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Influences on proactive classroom management: Views of teachers in government secondary schools, Queensland

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Proactive classroom management is associated with increased teacher wellbeing and improved student learning outcomes. Yet research indicates that many teachers over-report and underuse practices associated with this approach. The research findings reported here were drawn from semi-structured interviews conducted with 26 government secondary school teachers in Queensland, Australia. These teachers favoured a classroom management approach based on establishing positive relationships with students, but they raised challenges related to cultivating student engagement, meeting the diverse needs of learners and adherence to school disciplinary procedures. Although they felt generally confident with classroom management and were relatively satisfied with student behaviour, they identified a need for better initial teacher preparation, improved induction support and opportunities for ongoing professional development for classroom management.
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https://doi.org/10.1177/1365480219886148
Improving Schools
2020, Vol. 23(1) 33 –46
© The Author(s) 2019
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DOI: 10.1177/1365480219886148
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Improving
Schools
Influences on proactive classroom
management: Views of teachers
in government secondary schools,
Queensland
Lorna Hepburn and Wendi Beamish
Griffith University, Australia
Abstract
Proactive classroom management is associated with increased teacher wellbeing and improved student
learning outcomes. Yet research indicates that many teachers over-report and underuse practices associated
with this approach. The research findings reported here were drawn from semi-structured interviews
conducted with 26 government secondary school teachers in Queensland, Australia. These teachers
favoured a classroom management approach based on establishing positive relationships with students, but
they raised challenges related to cultivating student engagement, meeting the diverse needs of learners
and adherence to school disciplinary procedures. Although they felt generally confident with classroom
management and were relatively satisfied with student behaviour, they identified a need for better initial
teacher preparation, improved induction support and opportunities for ongoing professional development
for classroom management.
Keywords
Australia, classroom management, inhibitors, secondary schools, supports, teacher practice
Introduction
Effective classroom management is predominantly proactive, with a focus on preventing problem
behaviour by intentional use of strategies such as explicitly teaching behavioural expectations and
acknowledging appropriate behaviour (Oliver, Wehby, & Reschly, 2011). Teachers who effectively
manage their classrooms typically have minimal behavioural disruptions, resulting in more aca-
demically engaged students (Scott, 2017). Conversely, use of punitive strategies such as suspension
and detention has been shown to be ineffective in reducing the occurrence of problem behaviour
(Chitiyo & May, 2018). In addition, ineffective classroom management practices impact negatively
on teacher–student relationships, on student learning outcomes and on teachers who are more likely
Corresponding author:
Lorna Hepburn, Griffith University, Mount Gravatt, QLD 4122, Australia.
Email: lorna.hepburn@alumni.griffithuni.edu.au
886148IMP0010.1177/1365480219886148Improving SchoolsHepburn and Beamish
research-article2019
Article
34 Improving Schools 23(1)
to suffer stress and burn out and potentially exit the profession (Herman, Hickmon-Rosa, & Reinke,
2018; Queensland College of Teachers, 2013; Reinke, Herman, & Stormont, 2013; Reinke,
Stormont, Herman, Wachsmuth, & Newcomer, 2015). Becoming a good classroom manager is
therefore essential for effective teaching and learning, yet ironically many pre-service teaching
courses lack behaviour management content and many teachers report feeling under-prepared to
manage their classrooms competently (Chesley & Jordan, 2012; Freeman, Simonsen, Briere, &
MacSuga-Gage, 2014; Herman et al., 2018; O’Neill & Stephenson, 2014; Reinke et al., 2013).
Moreover, many teachers do not have access to ongoing professional development and support for
classroom management once they begin teaching (Goss, Sonnemann, & Griffiths, 2017; The New
Teacher Project, 2015; NSW Ombudsman, 2017; Tooley & Connally, 2016). At the same time,
policy-makers, education systems and the wider community are increasingly concerned about dis-
engagement from learning by students, the underuse of proactive classroom management practices
by teachers and the level of problem behaviour in schools (Armstrong, 2018; Ball, Maguire, &
Braun, 2012; Scott, 2017). Consequently, teachers in todays schools are under increased pressure to
operate as effective classroom managers.
