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I have taught high school for nearly 40 years. Only recently have I become afraid of my students

By a high school teacher

For Teacher Appreciation Week this year, children and teenagers around the country will bring cards and gifts for their teachers. Parents will contribute to class gift funds. And advocacy groups will push for higher salaries and funding for classroom supplies.

But after nearly 40 years teaching high school in the same metropolitan area, my chief concerns are no longer my salary, school supplies, or sense of being appreciated. Nor am I worried about grading papers, the poor physical condition of the school where I teach, or “burnout.” That is so 1990s!

Here are top concerns my fellow teachers and I have now–none of which ever crossed my mind 40 years ago:

  • Being cursed or spat at
  • A student bringing a weapon into class
  • Our cars getting keyed
  • Being mugged on the way out to our cars
  • Being afraid to be alone in our classroom with some students

As I write this, I’m sitting in my classroom with the door wide open because I’m afraid of some of the kids in my classroom. I’m not sure if keeping the door open makes me safer, but it feels a little safer.  

Why do I feel this way? Because I’ve had photographs of guns emailed to me, accompanied by menacing messages. I’ve had students throw each other against the exterior wall of my classroom during fistfights. A student has falsely accused me of pushing him. Many students have cursed me out, including the f-word, as did one student after I asked her to make corrections to a paper. Her mother came to meet with me–not to find out how to help her daughter improve, but to defend her daughter’s behavior! Another student who was recently released after several months in juvenile detention now refuses to come into the classroom and sits outside of it. I let him. I’m afraid to be in the classroom with him, even with other students here!  I’m so scared of several of my students that I won’t be alone in a room with them at all, and now have permission to teach in a large central area in the middle of the school, where other adults are close by.  

I know from experience that if a problem erupts in my classroom and I call for administrators to come help me, nobody will come most of the time. They are completely overwhelmed. They can’t put out all the fires, so they usually wind up ignoring panicked texts.   

Unfortunately, I’m not alone. In one recent poll, 1 in 8 American teachers reported they had been physically assaulted by a student at least once. These teachers include a Florida teacher who was beaten, stomped and left unconscious by a 270-pound high school student who was angry she had confiscated his gaming device. They also include an assistant principal in Texas who was hospitalized after being attacked by students after she tried to break up their fight. 

Students’ behavior clearly got worse after they returned from COVID-related school closures. But it had been getting worse and worse even before the pandemic. It’s not surprising that teachers are leaving the profession in increasing numbers, in large part because of increasing fears of student violence

How did it get to this point?

Here is my perspective on what has changed. In addition to administrators being justifiably overwhelmed, they have become much more tolerant and lenient toward disruptive and aggressive behavior. Nearly any behavior is tolerated now. I have heard administrators claim that when students are “acting out” (meaning: threatening or assaulting teachers or other students) is it because they need love–or more love–from teachers and others. Disciplining students for their behavior–even by removing them from the classroom–is frowned on. So violent and disruptive students stay in the classroom without consequence, where their behavior worsens and spreads to other students who realize there will be no consequences for their misbehavior either.

There are other systemic problems, too. According to an experienced behavior specialist who has worked in schools for years, school districts are reluctant to categorize students as having an emotional disorder (ED) even when their behavior would clearly qualify them for diagnoses like Conduct Disorder or Oppositional Defiant Disorder. An emotional disorder designation would require the school to create an Individual Education Plan (IEP). An IEP for an emotional disorder can be particularly expensive. When a student has an IEP for an emotional disorder, a school district can end up on the hook to pay for expensive residential care for them. So students who clearly need intensive care get labeled  “socially maladjusted” (which requires no treatment except counseling) or given an inappropriate IEP for autism or a learning disorder, which require school districts to pay much less for their treatment. Parents sometimes reject the “emotional disorder” label as well. As a result, disturbed and disturbing students don’t get the treatment they actually need, and teachers like me are left living in fear–or just leaving teaching altogether.

Things can’t keep going this way. Here’s what I wish would happen instead.

First, it’s clear that many of the students who frighten me the most have been struggling for years. I wish there were better systems in place to screen students in elementary school for the early warning signs of serious behavior problems. Just like children with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders do, they should be provided with intensive, scaffolded remedial support early on to help them learn to regulate their behavior and their interactions with peers and adults. There is now good evidence that children at risk for developing serious behavior problems can be effectively treated using specific forms of psychotherapy targeted at these outcomes.

If students do make it to high school still showing serious behavior issues, we need to do right by them, their classmates, and their teachers. That means schools need to have plans in place to remove students from classrooms when they are putting others at risk and preventing everyone else from learning. When teachers report a student is frightening people and disrupting the class, administrators need to back them up and have a solution–not just ignore them and hope the problem goes away or fixes itself. It won’t.

I have personally had a student curse me out after I asked them to do something trivial, and when I sent them out of the classroom to the “Principal’s Office” they were returned to me minutes later with no consequence at all. Who is surprised when they did it again days later? Not me. What other professional is required to put up with being cursed at and disrespected (and even threatened) day after day in their place of work? Teachers shouldn’t have to put up with this either.

It also means assigning all students the appropriate IEP (not just labeling violent and persistently out-of-control teenagers “socially maladjusted” or autistic) to ensure they get the kinds of targeted treatment that can actually help them.

I should emphasize that “treatment” for children with serious behavior problems means helping them learn how to behave better (That is what school is for! Learning!) But to learn (or unlearn) any behavior, there have to be consequences. You have to get outcomes you like when you do the right thing, and outcomes you don’t like when you do the wrong thing. Schools need to scaffold our students so they understand what the right behaviors are, but there also have to be consequences for them based on how they behave. 

Holding all students to much higher behavior standards than we currently do, being consistent in applying consequences when behavior standards aren’t met, returning to an expectation that teachers’ disciplinary decisions will be supported by both administrators and parents, and providing the right kinds of scaffolding and treatment for students with serious behavior problems–all of this would go a long way to pulling our high schools back from the frightening, quasi-anarchic state many of them currently operate in. 

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