Professional Development

Democratic Classrooms

Educators possess different philosophies and styles for their teaching. Some work from an authoritarian perspective, leveraging their power as the teacher to control student behavior and dictate classroom participation. Others employ a more democratic approach, sharing power with students and supporting them in managing their own behaviors.

Research indicates that a democratic approach is more effective, both for classroom management and student learning.

Meet Marcos Torres who teaches language arts at Corona High School in Calif., a Title 1 school within the Corona-Norco Unified School District serving a diverse array of students. By Torres' estimation, 60-65% are Latino and 20-25% are White, with smaller representations of African Americans and Pacific Islanders. The school also serves a community where gangs affect many students' lives.

In the video below, Torres shares why he moved from an authoritative classroom to a more relational and democratic model of teaching.

Look For:

  • How did issues of power and domination play out in Torres' early years of teaching?
  • What does he suggest as the key to getting control of a classroom?

Go Deeper:

It's a Good Thing

In this essay from Rethinking Schools, author Steven Wolk suggests teachers use class meetings as a democratic way to help students express their values.

Reflect On:

  • What does Wolk say is the goal of democratic classroom management?
  • Which two aspects of class meetings could you include in your repertoire of strategies?

Ready Resources:

Assess your current approach with the Grasha Teaching Style Inventory. Grasha's Expert and Formal Authority styles coincide with an authoritative approach, while Grasha's Personal Model, Facilitator and Delegator styles coincide more with the democratic approach.

See how Morning Meetings transformed one elementary school.


Positive Behaviors

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is an approach to help students improve their difficult behavior. It's based on an understanding that teachers don't control students, but instead seek to support them in their own behavior change process.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports acknowledges that there is always a reason behind most difficult behavior and that students with difficult behavior should be treated with dignity, respect and compassion.

Meet Melodi Patterson. She teaches students labeled "ED" — those designated as emotionally or behaviorally disturbed — at Vista School, a middle school, in Culver City, Calif. In the video below, she talks about how she employs PBIS with her students.

Look For:

  • What does Patterson suggest that teachers be mindful of in regards to their students?
  • How does Patterson discern what items and experiences can be used as part of her use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports?

Go Deeper:

PBIS Fact Sheet (PDF)

This handout from the Southern Poverty Law Center breaks down the ins-and-outs of PBIS and emphasizes that the approach produces the best results when it's applied throughout a school.

Reflect On:

  • How do schools, teachers and students benefit from PBIS?
  • How does the PBIS approach differ from your school's current discipline practices? How is it the same?
  • What roadblocks would you need to overcome to implement PBIS in your school? What steps can you take to overcome them?

Ready Resources:

Watch free videos on PBIS

Ask the special education teachers in your school about PBIS. Chances are, they use or have heard about PBIS.


Reflecting on Practice

Is your classroom a calm, relaxing day or a violent, destructive storm? Is it sunny, cloudy or rainy? Is it frigidly cold? Are you a calm, refreshing breeze or a tornado?

Metaphors can be powerful reflective tools that allow us to see common everyday experiences in a new light. Metaphors have a compactness about them, packing lots of information into a small space, like that of our climate metaphor. They also have the ability to go below the surface and hit at a deeper level of knowing. Last of all, metaphors are particularly vivid and powerful because they arouse emotions in us.

Too often educators use violent metaphors to describe their work. "We're in the trenches." "We're on the front lines of the battle." "School is a prison." These violent metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies that impact our relationship with students and the tone of classroom management in our classrooms.

Let's listen as teachers introduce some of their metaphors that come from places of caring, nurturing and hope.

First, middle school teacher Melodi Patterson introduces her personal teaching metaphor — that of a tailor.

Look For:

  • What is Melodi's metaphor and what are some elements of it?
  • Melodi's metaphor is tailoring, but how would it work if the metaphor was not the tailor, but the one being fitted?
  • How do you think the metaphor applies to classroom management?
  • Can you extend her metaphor deeper?

Next, listen as high school teacher Marcos Torres describes his personal metaphor for teaching — a greenhouse.

Look For:

  • How does Marcos frame his metaphor so that it embraces a global community?
  • When you think of a nursery greenhouse, what do you imagine the plants are experiencing?
  • How do you think the metaphor applies to classroom management?
  • Can you extend Marco’s metaphor deeper?

Go Deeper:


Engage in a 10-minute free-write exploring a metaphor that captures your approach to teaching. Consider sharing your reflections with Learning for Justice by email at or by mail: Learning for Justice, 400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, AL 36104.

As a Group Activity

Introduce the activity to the group — that you're going to explore diverse approaches to teaching through metaphors. Allow participants at least 10 minutes to engage in a free-write. At the end of the writing period, ask volunteers to share their metaphors. Show the videos of Patterson and Torres as examples or as supplements to the groups' metaphors. Write each metaphor on a large sheet of paper or a chalkboard where everyone can see them. As a group, discuss:

  • What emotions are conveyed by our metaphors — hope, fear, frustration, joy?
  • What do the metaphors tell us about our relationships with students? Do we approach students from a place of bounty, a place of deficit?
  • What do the metaphors reveal about the ways students' experiences might differ from classroom to classroom?
  • How do you feel about your individual metaphor as you look at it within those of your colleagues? Would you change your metaphor? Keep it the same? Why?

Ready Resources:


Authentic Relationships

Ask any veteran teacher and they will tell you that the stronger the relationship with the student, the less likely behavioral problems will erupt in the classroom. Good relationships equal good classroom management, pure and simple.

Meet John Gunderson. A 17-year veteran, he teaches at Dana Hills High School in Orange County, Calif. He estimates the student demographics as about 80% White, 17% Hispanic and the other 3% from various other ethnicity groups. Gunderson describes his school as having an "economic advantage."

In the video below, he talks about the importance of building authentic relationships with students.

Look For:

  • What do you think John means when he says that thinking of students as an "other" loses their humanity? What is it to "other" someone?
  • What does John mention as an inappropriate relationship? What are ways that you build appropriate relationships with students?

Go Deeper:

Rethinking Classroom Discipline

In Bob Peterson's book review of Marilyn Watson and Laura Ecken's Learning to Trust: Transforming Difficult Elementary Classrooms Through Developmental Discipline, building trusting relationships is highlighted as an important component of classroom management.

Reflect On:

  • Where does discipline get its power?
  • Why is it important for students to hear phrases like "friends don't embarrass friends" and "friends forgive" over and over again?

Ready Resources:

Use poetry to build relationships in the classroom from Rethinking Schools

Reflect on the qualities you bring to teaching and how they impact your relationships.