Effective classroom management practices which make a positive difference to student out-
comes and teacher wellbeing are well known and are predominantly proactive in nature (see,
for example, Gable, Hester, Rock, & Hughes, 2009; Marzano, Marzano, & Pickering, 2003;
Simonsen, Fairbanks, Briesch, Myers, & Sugai, 2008). Yet research undertaken in classrooms
indicates that teachers underuse many research-informed practices known to reduce behav-
ioural disruptions and increase academic engagement. Low rates of use of proactive practices,
such as providing students with positive feedback, and high rates of use of reactive practices,
such as reprimanding students, have been recorded (Reinke et al., 2013; Scott, Alter, & Hirn,
2011). Furthermore, when teachers are surveyed about the classroom management practices
they employ, they consistently report using mostly research-informed, proactive practices at
high rates (e.g. Borgmeier, Loman, & Hara, 2016; Cooper et al., 2018; Moore et al., 2017). This
finding may be due to the nature of self-report, with some studies revealing that practising
teachers tend to report inflated levels of knowledge and use of practices (Hartman & Nelson,
1992; Stark, Snow, Eadie, & Goldfeld, 2016). It has also been suggested that teachers may be
unable to self-evaluate accurately due to a lack of awareness of what specifically constitutes
‘effective practice’ (Timperley, 2015, p. 36).
Recent Australian reports have noted the absence of information on research-informed practices
for teachers and recommended the inclusion of evidence-based content in pre-service teaching
courses and dissemination of evidence-based practice guides by policy-makers (Australian
Government, Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group, 2014; Goss et al., 2017). Undoubtedly,
teacher access to evidence-based information on classroom management research would be help-
ful, although it may not be sufficient to change practice. Cook and Cook (2016) argue that teachers
are likely to be alienated by provision of information which takes a rigorous, academic approach
to evidence-based practice without ensuring relevance to real classrooms. These researchers make
the case for ‘practice-based evidence’ (p. 144), derived from real-world settings and practitioners,
to complement practices identified through applied research.
There is also evidence that teacher beliefs may inhibit the use of research-informed classroom
management practices (Pinkelman, Mcintosh, Rasplica, Berg, & Strickland-Cohen, 2015). Recent
research from New Zealand and Australia suggests that teachers who view problem behaviour as
connected to the home situation or individual student characteristics are likely to control student
behaviour through the imposition of reprimands and sanctions, rather than proactively through
modification of the classroom environment or through the implementation of positive support
practices (Johansen, Little, & Akin-Little, 2011; Sullivan, Johnson, Owens, & Conway, 2014).
Hepburn and Beamish 35
Findings from these studies have indicated that most teachers believed that the causes of problem
behaviour were connected to external factors such as home situation or internal factors within the
student. Such attribution of student misbehaviour to external or internal factors may therefore
inhibit use of proactive classroom management practices, such as teaching and reinforcing expected
behaviours, due to an underlying belief that teachers are powerless to counteract what happens at
home or within the child.
This article reports the findings from the second phase of a mixed-methods study of secondary
school teachers working in the government sector in Queensland, Australia (Hepburn, Beamish, &
Alston-Knox, 2019a, 2019b). In Phase 1 of this research, 587 secondary school teachers responded
to a survey about their use of classroom management practices. The purpose of Phase 2 was to add
to survey findings by directly seeking the views of individual teachers. By interviewing teachers,
it was hoped to discover some of the underlying reasons behind their choice of classroom manage-
ment practices to shed light on some of the inconsistencies apparent in previous research findings
and to pinpoint what teachers authentically see as factors supporting and inhibiting their develop-
ment as effective classroom managers.
Method
Settings and participants
The settings for the study were government secondary schools within the Queensland Department
of Education, Australia. At the time of the study, there were 182 state secondary schools throughout
the state, catering for students aged 11–18 years, across Years 7–12. The majority of government
secondary schools are located in metropolitan or rural areas, with a minority in provincial cities or
more remote locations (Queensland Department of Education, 2019).
