Classroom management is an essential component of every teacher’s life, and most teachers spend a considerable amount of time trying, refining, adapting and experimenting until they feel they have a handle on it. But is our classroom management style effective for creating a smooth, well-functioning classroom but leaving some of our kids out in the cold?
Dr Clodie Tal
Today I’m so pleased to have Dr Clodie Tal who is the Head of the Master’s degree program in Early Childhood Education at the Levinsky College of Teachers’ Education in Tel Aviv, Israel.
- PhD in psychology from Bar-Ilan University, Israel
- Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from California State University in the US.
- She has been training undergraduate and post-graduate early childhood teachers for a long time and, academically, her special interests include classroom management, teacher values, teacher-child and teacher-parent relationships.
- Clodie has been involved in extensive in-service training in communities throughout Israel and when you listen to her talk about how they encourage their student teachers to develop classroom management skills you’ll find that it’s very hands-on, very reflective and perhaps quite confronting for those students, too.
Clodie is very much in touch with everyday teacher concerns and she feels very strongly about the need for an intentional and well considered focus on classroom management.
Clodie’s new book
Moral Classroom Management in Early Childhood Education. You can find a link to the book on Clodie’s Classroom Management website.
Liz: Clodie Tal, welcome to The Early Childhood Research Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Clodie: Thank you for inviting me to this talk.
What is moral classroom management?
Liz: Congratulations, on the publication of your book Moral Classroom Management in Early Childhood Education.
It’s an interesting title, because I’d imagine most teachers would bristle if we suggest that their own management style isn’t as moral as it could be. All of us have our own sense of morality and ethics, so I’m interested in hearing what led you down this path of what you term moral classroom management? What does moral classroom management mean to you and in what ways does it differ from other ways of managing classrooms?
Clodie: I do understand the skepticism related to the overuse of morality in the title, that’s why I really do appreciate your question. Everyone would declare that he is moral; no one would admit that he or she is not.
I think that there are big gaps between what people declare and what they really do in their daily practices.
Liz: That is very true.
Classroom power struggles and bias
Clodie: Looking at the class from a moral classroom management perspective means that you have to take into consideration the power struggles in your own class, power struggles between children and between the staff and the children.
To be able to overcome your own weakness to prefer, let’s say, the bright children or the children who are similar to your own background.
To be able to see the well-being of all children, to accept the fact that children who don’t achieve so well or whose behavior is really challenging and sometimes quite nasty, have become this way partly because we, as a society, help them become that way. We didn’t give them the whole opportunity to learn.
Looking at the class in a moral way is to understand that you really are responsible for the well-being of all the children.
Doing that involves struggling with yourself all the way around – it’s not an initial stance that you can adopt and live happily thereafter. It is something that you have to struggle with yourself, each and every time a child or a parent challenge you.
Liz: It’s very easy to underestimate our own personalities and our own beliefs and philosophies, and to underestimate what affect that has.
Clodie: Yes. I think that society at large doesn’t accept weaknesses and biases, and that is why we have to disguise them. It is much more useful to be conscious of our own biases and perceptions, and struggle with them all the way around.
Liz: And admit that we have these biases.
Clodie: I think there is no person in the word who is not biased against someone or some group of people. We have to accept and be able to be conscious about it and struggle with it.
Let me give an example of a student teacher in a graduate class who confessed that she had about five young children speaking Russian as their first language and she thought that none of them spoke Hebrew. About six months after the beginning of the school year, after talking with the mother of one of the children, she realized that one of the children was pretty fluent in Hebrew, but they were meeting her expectations not to speak Hebrew.
And for her to be able to admit it and say it aloud in front of a group of colleagues, I was very appreciative of her courage to do so because I think this is the only way to combat our own biases.
How does a moral lens change our perspective?
Liz: In your book you devote 3 chapters to coping with challenging behaviours. You talk about encouraging teachers to look at each situation through the lens of moral classroom management. Can you give us an example of a simple situation that might occur in our classroom and how we might ordinarily look at it, and then how looking through this other lens can change our perspective and therefore change how we deal with the child or the children or the parents involved?
Clodie: Let me give you an example, which is pretty common in the experience of preschool teachers. Some girl or boy is being disruptive during the plenary session. Now the simple way of looking at it from a classroom management perspective is to see this child as a disruptive child, and to make a decision related to what happened on the spot.
Pretty often, in Israel, they would send the child away, or threaten that he’ll be thrown away from the plenary or be threatened that the parents will be told.
This way of dealing with the problem just makes things worse for the child. It gives him a worse reputation with his peers, and also doesn’t give him any motivation to put in effort to improve his behaviour.
