A Look at the Systematic and Institutionalized Gaslighting of Teachers — and Why We Must Stop It
Part 3 of 4: Teachers’ Focus Belongs on Academics — The Primary Responsibility for Managing Students’ Severe or Continuous Disruptive Behavior Must Shift
On my very first day of teaching, my principal told me to do all I could to avoid sending students to the office. She said that doing so would undercut my authority, foster disrespect in my students, and ultimately lead to more negative behaviors. She was convincing because she really believed that what she was saying was true. I then passed on the same advice to new teachers. Until I stopped to question this belief.
Teachers’ job descriptions should, of course, include the responsibilities to develop a productive classroom environment by setting shared expectations for classroom behaviors, consistently communicating and reinforcing the reasons why these productive behaviors contribute to the good of all, and monitoring and holding students (and themselves) accountable for maintaining a positive and productive learning environment. All students should feel that they are seen, respected, and valued as members of the classroom community.
When teachers feel that the responsibility for addressing all student behaviors, even the persistent and especially aggressive ones, the major influence on how this is done is time. Because there is little, if any, time in a student-filled, curriculum-packed classroom to work with students one-on-one. Discipline becomes something that is not taught as an intrapersonal skill students need to master but becomes fear-based and punishment-oriented. This approach dilutes the positivity in the classroom and sows seeds of animosity between and among students and teachers.
The existing teacher-centered, punishment orientation toward behavior modification ultimately results in bitterness and rebellion which create a vicious cycle that leads to an ever more difficult classroom climate. My classroom experience at the elementary, middle, and high school levels has taught me that punishment does not help students grow and thrive; punishment only perpetuates and reinforces negative behaviors. Unfortunately, it is also an unintended source of attention for students who gain recognition and even admiration among their peers.
I once removed a school-owned laptop from a table in my ninth-grade classroom because a student was using it to interfere with group learning by showing videos to his group instead of using it for its intended purpose. The student loudly told me to “go f*** myself.” That had never happened to me in 23 years of teaching, but I responded to my knee-jerk, inculcated belief that I needed to handle it myself to maintain my students’ respect. So, I asked the student into the hall to discuss. I told the student that his behavior was not appropriate, and that profanity directed toward an individual would normally be an automatic administrative referral, but I wanted to see if I could understand why he made the choice. He laughed and said (I am paraphrasing), “Go ahead and write the referral. I’m in ninth grade and nothing will happen. I will sit in detention for two days and then I will be back. So go ahead and write the referral — be my guest — I couldn’t care less.”
With 27 other students in the room needing the presence of an educator, this was beyond my capacity as a professional. I then had to spend time documenting the incident, calling the parents, meeting with the student and the grade level administrator, attending another meeting that included the parents, and then gathering work he did not do for his time in detention. He served two days in detention, returned to the classroom (without the completed work), and resumed his negative behaviors.
Teachers represent one of the most dedicated groups of professionals in existence. They bring unconditional love for their students and work into the night on a regular basis to always be prepared to provide excellent learning opportunities. They do it because they care about “their kids” and because they value their professionalism. Teachers should not ever be expected to accept verbal abuse or the threat of physical violence as a “normal” part of the job. At times, when I have shared this belief with some of my colleagues, I am reassured that “they are just kids” and have also been told “as the adult in the room, you should not let students’ bad behavior get to you.” Teachers have been made to feel that solving all student behavior issues rests squarely on our shoulders for so long that we gaslight ourselves and our colleagues without even being aware of it. In our desire to reassure and comfort our colleagues, we are inadvertently perpetuating a practice that is devastating our ranks through attrition.
I believe teachers deserve respectful treatment as professionals. I know that professionals in other occupations deal with disrespectful patients, customers, and clients from time to time, but I don’t think most people in other professions would be expected to tolerate the growing levels of disrespect, verbal abuse, and even threats of violence that too many teachers face every day. Further, society expects teachers, as a matter of course, to lay down their lives for their students if necessary. Shouldn’t a respectful classroom be a reasonable expectation, even the right, of every educator? I encourage teachers to refuse being treated in abusive ways by anyone, regardless of their age. I believe in the value of all children. I believe in democracy and the right of every child to a free and public education. I also believe that schools have the responsibility to educate all students well and to a high standard. When students need to learn to make more productive behavior choices, the school should willingly provide it in ways that allow the student to return to the learning environment as quickly as possible. But the learning environment must be protected so teachers can fulfill their professional and moral obligations to all of their students.
