November 28 — 12:00 am, 2002

Preparing teachers to handle discipline fairly, effectively

New teachers coming into Philadelphia schools may not be receiving the preparation and professional development they need to handle classroom discipline issues, conversations with these teachers reveal.

Inadequate training in classroom management in teacher education and certification programs and in the School District’s own teacher induction program limits these teachers’ ability to implement fairly the School District’s new "zero tolerance" discipline policy.

Adequate preparation of teachers for classroom discipline issues is not a concern in Philadelphia alone. In 2000, Public Agenda, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, conducted a national survey of more than 900 teachers who had taught five years or less, as well as more than 500 school administrators. Among respondents, 57 percent of teachers and 68 percent of administrators stated that preparation programs did a fair to poor job in making sure teachers can maintain student discipline.

School District CEO Paul Vallas has highlighted the significance of teacher preparation for discipline issues in schools, outlining a program to begin in January 2003 that would require 24 credit hours of District-led training in classroom management.

Vallas says the training would be rolled out for new teachers and teachers in "highly disruptive" schools first, then eventually to all teachers.

Poorly prepared for classroom realities

Teachers interviewed agree on the need for more and different preparation in the area of discipline.

A review of education course work at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and St. Joseph’s University shows numerous required theory-based courses in child development and teaching practice but few courses devoted primarily to classroom management.

Teachers and administrators note the effects of this deficit. Kelley Collings, a new 5th grade math and science teacher at Central East Middle School who completed both the District’s Middle Years Intern Program and elementary education certification at St. Joseph’s University, is critical of her academic preparation to handle discipline.

According to Collings, "There was not one single class on classroom management in either program. It was only addressed a little during methods courses, but that’s all."

Dan Di Censo, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s teacher education program, who taught English and Latin at Girls’ High School while working on his certification, states, "In no way were we prepared for classroom experiences so far from what could be assumed our mostly white, more privileged group [of new teachers] brought with us, and we were not provided enough forums for discussion of those experiences."

Kathy Schultz, assistant professor and instructor in University of Pennsylvania’s elementary teacher education program, adds, "One of the challenges facing Penn’s teacher education program is that the faculty is too white; we could do much better at addressing issues of race and class in teaching if we had a more diverse faculty."

University education programs surveyed by the Notebook typically addressed race and class in "foundations" courses, as opposed to action-based "methods" courses. There were also no required courses dedicated to managing multicultural classrooms or addressing the assumptions of soon-to-be teachers.

Teachers’ power and bias in discipline

Many disciplinary actions in schools begin with teachers trying to address classroom behavior. Data from the School District indicate that the vast majority of student discipline referrals are for behavior issues. There were almost 75,000 suspensions in the School District in 2001-02, vastly more than the 5,287 serious and violent incidents reported – those incidents involving violence, weapons, drugs, or morals offenses.

The School District’s new discipline policy, which mandates transfer to a disciplinary school for a variety of infractions, makes disciplinary referrals from classroom teachers all the more important: one teacher’s "write-up" can result in serious consequences for students.

Teachers’ discretion directly impacts which students get disciplined for what infractions, and how severely they are punished. In Philadelphia, this discretion has translated into students of color being suspended and expelled at higher rates than white students.

This, too, is a national pattern. And studies such as "The Color of Discipline," a 2000 Policy Research Report from the Indiana Education Policy Center point to staff bias, not higher numbers of misbehaving students of color, as the explanation for these higher rates.

In observing differences between the number of discipline referrals for white and African American students, the study concluded that teachers referred African American males most frequently, followed by white males, African American females, and then white females. The researchers commented, "African American students appear to receive more severe school punishments for less severe behavior."

Because of this significant relationship between teacher bias and the handling of discipline in classrooms, failure to address issues of multiculturalism, ethnicity, and class in teacher education can have disastrous consequences for students who are at risk of disproportionate punishment.

Professional development

With teachers not receiving all the preparation they need to discipline students fairly and effectively before entering the profession, the District’s professional development program should build up those skills.

As part of that program, the District assigns a mentor teacher for each new teacher, and mandates attendance at periodic training seminars during each school year.

However, some teachers say the program has not been meeting the goals of increasing teacher competence in the area of classroom management, the area to be addressed by Vallas’s proposed training.

Collings says, "My mentor teacher was assigned the first week of November, nearly three months after school began, and I have never seen an in-service on classroom management offered by the District."

Di Censo also identifies a lack of support, stating, "The only resource on discipline I received as a new teacher entering Philadelphia schools was a book that was never referenced at all during our induction into the District."

Proposals for change

According to the Indiana Education Policy Center, "Teacher training in appropriate and culturally competent methods of classroom management is likely to be the most pressing need in addressing disparities in school discipline." This finding supports more concerted education on these issues in both preparation programs and District workshops.

New teacher Collings stresses the need for meaningful mentoring in the training process, stating, "Strong mentor-teacher relationships, beginning in August before the first student gets to class, that include observations and collaboration, are the best way to ensure new teachers get the support they need to be effective in administering discipline."

Locally, some teacher preparation programs are changing. Richard Serfass, director of field placement for Holy Family College’s elementary education certification program, says, "We currently have two required courses on classroom management, but no matter how much we give [new teachers], when they get into the classroom, they seem to want more, so we are working to provide more." He also notes the need for increased focus on issues of race and class in classroom management.

Tony Johnson, dean of West Chester University’s School of Education, suggests more conscious effort in connecting theory to practice as one way to equip teachers with the tools they need to be successful. He is also a proponent of longer, more in-depth teacher education programs.

Betsey Useem, director of research at the Philadelphia Education Fund, agrees.

"Currently, there is just not enough classroom time during pre-service training to adequately prepare teachers to handle discipline," Useem says. She adds that five-year programs would "provide a better chance to cover all bases in teacher preparation."

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