But I have seen teachers who are guided by moral classroom management who are able to turn things around. They encourage children to move around, to dance. They would hug the child and give him the feeling that he is part of the whole class and give him the chance to regulate his behaviour while not pointing to his problematic behaviour in front of his peers.
This would be an example of looking from a classroom management perspective and understanding that when you do stuff with a child you have an audience, people are judging his attitude and reputation and you are influencing self-efficacy beliefs. So looking at it a little bit from above, not giving in to your anger, is to do something that is more creative and that looks at the long-term effect of your intervention.
Liz: I imagine part of this process is getting to know the children very well and being able to foresee when the behaviour’s coming on to try and manage the behaviour before it gets extreme?
Clodie: Exactly. One of the components in the model of classroom management in the book is to look at the classroom proactively. Getting knowledge of the children is just one tool to help you make a decision based on proactive thinking. Think ahead of time what might be happening and plan ahead of time so that you are teaching in a way that helps these children who have the most special needs.
Liz: We need to be more strategic.
Clodie: To be more strategic and to prevent behaviour problems from bursting out or to diminish their effect.
Understanding ourselves first
Liz: It’s clear that you hold concerns that children from diverse and underprivileged backgrounds are given the opportunity to thrive in early childhood programs. How does using a moral classroom management lens help us as teachers to be more effective with these children and their families?
Clodie: I think that I addressed these questions a little beforehand when I talked about being self-conscious and being able to fight our own biases.
In order to do that, you really have to be devoted to children, whatever their background would be, and to like to be around them to some extent, but to also be self-conscious about your own biases related to children’s religions or ethnic backgrounds, or even gender.
One teacher told me just this morning, we were talking about a situation where a math teacher said that she hated boys in her class in an elementary school. She said it more than once, and she was promoted.
And this person I was talking with, she’s a counselor, was saying, “How can someone like that who states openly that she hates boys in her class, how can she be teaching and be promoted to a position where she is responsible for other teachers?” So biases can occur against all kinds of groups at different times.
There are some people who are biased against girls or boys, or homosexual students or teachers or whatever. You have to be self-conscious about your biases and be able to learn that diversity is a part of human existence.
If I was born as a white or black person, it is not something that is good or bad, just that you have blue or brown eyes. Sometimes, the color of the skin has a very strong effect on people, but it’s really just the pigment on your skin. You have to be aware of these biases and the irrational nature of these biases.
We need to understand our society
To be able to work for the sake of underprivileged children you have to have some social awareness of what is going on in your society. In colleges and universities, more emphasis needs to be put on sociology and anthropology studies, and not only on psychology. And I am saying that as a psychologist.
I think that looking from a psychological perspective is useful but it’s insufficient. You have to look at the class and the children from a sociological and anthropological perspective in order to better understand the complexity of the society that is being represented in each class that you have been teaching.
Liz: I suppose some of that is that we think we understand other ethnic groups or underprivileged children, but in actual fact, our understanding is probably fairly superficial.
Wrestling against our own ‘superiority’
Clodie: I very much agree with you. First of all, we don’t understand it, and the second problematic part is to consider that the group that you belong to is superior to other groups.
They imitate or absorb our culture, and then, they are nice people, but it’s really not acceptable to look at differences between groups of people from a multicultural perspective.
Liz: I like what you just said about the children learning to understand our culture, so we’re kind of teaching them to pretend and teaching them to fit in with the majority culture, but they are not being shown respect for their own culture, so that can become a problem with their own sense of identity, I suppose.
Clodie: Exactly, and they do pay a price by being nice to us. Then they are appreciated, but they are paying a price in developing their own identity and accepting their own roots.
Efficiency does not equal care
Liz: We would sometimes do that because we want a peaceful classroom, we want a well-run classroom, we want the children to behave well and focus.
Clodie: Yes, and I think that we want to be very efficient and do things fast and well without stopping and thinking enough about what the consequences of what we are doing in the long run on the children are.
I think that in the West (in Israel, we are pretty much imitating the United States), efficiency and speed come at the expense of looking at things in a deeper way and just halting and pondering what you are doing and what the children are becoming.
The importance of reflection
Liz: What I love the most about your book is that you’ve used case studies, real life classroom situations, to delve into management issues. Your book tells us how the teacher initially reacted, and then shows the teacher’s reflection process and how they’ve decided they’ll react to a similar episode the next time. How important is it for us as teachers to dissect how we’ve managed our kids during the day? Do we really have time for that?
Clodie: It is very important because if you don’t document episodes and if you don’t reflect on them, and if you don’t discuss them with other people, you can’t evolve and develop in the way that I was talking about.