Ethical clearance to conduct the research was obtained from the researchers’ university and
the Queensland Department of Education. Participants were 26 secondary school teachers (20
females and 6 males) who consented to be interviewed following completion of a survey in
Phase 1 of the research reported here. Consenting teachers (n = 95) were taken to a separate
survey page where they answered a small number of demographic questions and provided a
contact phone number. In this way, interview participants were recruited so that there was no
link to their earlier survey responses. A pool of 44 potential interviewees with a range of teach-
ing experiences was selected from the provided demographic information. This number was
reduced to 26 when some teachers could not be reached and a small number declined to be
interviewed when contacted.
In general, the teachers interviewed were older and experienced, with 69 percent (n = 18) being
over 40 years of age and 62 percent (n = 16) having more than 10 years’ experience in schools and
classrooms. There were three teachers with less than 2 years’ experience and six with between 2
and 5 years’ experience. A total of 17 teachers (65%) were located in metropolitan areas, with six
(23%) in regional centres and three in rural or remote locations.
Over half (54%) were working in schools of over 1,000 students, 35 percent taught in medium-
sized schools of up to 1,000 students and the remainder either taught in small secondary schools
with fewer than 600 students or did not provide data on their school size. A range of subjects
were being taught, including Humanities (50%), Vocational Education (19%), Maths/Science
(15%), Special Education (15%), Health and Physical Education (8%) and the Arts (8%), with
some teachers working across more than one subject area. While the majority of teachers (58%)
taught both junior and senior classes, some (31%) taught senior classes only, and a few taught
junior classes only.
36 Improving Schools 23(1)
Procedure
Prior to conducting interviews, an initial phone call was made to check whether the teacher was
still willing to participate. For those teachers agreeing to be interviewed, a mutually convenient
time was set for the researcher to call back. Interviews took place over a 3-week period. At the
commencement of the interview, teachers were reminded that participation was voluntary and
that the call would be recorded. All interviews commenced with a brief overview of the aim of
the interview research and a definition of classroom management as ‘strategies or practices
used to maximise engagement and create an environment conducive to learning’. Most inter-
views took around 30 minutes, with the shortest being 10 minutes and the longest lasting
46 minutes. Responses were paraphrased by the researcher throughout the interviews to check
for understanding, and participants were invited to add or clarify information at the end of each
interview. It was not possible to send transcripts for verification as only a name and phone
number were provided.
Instrument
A phone interview protocol was developed by the first author and piloted with four practising sec-
ondary teachers prior to finalisation. A semi-structured interview format was used, consisting of
seven open-ended questions with prompts and follow-up questions determined by initial responses.
Table 1 outlines the interview questions and main areas of investigation.
Data analysis
After all interviews had been conducted, data were analysed following the six phases of the-
matic analysis proposed by Braun and Clarke (2006). Figure 1 displays the steps involved at
each phase. To enhance validity, the researcher met with her supervisors regularly throughout
the coding process to check interpretations through a process of critical discussion (Cho &
Trent, 2006).
Table 1. Phone interview questions and areas of investigation.
Interview question Area of investigation
1. How does your school expect you to manage
student behaviour in your classroom?
How do school systems and culture impact
on teacher practices?
2. How would you describe your personal
classroom management approach?
What are teacher beliefs about classroom
management and student behaviour?
3. What do you understand evidence-based
classroom management to mean?
What do teachers know about evidence-
based practices?
4. Which classroom management practices do you
find most effective on a day-to-day basis, given
your current workload and classes?
What are the classroom management
practices most commonly used by teachers?
5. How satisfied are you with the behaviour and
engagement of your current classes?
Do teachers believe their current approach to
classroom management is effective?
6. What has helped you to develop confidence and
skills or what support would help you to develop
confidence and skills in classroom management?
What do teachers perceive as supports to
becoming an effective classroom manager?
7. What are the main challenges facing you (or
others) with classroom management?
What do teachers see as challenges or
inhibitors to effective classroom management?
Hepburn and Beamish 37
Results and discussion
Four key themes identified through the thematic analysis are depicted in the thematic map (see
Figure 2). Themes were an overarching theme entitled Classroom management beliefs and
approach and three main themes named (1) Everyday practices, (2) Knowledge and trust of
research and (3) Supports and inhibitors.
