unfair burden on new teachers. Education professors fill their heads with various educational theories but do precious little to help them take charge of their classrooms. Even worse, they push the misguided notion that teachers should be “a guide on the side” rather than “a sage on the stage.”

By encouraging prospective teachers to stay off to the side rather than stand in the front of the room, education professors make it harder for new teachers to establish their authority. This puts new teachers at a disadvantage right from day one.

A far better approach would be for education professors to focus less on their pet theories and more on how to effectively run a classroom with as many as 25 or 30 students. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Before doing anything, teachers must disabuse themselves of the notion that they are “co-learners” together with their students. While teachers can and do learn new things while teaching, a teacher should have far more expertise in the subject being taught than any of the students. If they don’t, then the wrong person is in front of the room.

Simply put, it’s important to have clarity of roles. Teachers and students are two separate roles, and we should not blur the distinction. After all, we don’t call doctors and patients “co-healers,” nor do we think of lawyers and clients as “co-litigators.”

One of the fastest ways to erode the professional status of teachers is to demote teachers to mere facilitators of learning. Other professions would not tolerate this blurring of roles.

Teachers should also set a firm, but fair, tone on the very first day. This doesn’t mean giving a long lecture about classroom rules, but it does mean making the behavioural standards clear. It’s much easier to loosen the reins later in the year than it is to tighten them.

Finally, teachers must keep their emotions in check. Students often test a teacher’s limits, particularly when that teacher is new. When they do this, they are looking for an emotional reaction. Teachers shouldn’t give them this reaction.

Teaching is a challenging profession. We can make it a lot easier if we equip new teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to take charge of their classrooms.


Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

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