But I think that the lack of time is a question of priorities. I think that the workload is very big now, but it’s a question of deciding how to spend the time according to your priorities.
In preschool, I know it for a fact, that if they think it is important, no one would stop them from documenting it, and I think that the price is to teach less topics, which in my opinion, is a bearable price, because what is important is to learn things in depth and not superficially.
So teach fewer topics but teach them well and take time to document and reflect on what you’ve been doing.
Liz: Also in early childhood, socialization is so hugely important that it really needs to be a priority for us, doesn’t it?
Clodie: Social skills are very important in preschool to build a foundation of social competencies, but I really think that it is a very important issue for high school students, and I think that it is enormously overlooked at those ages too.
Liz: I found it interesting that you included a chapter on emergent curriculum in your book. How can looking through a moral lens actually encourage us to make changes in what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it?
Clodie: Modern accepted definitions of classroom management look at learning and well-being conditions as interrelated. It is quite old-fashioned to look at classroom management as dealing primarily with social issues.
I don’t think that you can create good learning conditions without creating good emotional and social conditions for the children. Adopting an emergent curriculum means enhancing learning and children participation.
It is related to moral classroom management in two ways.
- First of all, it is an evolving approach that needs to be developed and coordinated and adapted to children and staff and their interests.
- To institute an emergent curriculum means you need to look at the class ecologically and get acquainted with the children and the parents. You have to think proactively to adapt a leadership approach, to collaborate with staff and parents and always be on a reflective path, ready to modify and adapt plans and action to accommodate changing needs. It’s really the same thing, looking more broadly at learning in addition to social and emotional areas of function.
Liz: So you’re including in the curriculum that we need to look at the children in our classroom and say, “Well this topic I taught last year is really not relevant to these children, so I need to change it.”
Clodie: Even the same topic when you are teaching two different groups. The curriculum needs to be modified and adapted to the two groups because it is never going to be identical.
If you are adopting an emergent curriculum, because the participants are different and children participate in different ways, and they are interested in different issues. Even if you are focusing on the main topic, let’s say birds, you can focus on birds in two groups, focusing on completely different aspects of birds.
Classroom management and teacher training
Liz: Clodie, you have been running teacher training programs and Master of Education programs for a long time. There are so many skills and so much knowledge that student teachers and new teachers have to develop to feel successful in the classroom. What kind of priority does classroom management usually get during teacher training, and is it enough so that new teachers can generally feel confident in their ability to cope?
Clodie: I think that your questions include two parts. The first one deals with the extent of training focused on classroom management, and the second one emphasizes a multitude of skills included in classroom management, and I have to say something about both issues.
Clodie: I am trying to conceptualize classroom management as a complex meta-competency rather than a bunch of unrelated skills. And that might make things easier or more coherent, in my opinion, and the moral classroom management included in the book presents classroom management as a meta-skill.
As for your second question, not enough emphasis is being put on this complex meta-competency. I’m talking both about the quantity of courses and learning related to classroom management and teacher education, and about the processes and experiences that are being offered to student teachers and veteran teachers.
Classroom management suffers from quite a bad reputation in the academic world, as compared for example to leadership, which, in my opinion, is only one component of classroom management. And still leadership enjoys a much more glorious reputation in the academic world.
Liz: When you say, it has a different reputation, are you saying that more people want to study leadership, and there is less research on classroom management?
Classroom management is not a research priority
Clodie: What I mean is in the academic world, not in the teacher’s world, people think that leadership is more worthwhile to be researched. This decision doesn’t take into consideration the ecological nature of life in classes.
Classroom management is much more relevant and acute for teachers, and I think that teachers do appreciate classroom management. In universities and teacher colleges it is not enough appreciated and therefore, not enough emphasis is put into the training.
Liz: That is what we are dealing with every day in the classroom, so it is a high priority for us. You’re saying that researchers don’t understand how high a priority it actually is?
Clodie: That’s it exactly. This is what I mean. I feel that I am struggling all the time to make justice to this concept in the academic environment, because the way people conceptualize classroom management is not accurate enough.
Classroom management takes both cognitive competencies like understanding classroom life, being able to analyze situations, and skills and competencies, and I think that more often, people think that classroom management is just dealing with behaviour modification for challenging behaviours. They see it from an iceberg perception and don’t think about the whole complexity of this skill.
How to develop effective classroom management skills
Liz: You obviously place an emphasis on the development of classroom management skills, so how do you encourage growing mastery in your students over their years in your teaching programs?
