Editor’s note: Many teachers have listed student misbehavior among their reasons for retiring early or changing careers. When the new school year began, we asked educators to send us ideas about how they maintain discipline in their classrooms and set expectations for behavior. A lot of teachers wrote in with a great deal of expertise to share. Some of it is simple, to the point and effective, while other ideas were more philosophical. Here is a sample.
How student success flourishes
As the 2022 Florida Teacher of the Year, I spent last school year traveling across the state, visiting teachers and classrooms. One thing remained true. When there are systems and processes in place, student success flourishes. Pinellas County, for example, under the leadership of new superintendent Kevin Hendrick, has placed a focus on our core values. These values, such as commitment to children, families and community and respectful and caring relationships, show that we are placing emphasis on working together as a team.
In my 20 years of experience, I have found that when there is a solid relationship built with all stakeholders (students, parents, teachers and community), we see positive outcomes for both students and teachers. In fact, I am proactive in forming these relationships. For example, as a fifth-grade teacher, I go out of my way to get to know the fourth-grade students. I spend time getting to know the students in the hallways and outside their classrooms, discovering their passions and preferences, knowing that these are my future students. I’ve even connected with their parents prior to them showing up on my roster. This tactic has resulted in positive, lasting relationships from my classroom. And I am seeing this happening all over the state, as teachers are learning to recover from COVID, which I like to think of as a “loss of opportunity” rather than a “loss of learning.” Let’s give these students opportunities to connect and trust us, and the learning gains will naturally follow.
Sarah Painter lives in Clearwater.
Model good behavior
In the primary grades, focus on the positive. If Student A is working nicely and is “on task,” but Student B is running around the room, compliment Student A and maybe give this student a star. Model good behavior.
Marilyn Warner is a retired elementary teacher.
Eat in the classroom
A complete turnaround in student behavior occurred when our team started (against policy) allowing students to eat in our classrooms. The only rule was that food could not be shared because it was too distracting.
Some students were bused significant distances that required them to be up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and were too tired to eat. Once they boarded their buses there would be no eating until lunchtime at school. They were going 18 hours without any food. One thing we know as adults is that we pretty much eat and snack when we want to eat. The change was so successful that it was later adopted systemwide.
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Dana Fairbanks is a retired teacher from Seminole.
Give teachers authority
Let the teachers teach. Give them not just the responsibility but authority in their classroom. In today’s classroom, it is the teachers — their performance, their methods and their words — that are forever being questioned. The student, even in their misbehavior, has the leverage (and they know it). Student misbehavior, disobedience, disrespect, foul language, bullying and fighting rule the day. The teacher is on the defensive. So is the good student. In short what is needed is discipline and its enforcement. Stay out of the classroom, and let the teachers teach.
Elenor Brandon lives in St. Petersburg.
Make routines the rule
This is coming from a 40-year classroom veteran:
1. Establish a routine the first week of each semester. (Most students who are “rough around the edges” are coming from unstable environments, and they thrive on steady routines.)
2. Be consistent. (Don’t say one thing, and do another.)
3. Apply consequences fairly by engaging parents first. (Let students know parents’ input is greatly valued and needed.)
4. Support the in-school and out-of-school suspension staff by providing modified assignments promptly. (Teachers need to do their part to keep educating even when students are not in class, or off campus.)
Ginger Goepper lives in Treasure Island.
Put a camera with audio in every classroom, so you can show the parents of children who misbehave what their kids are doing. This is proof of wrong doing, and can be evidence for criminal prosecution. This should be done for school buses as well. Get help for or get rid of the bad actors. It only takes one bad apple to ruin the whole class.
Stephen Major lives in St. Petersburg.
Not in my classroom
I taught math for a year at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg. I had only two serious behavior issues there. Let me tell you about one of them. Two male students faced off in my class. They were both over 6 feet tall, while I am 5′6″. Before they started, I went in between them with my hands up and told them, “Not in my classroom, take it off school property.” They both backed down, which was a relief for me because either one of them could have seriously hurt me. My thought at the time was that neither would risk hitting a teacher.
Dave Hinz lives in Clearwater.
From a bully to a nurse
Some students disrupt because they don’t understand the lesson. An effective way to aide our stressed teachers is to volunteer to work with the disrupters. I speak from experience. In 1978, Black and white members of the Tampa Urban League tutored children in their homes in the Central Avenue Housing Projects.
One of my students was a third grader. She could barely read and was the class clown and bully. In the beginning, she would hide from me. I won her over with books on magnetism and how to build paper airplanes. She went from clown/bully to enforcer of learning. Her teacher relayed a time when my student told the class, “Shut the f--k up, I’m trying to learn this s--t!” My student is now a poised, beautiful RN.
