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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Out-of-control students, overwhelmed teachers

Student misbehavior is driving teachers crazy -- and out of teaching write Leslie Bienen, a health policy consultant, and Christina Kennedy, an educator, in City Journal.

Jen M., a math teacher at a Portland high school, is leaving teaching after more than 20 years. She's scared of some of her students, she told Bienen and Kennedy. “If I ask them to stop being disruptive, they blow up with profane language . . . They cannot emotionally regulate.” The administration sends students back to the classroom "without any real consequence. It’s so unfair to the ones who want to learn.”

Salem, Oregon teachers charge in a lawsuit that their district has failed to protect school staff from violent students.

Elementary teachers said they spend 144 minutes per week on behavior management before the pandemic, and teachers say it's much worse now. Disruptive students' classmates earn lower grades and test scores, harming their long-term college, career, and income prospects, research shows.

Schools have shifted from inflexible "zero tolerance" policies to "restorative justice," they write.

Portland Public Schools hired 12 restorative-justice coordinators for middle schools, but problems persist. In April, a group of middle-school principals wrote a letter to the district begging for help with behavior issues.

There's little rigorous evidence that restorative justice is effective, Bienen and Kennedy writes. RAND studies suggests the "benefits may be overhyped." One study noted these policies correlate with worse academic outcomes for black students.

Bienen and Kennedy suggest ways to address the underlying causes of classroom chaos. They call for tracking classes, so students aren't bored or frustrated, and ending lax grading policies that set a low bar. Adding more vocational programs and schools would motivate students who don't do well in traditional classes.

Like many, they call for banning cell phones and creating incentives to hire more male teachers in the early grades.

Finally, they write that keeping students with severe behavior problems in the classroom requires hiring aides -- strong aides -- trained to work with them. The traditional alternative -- a special room or center for students with behavior issues -- is out of fashion.

Kareem Farah, who runs The Modern Classrooms Project, has very different advice on how to cope with student's emotional distress in Education Week.

In visiting schools in late 2022, he saw students with "emotional dysregulation . . . so severe that many educators had to focus more instructional time than usual on behavior management and engagement, completely derailing their lesson plans." Teachers were burning out, he writes. They talked of leaving the profession.

Farah suggests using technology to let students learn at their own pace and in the style that suits them. "Some students might be starting a new lesson, accessing videos on a tablet, and taking guided notes, while others are spending more time on an area they have yet to master." Too much structure is a mistake, Farah believes. However, a self-paced learning environment needs "guardrails," such as one-on-one time with the teacher to get students back on track.

He recommends teaching the content of the course through small groups or independent work to avoid the "overstimulation" of whole-class instruction.

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