Ask Ellen: What Can I Say?

How to help a teacher manage her class.

How to help a teacher manage her class.
Ellen MoirCredit: Bart Nagel

Dear Ellen:

I am an educator with more than thirty years of experience teaching middle school mathematics. This year, I began a new phase of my career; part of my job as a math coach is to work with and help struggling teachers. My problem is that I do not know how to help one teacher with her classroom management. She makes a lot of mistakes I can help with, but the major problem is her personality and her voice, which is very annoying and monotonous. How can I get someone to change her personality?

I go in and work with her at least one period a day, and the class is usually out of control when I walk in. I get them settled, and they become more cooperative, but as soon as I leave, they start up again. She has totally lost control of the class.

I worked with the teacher by modeling lessons; I've talked about changing activities more frequently, and have encouraged more group work. I am really getting frustrated and worried about the students.

Any suggestions are very much appreciated.

Veteran Math Teacher


Dear Veteran Math Teacher,

Congratulations on becoming a math coach! I appreciate your concern about a teacher's practice apparently getting in the way of her students' learning. One of the most challenging tasks for mentors is to raise a teacher's awareness about something that is not working in his or her practice. And when it's something as significant as a teacher's personality, which you say is the biggest problem, it can be daunting to address.

I'm sure you can imagine how deflating it would be for the teacher to hear it's her personality that is having such a negative impact in the classroom. With the adroit use of data, however, you can help her gain insight into her teaching without having to express your opinion. In fact, it's better if you leave your opinion out and simply share data with the teacher about her practice and then, through discussions, draw inferences from the information.

Before you do anything to address the issues, however, you must build a trusting relationship with the teacher. If you haven't, and you feel you can't be fully honest with her, step back and work simply on developing trust first. Only then can the work really begin.

To help her, you need to gather evidence of her practice, which the two of you can study together. One way to do this is to videotape a lesson. Some teachers are uncomfortable watching themselves, but you might persuade her (gently) that we need to see how we appear to our students, and videotaping is a powerful way to do that. An alternative to videotaping is to make an audiotape of a lesson so she can at least hear the sound of her voice. And of course you can observe a lesson and use coaching tools to gather evidence about her practice.

When you observe her teaching, ask the teacher to guide your observations so that you look at what she is curious about. Of course, you can prompt her with suggestions. For example, you might ask, "Are you interested in levels of student engagement? What does engagement look like to you? What will students be saying and doing? I can observe for that at several points during the lesson."

Ellen Moir
Credit: Bart Nagel

You must prepare the postobservation conference carefully so that you guide the teacher toward drawing conclusions about her practice. That means being prepared to draw her attention to the data and to reflect together on its implications.

Our job as mentors is to improve student learning. We do that best when we help teachers develop over time into outstanding educators. Sometimes we have to be very direct, but the more collaborative or facilitative we can be, the more we empower the teacher.

I appreciate your commitment to ensuring every student has the best education.

Best wishes,

Ellen Moir


Ellen Moir is a veteran bilingual teacher who is focused on the challenges faced by new teachers as well as on the needs of those with long careers in education. She is also the executive director of the New Teacher Center, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a resource for educator-induction research, policy, and practice.

This article originally published on 5/15/2007

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