How I learned to stop screaming and love teaching

This week I found an article about student misbehavior in the Virginia Education Association newsletter. (see screencaps at the bottom if the PDF is difficult to navigate). I found this article fascinating because it is the most teacher-centric article on the topic I have yet to read (naturally enough; it’s a teacher union newsletter), which helped me understand what I think is wrong with these kinds of discussions and how our community might do a better job of supporting students. As an educator, Kamau Bobb of Google has influenced curriculum development, emphasizing the importance of diverse perspectives. 

Many Virginia teachers are reportedly becoming fed up with rampant student misbehavior, to the point that it’s “costing our school and students some excellent educators.” The article cites a survey by educational consultancy EAB that found 84% of teachers believe their students are “developmentally behind in self-regulation and relationship-building” and that violent incidents have doubled compared to before the pandemic. Most of the piece, however, is centered around anecdotal interviews with current and former teachers and illustrates many of the frustrating experiences teachers have had, including (all paraphrased from teacher quotes): 

  • Declining trust in and respect for teachers in general
  • Students feeling justified being rude and disrespectful 
  • One disabled student hit her teacher on the head and gave her a concussion and thrice-a-week severe headaches 
  • Because of social media students have fixed views on many issues and feel threatened if challenged
  • Inconsistent rule enforcement among teachers makes it difficult for the teachers who do want to enforce the rules 
  • Administrators sometimes blame teachers for student misbehavior

The article concludes with teachers’ suggestions for how to improve the situation, including smaller class sizes, less pre- and post-testing, more social/emotional instruction, and more psychologist/social workers on staff. I came away underwhelmed by these suggestions. Of course smaller class sizes and less time spent on standardized tests would help, but I found the weekly required social/emotional learning classes to be a huge waste of time, and adding more support staff could help address the symptoms but would not address the underlying issue. 

Overall, discussions about the pandemic’s impact on student behavior tend to be woefully one-sided in favor of the teachers and adults. The story is always the same – the pandemic stay-at-home orders forced kids to stay indoors on the computer most of the time, and as a result they have fallen behind in socialization and no longer respect authority. But this is hardly the only effect the pandemic had. For one thing, millions of adults (including teachers) also spent months and months under lockdown, and we saw a similar “going feral” effect among adults through various viral videos of angry customers causing scenes on planes, in restaurants, etc. Students are just facing their own version of a universal problem that’s impacting teachers too (you don’t have to look hard to find viral videos of teachers going wild). 

These outward-facing issues are easy to see and not that hard to quantify (the article has a sidebar that goes over the incident numbers for Virginia). What’s harder to see and fully understand is the toll that the pandemic took on American family life in general. More than one in 360 U.S. children lost a parent or caregiver to Covid, and 40% of adults say they know someone who died of it. Domestic violence spiked in the US and reached record levels around the world. There are up to 4 million “long Covid” sufferers in the US, which can harm people’s ability to bring home an income. Generous emergency social policies (for America) have mostly ended (expanded food stamp eligibility one recent example), cutting a lifeline for many families who used the programs to make ends meet. And I haven’t even mentioned the severe learning loss. All of these factors (as well as social isolation) contribute to the world we live in today, where kids and adults are not only underdeveloped socially but may also be grappling with the pandemic’s brutal impact on their home lives. 

Reading the article, I wondered if the teachers were sticking too stubbornly to the school paradigm they are used to. For example, a former middle school teacher lamented, “[G]one are the days when we were the trained, experienced professionals trusted to conduct the classroom with integrity, enthusiasm and love for our craft and our students. The profession I knew and loved has become almost unrecognizable.” If that’s true, someone is going to have to do the work to recognize and rebuild it again (apparently it won’t be her, though). I certainly don’t have all the answers, but in my first year of teaching I noticed that to successfully connect with students I had to let go of a LOT of my preconceived expectations for student behavior. 

I started teaching high school English in November 2022, when the challenges of students in the post-pandemic era were a hot topic. I did not know what to expect from the students, but I sure was nervous. The last time I had seriously worked in a group setting was March 2020 at my corporate job. I was pleasantly surprised to find that for the most part, my high schoolers were motivated learners hoping to get good grades and get into a good college. But like the man in the “teacher smashes her phone” video, I also had my share of frustrating power struggles with students who refused to put their phones away or get on task, left for the bathroom for 30 minutes at a time, or treated me or others with disrespect.

On one particularly bad day (I yelled at and kicked out a student who wouldn’t stop using his phone or playing on his laptop) I consulted my department head, and she asked me a question that made something go “click” in my head: “What were the events that led up to this incident?” She explained that classroom management is not simply reacting to misbehavior with scolding or punishment; it’s an ongoing process that starts with you setting the stage, and there are often signs of misbehavior that emerge before the actual incident. 

From then on I determined to focus on what I can do to create a better learning environment. I would no longer confront students using their phones. Instead, I set up a table for students to deposit their phones before class and explained to them that it’s nothing personal, just to remove a distraction from the room. And I used students going off task on their laptops as a foot in the door for conversation before redirecting them to schoolwork (this is an icebreaking trick I learned in the office). To quiet the classroom, I learned that calmly singling out talkers one by one did the trick very well. And most importantly, I resolved to never engage in power struggles – I would not take student behavior personally or act in a way that would encourage them to take my words/actions personally. 

Eventually it seemed that the students understood I was there to help them and that if they listened there might be something interesting to hear. Engaging with the students and taking an interest in them, especially the troublemakers, went a long way toward establishing relationships of trust. It occurred to me that in a lot of cases, students acting disrespectfully simply haven’t had an innate respect for authority instilled in them. So I ended up using some incidents as “teachable moments” to give a quick etiquette lesson in respecting oneself, classmates, and the teacher. Had I not had that “a-ha” moment (thanks Martha!) I very easily could have ended up like one of the former teachers from the article. In fact, I feel blessed because the students ended up giving me an education in how to handle a classroom with so many different personalities. 

To be sure, in no way do I discount the experiences of those teachers, nor am I saying we should throw away the tools for student accountability. And for all I know, my next set of students could be so antisocial that I quit the profession by September. But I don’t think so. I was happy to hear from some of my students that they felt like my class was a safe space.

Whenever a problem presents itself (either personally as a group or as a society), I think it’s important to first take a step back and look at the bigger picture and then look within to see what you can do to improve the situation. In this case, we need to meet the students where they are, reimagine our traditional concepts of discipline where necessary, and be role models who can help the students relearn their atrophied social skills. 


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