Classroom management beliefs and approach
The overarching theme of Classroom management beliefs and approach encompassed general
viewpoints on classroom management expressed by our teachers. Many reported feeling in control
of classroom management and were relatively happy with the behaviour of their students, with
around 50 percent not considering classroom management to be a major concern. However, every-
day concerns with classroom management and student behaviour were voiced incidentally as
teachers recounted stories and provided examples in response to interview prompts. The most com-
mon behavioural concerns related to lack of student engagement and disrespect. Concerns about
student engagement weighed heavily on several teachers, with some talking at length about what
they do to encourage students to engage. For example, Candy highlighted her concerns in this way:
I would say one challenge is that there’s a difference between kids who are well behaved and kids who are
engaged. Just because they’re sitting there quietly and they look like they’re doing the right thing doesn’t
mean that they’re actually doing, that they’re listening or they’re actually, you know, engaging with the
work or any of that.
Table 2 displays the specific behavioural concerns raised throughout interviews and the number of
teachers raising this type of concern. Most teachers signalled that low-level disruptions and disen-
gagement with learning were the main behavioural problems they encountered, a finding that
Figure 1. The six phases of thematic analysis from Braun and Clarke (2006).
Figure 2. Thematic map of key themes.
38 Improving Schools 23(1)
aligns well with that of previous Australian research (Beaman, Wheldall, & Kemp, 2007; Sullivan
et al., 2014). Disrespect also emerged as a concern, which may reflect the reality in secondary
schools of working with adolescents who are more likely to push boundaries and question author-
ity as part of typical teenage development. By comparison, a few teachers talked about more seri-
ous infringements, such as violence and drug taking, but these teachers were very much in the
minority.
Many teachers also reflected on the importance of developing their own style and approach to
classroom management. For example, Angela, a teacher with less than 5 years’ experience, voiced
the importance of developing a personalised style of classroom management:
But the biggest lesson that I learned is that you have to be yourself. You can’t copy someone else’s
behaviour management style because you are not that person. And in my prac I remember kind of trying
on a few different styles. I was watching a number of different teachers and so I tried rigid authoritarianism
and that did not work for me at all.
Some of our teachers questioned whether classroom management could be taught, suggesting that
it mostly comes down to individual personality and beliefs. Experienced teacher, Jacinta, sub-
scribed to this view:
I pride myself on being a lifelong learner, so I try to stay abreast of what is happening in the world of
research and apply those in my classrooms. And I ultimately, the longer I’m in this game, think that it goes
back to my beliefs and value system, and that’s hard to teach others.
Almost every teacher interviewed talked about classroom management being underpinned by
mutual respect and building positive relationships with students. Many gave examples of getting to
know student names quickly and greeting students as ways to build rapport with students. Teachers
typically talked about treating students as ‘individuals’ and as ‘people’. A common message was
that if teachers treated students with respect, classroom management then became much easier. To
this end, many emphasised the importance of understanding students’ backgrounds and needs, and
involving parents as partners, as expressed by Jemma as follows:
Table 2. Behaviour concerns raised by interviewees.
Behaviour nConcerns raised
Disengagement 7 Feeling voiced that students don’t really care about learning or are difficult
to motivate
Disrespect 7 Concerns about lack of respect, arguing with teacher or refusing to follow
instructions
Disruption 4 Concern that a few students disrupt the learning for others
Swearing 3 Viewed as a serious concern, especially when directed at teachers
Talking 3 Not seen as a major issue; used to illustrate that classroom behaviour
generally is good
Social media 2 Cyber bullying and bringing issues from outside into school causes problems
Physical aggression 2 Viewed as a serious concern although not prevalent
Verbal aggression 1 Considered more prevalent than physical aggression
Bullying 1 A problem in junior classes
Drugs/alcohol 1 Seen as a community issue which is brought into schools
Mobile phones 1 Frustration with use in class
Hepburn and Beamish 39
I try and build those personal relationships and I usually find that once you’ve established those personal
relationships the discipline isn’t as difficult because that level of respect is there . . . if you’re consistent,
and you do it without holding judgement, and you do it and explain why you’re doing it, the kids grow to
respect that and that makes it easier for you in the long run.
