Top teacher challenge: control in class

LOS ANGELES — Students filed into Chris Cox's dim classroom at Daniel Webster Middle School in Los Angeles' Sawtelle neighborhood, took their seats, and immediately began working on a language arts warmup exercise.

While Cox took roll, the eighth-graders silently worked. When they went over the answers, students raised their hands and waited to be called on.

Down the corridor, seventh-graders streamed into Brent Walmsley's classroom and took over. Some sat on table tops; others wandered the room.

As Walmsley took attendance, one boy brushed his hair, three girls sucked on lollipops while one sang Pink Dollaz's "Lap Dance," and a boy in the last row unleashed a barrage of spitballs.

Same school, same day, similar students, similar teachers — yet profoundly different behavior.

Educators, administrators and experts say classroom management — the ability to calmly control student behavior so learning can flourish — can make or break a teacher's ability to be successful.

"It is probably one of the things that's least understandable and most complex about teaching," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "This is the hardest skill to master."

Among the top reasons why teachers are deemed unsuccessful or leave the profession is their inability to effectively manage their classrooms, according to records and interviews.

Many California teachers who were fired and contested termination to a state panel were cited for poor classroom management, among other issues, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis conducted last spring. Study after study confirms the importance of classroom management.

But unlike teaching calculus or chemistry, there is no single best practices method for managing a classroom.

Experts agree on a handful of guidelines: Teachers must be consistent in their message and consequences, lay a strong foundation of expectations early in the school year, follow through with promised punishments when children misbehave, and remain dispassionate and unflappable.