Clodie: My perceptions of classroom management have been developing for about 15 years from the first year of fieldwork. What I am doing is encouraging students to write a journal and to write down social episodes, narratives of many situations they are encountering in their fieldwork, to reflect on them, to analyze them. That is one thing that they have been doing from the very beginning until the very end, and graduate students, too.
Liz: So they do it throughout their course.
Clodie: I have been encouraging when I had the B. Ed Program, the college mentors and the fieldwork mentors to encourage students to write these episodes in their courses.
In addition to that, we offer a course in the second year of studies called Social Competence, when they learn to document and build an intervention program for children with either challenging behaviours or social difficulties.
The students have to look at the class in an ecological manner, not only to build a behavioural program for the child, but rather to look at the interactions with the teachers and peers, and a little bit with parents. To learn how the environment doesn’t help children develop their social skills, and how the environment, mainly the teacher and the assistant and parents have to change their own interactions and behaviours in order to allow the children to enhance their social skills.
I have seen students in their second year of studies implementing plans like that, and I think they are much better than what a psychologist would do. I’m a psychologist by training, and because I don’t see the children on a daily basis, I can be much less useful to the children having social problems or behavioral problems than teachers. Of course, I can do less harm than teachers can do.
During this whole year, students plan and implement such plans, and they do reach some skills, and also develop a more ecological understanding that behavioural and social difficulties are placed in the social environment and are not placed in the child him or herself only. He can’t help it without the help of the teacher.
Liz: So you’re saying if you’re making a special education plan for a child that is having difficulty socially, that we shouldn’t focus down on the child, we should be looking at the whole environment in the classroom and the teacher, and all the other children, because you can’t just work on one child in isolation.
Clodie: Yes, on interactions and attitudes that teachers have.
Then in the third year, they do a classroom management seminar and they have to perform action research focused on an issue that they define that is challenging for them. That issue can be related to challenging behaviours or diversity, or emergent curriculum.
But this time they are looking more from above, a bird’s eye view perspective. Much more than looking at the child and his interactions, looking at the classroom a little bit from above, but dealing with it when focused on a specific and well-defined issue and not globally without focusing on something.
Improved management equals improved learning
This last year, I had three students who attempted quite successfully to enhance literacy skills in children both in preschool and the first grade school ages by improving their classroom management.
Learning interactions with children cannot be qualitative enough because of problems in classroom management such as inadequate collaboration with staff, or small group work, which is not organized well enough, where children are causing disturbances.
They have been doing very nice work this year, affecting classroom management in an action research style. By working out cycles of interventions they succeeded to improve the children’s literacy skills and also, in two of the three cases, they also collaborated with parents.
Who should read Moral Classroom Management?
Liz: Clodie, I will put a link to your book in the show notes, but is it aimed at a particular audience? Who will get the most out of reading it?
Clodie: I think that the book might be helpful to teachers, those in preschool and elementary then the high school/ preschool, elementary and high school teachers. To veteran teachers and to those in training programs. I think that it can be used as a textbook.
I intend to use it as a textbook in my class, and also policy makers would benefit by reading these type of books, this book in particular, just to look at classroom management in a different way.
Also administrators in universities and colleges might benefit by looking at it and broadening their perceptions of what classroom management is.
Liz: Because you’re saying that often it’s not taught enough in universities.
Clodie: I think so, and I’m not the only person who thinks so. I think that it is an underestimated, under-taught and under-researched topic.
Liz: I feel like in a lot of courses, it might be just one subject that’s taught once in their three or four years. They just do one classroom management course in the middle somewhere, and that’s it.
Clodie: Yes, and the problem is, not only is it a one-unit course, but it is not necessarily related to their fieldwork and the particular development of the students themselves.
Theoretical learning isn’t enough. We need to apply new knowledge.
Because of this they don’t benefit from such a course too much because learning about social learning processes only theoretically without connecting them with your own practice and with your own personality and identity as a teacher, is not helpful in training. It’s just to say that you took a unit and then forget about it.
Liz: I really like the way that you’ve put that, it’s very true.
Clodie, thank you so much for being on the show today, it’s been wonderful to talk to you. I’m sure lots of our listeners will be thinking about their own habits in the classroom and what they can tweak to make each day even more positive and encouraging for all their children. Thank you so much for being in the show today.
Clodie: Thank you very much for interviewing me.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Dr Clodie Tal.
Classroom management and new teacher anxiety
You can find this post HERE! I wrote this last year with the aid of one of Clodie’s research papers. It talks about the kinds of personal qualities we as teachers can develop to help improve the way we manage classrooms and to reduce some of our stress.
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