Furthermore, most teachers were aware of the benefits of treating adolescent learners with respect
and had learned that taking the time to connect with students pays off in the classroom. This view
was articulated well by Angela as follows:
I’m very big on the students seeing me as a human being because I think that if they see me as a person
they’re less likely to dehumanise me and see me as just a teacher. And if I’m just a teacher then they can
be rude. And . . . I do that by developing relationships with my students.
In summary, our teachers’ views about the importance of positive relationships and understanding
students’ backgrounds differ from findings in previous Australian research, which suggest that
teachers in this country take a more controlling approach to student behaviour (Sullivan et al.,
2014). The present finding may reflect the increasing focus on academic engagement in Australian
schools and the growing understanding in secondary schools of the association between related-
ness and behavioural engagement, especially for adolescents (Roorda, Koomen, Spilt, & Oort,
2011).
Everyday practices
Teachers were asked to describe classroom management strategies that they found most effective
on a day-to-day basis. Responses ranged from brief statements which named a strategy through to
more reflective responses, which included a rationale and examples. Just over half of our teachers
shared that the establishment of routines formed the basis of their approach to classroom manage-
ment and that their school expected all teachers to use common routines to establish orderly class-
rooms. Many teachers talked about the importance of consistency, especially in setting expectations
and following through with consequences. For example, Tasha, an experienced teacher, described
her approach by saying, ‘I’ve learned very early on that a consistent approach works best, that you
follow through. And that students have clear boundaries’. Many others made the point that students
needed to see that you would do what you said you would, as illustrated in this quote from another
experienced teacher, Mary:
But I’m very consistent with the rules and expectations in my classrooms and I make sure that I follow
through on consequences and make sure that I don’t give consequences that I know I won’t be able to
follow through with.
The emphasis placed on consistency by these teachers is unsurprising. The importance of establish-
ing expectations and routines is frequently included in pre-service teacher training (O’Neill &
Stephenson, 2014) and in many classroom management texts (e.g. Marzano et al., 2003; Richmond,
2007; Simonsen & Myers, 2015). In addition, school discipline policies often exhort teachers to be
consistent in their management of student behaviour, so it could therefore be expected that many
teachers would see consistency as an important component of effective classroom management.
However, the frequent juxtaposition of ‘consistency’ with ‘consequences’ in our teachers’ responses
perhaps adds weight to the argument that many teachers take a controlling and reactive approach
to classroom management by simply setting rules and then expecting compliance from students
(Sullivan et al., 2014).
40 Improving Schools 23(1)
There was also evidence, however, that some teachers in our sample understood the link between
effective instruction and student behaviour, with almost a quarter considering differentiated instruc-
tion to be an important classroom management practice. This response from Rachel, a teacher with
many years’ experience, illustrates the belief that issues with behaviour are often the result of inap-
propriate or irrelevant curriculum:
And the problem we’ve got, too, is it’s not so much, the kids are demonstrating behaviour, but there’s a
reason for the behaviour. Low literacy. So, you know, we’re now establishing a lot of these kids on
individual curriculum plans, and reducing the actual level . . . And by doing that, we’re actually seeing a
change in the behaviour.
Just under half of our teachers voiced concerns about the suitability of the curriculum for some
students and put forward the view that many problem behaviours arise due to a mismatch
between the level of the work and individual student capability. Many teachers blamed curricu-
lum inflexibility and failure to differentiate curriculum for much classroom misbehaviour, as
stated by Greg:
The students are misbehaving because they’re not able to access the learning so having a behaviour
management policy that targets the behaviour and not the root of the problem is very difficult to
implement.
Such observations are encouraging as they signal a growing awareness in secondary schools about
the need to tailor instruction to best meet the individual needs of students. However, it was also
apparent that some teachers felt out of their depth and wanted more support to be able to effectively
differentiate teaching and learning in their classes. For example, Della, a teacher with less than
3 years of experience, talked about her reluctance to ask for help because of the expectation that she
should know how to differentiate effectively:
It doesn’t feel like it’s encouraged for you to be able to say, ‘Hey I’m having problems with differentiating’
because that’s one of those skills that you’re supposed to have as a teacher.
Finally, almost three quarters of the teachers interviewed provided examples of practices they used
to correct student behaviour. This focus on correction was interesting as the definition provided at
the start of interviews focused strongly on prevention by defining classroom management as ‘strat-
egies or practices used to maximise engagement and create an environment conducive to learning’.
In addition, teachers were not asked specifically about ways they responded to problem behaviour.
Perhaps one reason for the frequent mention of corrective strategies is that secondary teachers still
view classroom management as predominantly about managing unwanted behaviours, with around
20 percent of the examples provided by our teachers focusing on the provision of consequences,
such as moving seats, making up time or sending students out of the room. However, it is also
important to note that many teachers made the point that maintaining positive relationships was
important, even when having to respond to problem behaviour. Around half of the comments
describing corrective strategies focused on the importance of dealing with problem behaviour on
an individual basis. Teachers talked about taking students aside and questioning them to get them
to reflect on their behaviour, with several commenting on the importance of talking to students
away from the rest of the class to show respect and remove the audience. Moreover, several teach-
ers talked about dealing with problem behaviour in a low-key way, such as by using proximity or
non-verbal cues, while some talked about the use of humour as an effective way to de-escalate
potential problems.
Hepburn and Beamish 41
Knowledge and trust of research
Teachers were asked to explain their understanding of evidence-based classroom management and
were subsequently prompted to provide examples of research-informed classroom management
practices. As a follow-up, they were then asked whether they believed that classroom management
research was of value to practising teachers. In brief, the majority of our teachers struggled to
explain evidence-based classroom management, with many stating they were unsure which prac-
tices were considered to have an evidence base. This response from veteran teacher, Gayle, is
somewhat typical of responses in general:
Evidence-based classroom management. I don’t know. I’m guessing, is it classroom management that’s,
that’s based on, I guess, research, data? Um, you know, kind of people trying it and actually seeing what
works and what doesn’t.
It followed that many observations on the relevance of research to managing actual classrooms
were ambivalent. Yet, most of our teachers believed that they could learn from research and thought
that it was important to know what works, as shown by this response from Alex:
I think research in a lot of areas in education is incredibly important, and classroom management is
something that everybody has to deal with . . . and it’s really a matter of being able to interpret that research
and apply it in a way that works for your situation, and I think the more research that’s done around
classroom management the easier it’s going to be for teachers to be able to interpret that and adapt it into
their practice.
However, many stressed the caveat that it was important for research to be contextualised and that
not all research was valuable for their school and their classroom. Some went further, articulating
a belief that research could be used in the wrong way to force teachers to do things in a certain way
or to support a particular perspective. Some also questioned the validity of some research findings,
critically questioning research methodologies and results or disagreeing with research findings
based on their own experiences as a teacher.
Lack of practitioner knowledge about evidence-based practices has been noted previously
(Reinke, Stormont, Herman, Puri, & Goel, 2011), despite the high confidence and implementation
ratings reported in some survey research findings (e.g. Borgmeier et al., 2016; Cooper et al., 2018;
Moore et al., 2017). In the Phase 1 survey findings from the present study, 86 percent of responding
teachers reported having a good understanding of evidence-based practices for classroom manage-
ment (Hepburn et al., 2019b), yet no teacher interviewed was able to provide an example of an
evidence-based practice, suggesting that understandings were more general in nature. This conclu-
sion may partially explain the findings of previous studies where teacher self-report was used. It is
possible that teachers may have rated their use of certain practices based on familiarity with a
concept, without having a clear understanding of the components of a specific practice, or the steps
involved in implementing it with precision (Timperley, 2015). Thus, teachers may believe that they
consistently use specific research-informed practices but may not in reality be using such practices
accurately due to a lack of detailed knowledge or professional development opportunities.
