The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 5 - Teachers and the Teaching Profession
in the United States
(Part 3 of 3)

Teachers' Relationships

Disruptive Students

Students who are difficult or unruly present a special type of problem for teachers because they can be an impediment to classroom instruction and organization. Disruptive students command more attention from the teacher thus making it more difficult to teach and manage the rest of the class. Despite the problems that students with behavior problems pose, there is no single way that these students are dealt with in the United States. Disciplinary policy is usually a composite of local school board policy and teacher and principal implementation. Schools visited as part of the Case Study dealt with issues of student behavior in a variety of ways.

Some of the schools we visited provided teachers with written disciplinary guidelines or suggestions for classroom management. In one Case Study school, the handbook distributed to teachers included classroom management guidelines. Aspects of this guideline placed a great deal if burden of student disruption on classroom mismanagement, quoting William Glasser's Schools Without Failure,

The climate of a classroom can be gauged by the words that are spoken between a teacher and student. There is a close relationship between the classroom atmosphere, almost entirely a product of the teacher, and the degree of disturbance among the individual children.

Some of the Case Study schools also provided guidelines for student conduct as part of either the student or student-parent handbook. For example, Vanderbilt Middle School's student-parent handbook presented a detailed account of the actions both the teacher and the school administration would take if students failed to adhere to both the classroom and school-wide expectations for behavior. At Springdale High School, the student handbook included an explicit code of student conduct that charted the punishments a student would receive for each infraction. The level of punishment ranged from verbal warnings and in-school suspensions to recommendations for expulsion and out-of-school suspensions. The level of punishment increased with the number of offenses the student committed.

Recently, some educators have pointed out the usefulness of alternative schools for disruptive students, thus allowing teachers in regular schools to focus on teaching students who do not have behavior difficulties (Hiraoka 1996). Others have suggested that schools should spell out a strict code of conduct with explicit punishments for students, beginning in elementary school (Shanker 1995).

Teacher Contact with Parents

The primary relationship that teachers have is with students, and only peripherally with their parents. The most frequent method of communication from schools to parents is through written materials, such as newsletters or flyers, which allow little opportunity for response (Tangri & Moles 1987). Face-to-face interaction with parents usually occurs during an annual school-wide open house and during periodic teacher conferences, fairly formal occasions for discussing student progress. Teachers or parents may schedule other conferences as needed; however, these generally occur in response to difficulties faced by students. Typically, teachers receive little or no training for interaction with parents.

Summary

Although a Case Study cannot be invoked to make sweeping generalizations, the Case Study Project was designed to capture experiences of teachers of math and science across regions, levels of schooling, and achievement levels in the United States. This chapter has reported on teachers' lives and working conditions in 3 regions of the country (southeast, midwest, and west) at 3 grade levels (4th, 8th, and 12th), and in schools rated as low-, middle-, and high-achieving according to students' performance on nationally normed tests. The schools we visited were in large metropolitan areas and included suburban and inner-city schools. Rather than selecting only "typical" schools, the Case Study Project included a broad range of schools.

The training of teachers in the United States occurs primarily in colleges or schools of education located in universities. Aspiring teachers enroll both in education courses and in courses in the basic academic disciplines. The former types of courses are thought to provide them with the information necessary to conduct classes successfully and the latter with the substantive knowledge that will comprise the content of the lessons they teach. In addition, all teachers undergo a period of student teaching. Although some teachers thought it was preferable for a student teacher to be left alone with a class early on, others thought it was important for them to be nurtured and supported by a skilled teacher during the initial weeks of learning to teach.

After graduating from college and obtaining the necessary teaching credentials, most teachers worked in relative isolation. Few had the time or opportunity to collaborate with other teachers, despite the fact that many of the current reform efforts seek greater involvement by teachers.

Reform initiatives in the United States are now aimed at trying to improve the teaching profession by setting higher entrance standards, requiring teachers to renew their certification, creating mentoring programs, and improving salaries and working conditions. Most schools we visited are involved in "site-based management." Teachers in these schools help to formulate a "School Improvement Plan" that sets objectives and holds the promise of giving teachers more of a voice in how schools are run. New instructional practices include team teaching, cooperative learning, and individualized instruction using computers and new types of performance assessments. Teachers in some of the schools visited were also trying to help their students meet new state-level performance standards. As the discussion in this chapter suggests, these innovations were present to varying degrees in the Case Study schools and affected teachers more strongly in some settings than in others. One unintended consequence of the sanctions incurred by the imposition of district and state standards was that they could encourage teachers to "teach the test." They could also be stated at such a high level of abstraction that teachers could—and did—teach very different curricula even at the same grade level in the same school.

The degree of autonomy granted to teachers varies greatly among schools. In some cases teachers had developed new curricula themselves and helped new teachers to understand these materials. More frequently, however, books were already purchased and teachers were required to teach what was available. New math and science curricula had been recently selected by a team of teachers from the district in one case, but other teachers found this particular science curriculum to be too difficult for the children. Although teachers in another school were given time to set grade-level objectives, the time allotted was only one half day, and the teachers were not able to plan together on a regular basis. Teacher involvement and satisfaction varied across schools.

There was great commonality among teachers' responses when they were asked questions that were related to desirable conditions for teaching. These included more flexible schedules, more opportunity to interact with other teachers, increased resources, and more assistance. Teachers in schools in low-income areas generally tended to face the greatest challenges and to be subject to more demands for accountability than teachers in middle- and high-income areas. Teaching in large urban districts was considered more difficult because of greater student diversity, relatively scarce resources, bureaucratic demands, limited parental involvement, and low salaries, among other reasons. As a result, suburban school districts have often been successful in recruiting teachers from urban schools, since they offer more resources, greater flexibility, and better pay.

Schools in the United States were in a period of transition when this study was undertaken. In view of the many initiatives that have been introduced, it is not clear what teachers' lives will be like at the beginning of the next century. In the meantime, teachers are being asked to be the implementers of a host of innovations in instruction and school management. As federal, state, district, and school efforts at improvement occur, one thing becomes obvious: There will be increasing need for cooperation at all levels if teachers are to help members of the next generation meet the ambitious goals that have been set for them.

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