To be clear, when students create consistent disruptions in the classroom and display lack of behavioral self-control or deliberate intent to interfere with other students’ learning, there must be support beyond the classroom that is empathetic and non-punitive in nature, that proactively addresses the underlying reasons for the behavior, that supports students in understanding and developing more productive community behaviors, that includes parents in the solution, and that reinforces the idea that the student is valued by all in the school community. The teacher’s role should be to reassure students who need behavioral support and intervention that they are valued, that they will be missed (and checked in upon), and that they will be warmly welcomed to the classroom when they are ready to return. Teachers do have a responsibility to honor and care for all children, especially those that need extra support. My mother — a teacher for 42+ years — always reminded me that the children who seem least lovable are the ones who need it most.
But there are ways to remove the burden of managing severe and ongoing student behaviors from teachers’ shoulders while providing the support and help these students need. Teachers, administrators, and policy makers must begin a dialogue to develop a shared understanding of the limits of a teacher’s capacity to address unusually disruptive behaviors in a classroom filled with students. All should operate under the awareness that a teacher’s primary focus must always remain on the classroom community in terms of student growth and progress both academically and socially. This is the kind of healthy assumption that should be passed from one generation of educators to the next.
Time is the most valuable element of a teacher’s practice. There is never enough time to get everything done to nurture and encourage students with motivating lesson plans and thoughtful feedback. I do not believe that the onus should be on teachers to write referrals or call parents about student behaviors. Teachers can, instead, document disruptive behaviors on an online report form that initiates an administrative response when a threshold is reached. Administrators can more effectively monitor a student across classes when that student sees multiple teachers over the course of a day. The phone call can be more productive coming from an administrator/counselor who can draw upon multiple teachers’ experiences of that student’s behavior. Parents are partners in students’ education, and must be expected to take an active role in finding behavior solutions that make a lasting difference. It’s in everyone’s best interest, especially the child’s.
There are also many programs already in place in schools that are working for students that should be given much more attention — and funding. One example is “The Mindful Moment Room” at Patterson High School in Baltimore, Maryland (Gonzales, 2019). This is a growth-oriented, non-punitive approach that offers a place to calm down for students that are actively upset and a space to reconsider disruptive behaviors with the support of a professional. Teachers and administrators can refer students. In some cases, when approved by individual schools, students might also be allowed to refer themselves. Students are assigned Mindfulness Instructors who lead them in active discussions, mindfulness practice, and developing a plan to address future issues and choose more productively.
The current structures that place the responsibility for student behavior on teachers’ shoulders must change. The natural question is, where will the money come from for focused programs to help students learn self-control, and the additional personnel to run them? The answer is that the money will need to be invested up front but will be paid back by the lowered need for juvenile detention facilities and welfare funding because more students will be graduating from high school, continuing their education, or going to work at jobs that give them purpose and fulfillment. Isn’t that what schools are for?
Teachers who do not feel the crushing weight of the responsibility for managing students’ ongoing behavior challenges, will experience less stress and that will translate into happier, more productive classrooms. In her article, “Teachers Are Not OK, Even Though We Need Them to Be,” Will states that a large portion of teachers express that they are less effective under stress. Further, stress affects the quality of instruction, the classroom climate, and relationships with students. Stress can even get passed on to students which can affect behavior and achievement (2021).
Teachers must be relieved of the conscious and unconscious pressure that student behavior management is essentially on their shoulders as well as a reflection of their capability as a teacher. This may be one of the most entrenched ways teachers experience gaslighting every day. If schools are to retain competent and dedicated teachers, the ways in which severely disruptive and dangerous behavior is addressed (and by whom) is a powerful place to start — now!
Be on the lookout for the final installment of this blog series that will address grading and testing practices.
Gonzales, A. A. (2019). What happens when meditation replaces school detention. Our children: National PTA’s unique voice for parents: https://ptaourchildren.org/meditation-not-detention/
Will, M. (2021). Teachers are not OK, even though we need them to be. Education Week: