Jay Mathews, education writer for the Washington Post, admits he wouldn’t be a good teacher. It’s not the subject matter but classroom discipline that he says would cause him the most trouble. In his Class Struggle column this week, Mathews discusses a survey done by an outfit called Common Good which shows that discipline problems in the classroom are not only interfering with student learning but also driving a “substantial number” of teachers out of the profession. Of course, since Common Good’s tag line is “Reforming America’s lawsuit culture”, the major focus of the study is aimed at “demonstrating how our lawsuit culture undermines school discipline”.

But Mathews is right that discipline is an important issue in improving schools. However, it isn’t until the next to the last paragraph that he finally arrives at the point: teacher need better training.

Public Agenda [author of another study on the topic] notes that the university education schools have not made this a priority. Education professors have told me they cannot teach classroom management effectively until the prospective teacher is in a classroom with the problem in front of her, his big feet on his desk, loudly chewing gum. Some education schools have significantly increased the amount of time their students spend as practice teachers, but most count on them learning the important techniques of classroom management on the job. And young teachers all know, once they start their first full-time assignment, that the advice and help from their principal or designated mentor teacher is often laughably inadequate.

The bottom line to all this is classroom management. Trying to discipline students is worthless unless the teacher has developed the skills to organize and manage their classroom. Establishing rules and procedures, pacing activities, even the arrangement of the room all play a part in keeping students moving in the right direction. Learning to manage a classroom is not easy (and I’m not going to tell you that I’ve ever gotten it completely right) but the professors are right that it’s a skill not learned in college. One more reason why a good mentoring program is essential if we’re really serious about putting highly qualified teachers in the classroom.

Even being skilled in classroom management never solves all the problems. Just about every teacher gets their fair share of those memorable students who want to do everything in their power to mess up a class. Hopefully they also have a good administration and support structure (as I’ve been fortunate to have) to help take care of the few determined disrupters. And I hope you’re in a school where there are only a few! :-)