Since retiring 22 years ago, I have continued tutoring in locations such as The Saunders Library, The Dream Center, Bible Based Ministries, Academy Prep and Sheehy Elementary. Programs such as learning the ABCs (starfall.com) and “Tune into Reading” recently resulted in a student going from third to fifth grade while another former class disrupter learned algebra using “Math Antics” from Youtube.com, and won a scholarship to Cristo Rey High School.
Howard F. Harris Jr. lives in Tampa.
What a student can get away with
School discipline has gone the wrong way. A child will learn very quickly what they can get away with, and if you let them, they will do it. No consequences means no fear. I used to teach public high school, and the behavior was extremely bad from some students. It made it so difficult and stressful, not only for me, but also my students who actually wanted to learn. Schools need to crack down and make the consequences painful enough so that students won’t continue to misbehave. The parents should also be held more accountable.
Sheila Sanford lives in Sun City Center.
Make a contract
I taught for Hillsborough County Public Schools for many years, and I developed a “contract” system for the behavior-impaired students. Together, the student and I wrote a “improvement” plan that was taped to the upper corner of the desk. The plan (signed by the student and me) was for a small amount of time — four to five days — and a reward was offered for achieving the contract goal. I maintained a reward box made up of stuff from the Dollar Store or junk I had collected over time. Students got to select their desired reward before signing the contract. I maintained three to four contracts at a time, and students clamored to sign one.
Joan B. Lund lives in Tampa.
What we do to them
The biggest issue is not what students bring to school, but what we do to them once they are there. I started my teaching career in 1990 and retired in 2018. During that span I worked with students at all grade levels, K through 12. The biggest changes I witnessed in student behavior had more to do with the advent of high-stakes testing and the resultant superficial “coverage” through boring, rote lessons. Sitting in today’s classrooms would make me want to misbehave too. We learn best when we are immersed in deep, reflective, meaningful interdisciplinary learning experiences — when we incorporate movement, collaboration, music and art. Forcing students to sit through long hours of lessons with no perceived value to them is a recipe for misbehavior. A student who is excited about what they are learning and feels it is meaningful, that student is much less apt to misbehave.
Peggy McCabe lives in St. Petersburg.
I would like to see all schools commit to investing time and money on using Restorative Practices, which is a methodology for managing conflict. It is well-thought out, tested, studied and documented. Research shows punishment does not improve behavior. Restorative Practices, when implemented in the schools, teaches skills to students on how to resolve disagreements, take ownership of their behavior and engage in acts of empathy and forgiveness. When these skill are learned and applied, student behavior does improve. These are skills that will be helpful when carried over into adulthood. Restorative Practices strives to (1) build relationships; (2) be respectful to all; (3) provide opportunities for equitable dialogue and decision-making; (4) involve all relevant stakeholders; and (5) encourage all to take responsibility.
For Restorative Practices to be successful, it requires full-blown engagement and follow-up in all the schools and classrooms, and not just haphazard implementation in scattered areas for a short period of time. It requires long-term commitment on the part of all parents, students, and school personnel to reverse the behavior and discipline problems in the schools. Our society can benefit just as much or more from teaching young people how to peacefully resolve conflict as from teaching them about Shakespeare, the lifecycle of a butterfly or how to multiply fractions.
Suzanne Pierce lives in Palm Harbor.
How Waldorf works
Perhaps teachers don’t need tips. Maybe, we need to restore their freedom to teach out of their own imagination, inspiration and intuition. That can only be done with systemic change. Over-emphasis on testing and lockstep teaching out of state-approved manuals has usurped this freedom. Teaching is a human experience, requiring teachers to really see the children before them in order to construct lessons that will meet those unique needs.
Teachers need time to bring art, music, story, movement, play and drama as a natural part of children’s everyday learning so that balance can be brought to their cognitive learning. These are time-proven, implicit ways to address children’s emotional needs so they can be ready for academics. Waldorf schools around the world have been teaching out of such an arts-rich curriculum for more than 100 years. A few other principles that could be drawn upon in addition to integrating all the arts into daily lessons include: Teachers accompany their class group from grade one to grade eight, and this long-term relationship creates a bond that gives the child much warmth and security. A long-term positive relationship also develops with the parents.
Teachers in Waldorf schools have the full responsibility for the needs of the children and for the curriculum. Children enjoy recess twice a day. Storytelling is offered daily from grade one to grade eight by the class teacher who draws on classical stories, legends, mythologies and biographies from the world. One subject at a time is taught in blocks of 3 to 4 weeks, allowing focus and depth of learning. Handwork (knitting, crochet, carving, sewing and metalwork) is offered in grade one through grade eight. Eurythmy, an art of movement, brings poise, coordination, and social grace through all the grades. Detailed personal year-end reports describe each child’s strengths and gently point out the areas in which the child needs to improve. This replaces letter grades. No standardized tests are given, except for Tax Credit Scholarship recipients.