Supports and inhibitors
Supports. The key supports identified by teachers were help from colleagues and professional
development opportunities. About a third of our teachers spoke positively about getting support
with classroom management from other teachers and of having opportunities to attend professional
42 Improving Schools 23(1)
development or to participate in internal observation and feedback activities. The value of positive
professional learning experiences are echoed in findings from previous research, with strong sup-
port for professional development to include a follow-up coaching component to strengthen imple-
mentation (Stormont, Reinke, Newcomer, Marchese, & Lewis, 2015). Recently, researchers have
argued for a collegial approach to professional learning, moving away from an expert-driven model
to one which harnesses the experience of ‘expert’ teachers (Cook & Cook, 2016). The comments
made by many teachers in the present study suggest that teachers would value having more oppor-
tunities to learn from colleagues and to work collaboratively to improve their practice.
Inhibitors. Unsurprisingly, teachers provided many more examples of inhibitors than supports dur-
ing interviews. In common with previous research, poor pre-service preparation in classroom man-
agement was recognised as a hindrance to becoming an effective classroom manager (Freeman
et al., 2014; O’Neill & Stephenson, 2014). Over a third of our teachers raised concerns with the
inadequacy of pre-service teacher preparation, either in relation to their own pre-service experi-
ence or to their observations of beginning teachers. A common complaint was the shortness of
courses and the lack of time spent in classrooms dealing with a range of classroom behaviours.
Over 50 percent of teachers were concerned also about the lack of support for beginning teach-
ers. Many novice teachers talked about their negative experiences as beginning teachers, and about
the ‘sink or swim’ culture in schools, where only the strongest survive. One or two believed such
experiences toughened them up and forced them to develop classroom management skills quickly,
as described by Candy:
My first year of being in a very tough school, was a baptism of fire into the profession. And it was pretty
much all behaviour management, because it was a victory if I could get one kid to pick up a pen . . . So
having that harrowing experience was really good, because it was the crucible that you know, hardened me.
However, most teachers spoke about their early experiences in schools as a traumatic one and there
were several stories of colleagues who did not make it. The absence or inadequacy of induction
processes, especially mentoring, was highlighted. Even when mentoring was offered, the selection
of mentors was often reported as not always being helpful. For every positive experience recounted,
there was a correspondingly negative one, like the following example from Lucy, who had been
teaching for less than 5 years:
When I first started . . . I thought that there’d be lots more mentoring and support and I was really wrong.
That was probably the biggest shock to me. I expected children to misbehave, I expected to have to
manage their behaviour but I didn’t expect to pretty well be thrown in. I used to hear these statistics about,
‘oh the teachers burn out cause of the workload and the behaviours’ and I thought that’s not going to
happen to me and, you know, within three and a half years I quit and had six months off.
Issues in relation to inadequate or inflexible school systems also arose as hindrances to teacher
practice. Many teachers were unhappy with what they perceived as a lack of support from school
administration for teacher classroom management. A common thread running through many inter-
views, and articulated in the following quote from Craig, was that teachers were limited in their
ability to discipline students for classroom infractions and that they needed support from adminis-
tration when they had used up all their options:
So you can go through all the processes they expect you to – recording, ringing up people, negotiating with
the individual student and then it gets to where it’s to the point where it needs . . . something higher needs
to be done and it doesn’t happen and it comes all the way back down to you. That’s where I lose confidence.
Hepburn and Beamish 43
Several teachers complained that students demonstrating ongoing problem behaviours appeared to
‘get away with it’ and that this sent a bad message to other students and encouraged more problem
behaviours. Some teachers felt frustrated and stressed by what they perceived as an inadequacy on
the part of administrators. Around 50 percent of our teachers raised concerns about school behav-
iour management processes. Many of these concerns related to a perceived lack of consistency or
consistent school-wide approach. The amount of time needed to follow the complete set of school-
required processes was also mentioned by many teachers. For example, Greg commented,
So the student may do what is really a 30-second bit of silliness that can blow out to an hour or so of
teacher lost down-time and, by the time the process runs through, the student has forgotten what they
actually did.
The frustration voiced by teachers in what they perceived as inadequate support from administra-
tion, especially a lack of follow through with disciplinary consequences for students, is somewhat
at odds with their view that positive student–teacher relationships underpin effective classroom
management. It is very likely that the belief about the need for strong disciplinary consequences
has its roots in the typical disciplinary procedures used in many Queensland government secondary
school settings. It is not uncommon for these schools to take a punitive approach to behavioural
issues, with policies which require teachers to refer students to a higher authority when problem
behaviours persist. This position is typified by Veronica’s statement:
There is a quite strict hierarchy of levels of severity . . . of behaviours. So, for minor infringements of the
rules, the classroom teacher is responsible . . . and that can escalate to a detention during a break, and if a
student then persists after three of those consequences, parents are to be contacted. Heads of department
will become involved. If a student persists after intervention by the head of department more than twice,
then that can result in suspension or referral to a deputy principal . . . and the student can be suspended.
Comments such as this one illustrate the increasingly punitive sanctions applied by many
Queensland secondary schools in an attempt to curb problem behaviour. School policies which
document and require increasingly punitive sanctions may therefore be a cause for friction between
teachers and administrators, with teachers perceiving administrators as not doing their job when
expected disciplinary sanctions are not applied. Perhaps of more concern is the possibility that
disciplinary systems may also encourage teachers to use exclusionary practices, such as referral out
of the classroom for students perceived as trouble-makers. Furthermore, some teachers may feel
justified in passing on responsibility to someone else for students seen as difficult to manage
because this is what documented school policies say to do. However, the outcome may well be that
these students are excluded from the main student body and therefore are deprived of opportunities
to build positive relationships with teachers and fellow students, thus contributing to further school
disengagement and failure (Graham, 2018).
Limitations and implications
Certain limitations of this research should be borne in mind when interpreting these findings. First,
the small sample size and restriction of participants to those teaching in Queensland government
secondary schools mean that the experiences of teachers in other states and education sectors may
not be adequately reflected. It is also possible that teachers who were confident with classroom
management were over-represented in this study as teachers were selected from those who had
agreed to be interviewed and were perhaps more comfortable in talking about their classroom
management beliefs and experiences.
44 Improving Schools 23(1)
These limitations aside, this research has important implications for teacher preparation and
professional development. It was clear from talking to the teachers in this study that low-level
disruptions, disrespect and disengagement are a daily concern and that teachers recognise the
importance of building positive relationships, setting clear expectations and boundaries and pro-
viding differentiated instruction to increase academic engagement and establish supportive learn-
ing environments. However, it was also apparent that these teachers recognise the need for initial
and ongoing support with classroom management. Initial teacher education programmes in this
country, therefore, need to ensure that pre-service teachers understand the underlying theory of
human behaviour, the links between learning and behaviour, and are adequately prepared to dif-
ferentiate teaching and learning and use research-informed classroom management practices.
Universities, education systems and schools must work together to improve the initial induction
experiences of new teachers to ensure that mentoring support is provided and that both beginning
teachers and their mentors receive adequate training in the observation and feedback process.
While it was evident that most of the teachers in this study saw value in collegial support, there was
no evidence that support was made available in a systematic way or that the advice being provided
was research-informed. A lack of knowledge about evidence-based practices points to the need for
better dissemination of practice guides and ongoing provision of professional development activi-
ties, which both promote the use of specific research-informed strategies and include opportunities
for classroom practice with feedback.
Finally, findings from this research suggest that traditional school disciplinary systems that
focus on punitive responses are counterproductive to a proactive classroom management approach.
It is therefore incumbent on policy-makers and educational leaders to promote inclusive and proac-
tive approaches to school discipline and classroom management which focus on engaging and
supporting all students.
Conclusion
The study reported here encouraged teachers to voice their experiences and concerns freely, allow-
ing a nuanced picture of teacher classroom management to emerge. It would appear that while
reactive classroom management practices are indeed common in Australian secondary schools
(Graham, 2018; Sullivan et al., 2014), there are also promising signs that secondary teachers rec-
ognise the importance of building positive relationships with students, are aware of the need to
differentiate instruction and want to create positive learning environments which engage students
in learning. On a final positive note, there is clearly an appetite among teachers for continued
improvement, with an openness to ongoing professional learning that respects teacher knowledge
and experience.
Funding
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship and/or publica-
tion of this article: This research was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Programme
Scholarship.
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