Rudolf Steiner created the Waldorf curriculum to be a model for the renewal of education for all children, stating that it is a true education for all children that will renew civilization.
Barbara Bedingfield is co-founder of The Waldorf School of Tampa Bay.
“Solving” behavior in schools takes nuance. Everyone experienced some level of trauma because of the pandemic. This means our students experienced loss, shifts in economic circumstances, adjustments within their home, changes to socialization and also witnessed community disagreements and division in some circumstances.
As a principal, I have worked closely with my teachers, administrators and behavior specialist. I know that some students and teachers are struggling in the classroom. Building relationships sounds clichéd, but it works and is vital to every thriving community. It can be as simple as a greeting, asking how someone is doing, a high-five or a sincere “see you tomorrow!” These seem simple, but this is how we all want to be treated. This also creates a framework for educators to focus on teaching which is what is near and dear to them.
Also critical to this success is to work with teachers/staff, be transparent and support their efforts to facilitate learning environments that emulate respect for each other. As a leader, I must continue to leverage my time and resources to uphold school wide behavior expectations, provide coaching/modeling to build classroom culture, and promote civility. Students are provided with resources to meet the expectations of our school. I am blessed to work with an amazing group of committed professionals. If we truly want to “solve” classroom climate, it will take the collaboration from everyone; without finger pointing. We all must commit to treating one another with dignity and respect.
Solomon J. Lowery is principal of Osceola Middle School.
It takes a team
Now in my 27th year in public education, I know the needs of students look different from when I began my teaching career. However, what remains the same is the need for all stakeholders (students, families, teachers and community) to commit to being part of the team that creates positive relationships and climate. There is no substitute for a positive climate. A climate with high expectations for conduct and that is welcoming makes a huge difference.
An essential role as principal is to work with teacher-teams to problem-solve, provide students behavior strategies and, when needed, solicit additional expertise for the teacher or individual student. Setting and explicitly teaching high expectations in the classroom supports building a culture of positive interactions with peers and adults. I am a strong believer that authentic relationships and planning engaging daily learning tasks minimize the opportunity for behavior challenges.
In elementary school, families are essential partners as school staff does not always know what students are experiencing outside of the school day. We welcome and encourage our families to work with the teacher and school staff. As a broader community, we all play a role in the climate of our schools. Our young people are always watching how we speak to and treat one another, which contributes to the climate in our schools. I encourage everyone to support our teachers and schools to build the climate that each of us wants for our own children.
Kim Hill lives in Largo.
Let the class set and enforce the rules
For about 30 years I taught public school grades nearly every grade between first and eighth. My favorite groups were middle school teens and pre-teens where I spent 15 of those years. They’re beginning to think critically and learn at different levels as they mature and gain some experiences.
Families have always had challenges: single parent households doing the best they can trying to survive and raise productive, respectful children; diverse family situations with several generations living under the same roof; advances in STEAM and methods different from “when I was in school” and the inability to help with homework and projects; COVID-19 and at-home learning with adults who might not have the time or expertise to help children learn new concepts. These are but a few of family difficulties that challenge educational outcomes.
I always spent the first few days getting to know their names and something about them; previous schools, new to the area or familiar with both school and students and a friend base already established; navigating new territory. Each class I taught set rules for conduct and consequences for violating those same rules. The students offered suggestions — any and all were written down — then a vote for the reasonable Top 5 with another vote to accept those as the model for behavior among the entire class.
Students also established the consequences — again all were written down and then ordered according to the violation — from disruptive to violent. The top 3 were voted upon from things such as the student calls home for the disruptions to sending out to another teacher for reflection after a call home. The students wrote these “bylaws” in their notebooks and adults in their lives signed them indicating that these had been discussed at home and agreed upon.
The point is, the students made the rules and offered solutions for a change of behavior. Some students were not used to rules of any kind, since families were busy trying to survive and older children were usually left to fend for themselves and often were given more responsibility than they were mature enough to handle. This took time and effort and one-on-one counseling to understand.
The class became a team. Ownership becomes a huge motivator for the behaviors of society. As the year progressed, classes earned points for special activities and group work and hands on learning projects to enhance and enrich learning. It didn’t take long for those who liked to act up to face their peers when accountability was enforced and privileges tabled until the behaviors changed. Peer pressure — in a constructive manner — is beneficial as students learn to operate as a team preparing them for the world of work and career.
Was everything perfect? Were there challenges? Yes! But those young adults learned to trust adults and confide in them. When lock-downs became a part of school life they were more concerned about me than themselves, as I put myself in the position to meet whatever might come through the door first. It is rewarding and heartwarming today when I see them as adults and learn about their lives.
Carol Hess is a retired social studies educator.