Disrespect, Defiance, and Fear
June 25, 2023
June 25, 2023
By Tom Allen
Blatant disrespect for authority, outright defiance, failure to heed class rules, not doing assignments: Some degree of student misbehavior has probably been part of the classroom experience since the dawn of schooling. However, since the return to post-pandemic in-person instruction, Virginia educators say, the issue has become an increasingly difficult and dangerous one that’s costing our schools and students some excellent educators.
It feels a bit like a catch-22. We needed to close schools to protect health and save lives, but the ensuing disruption in routines continues to reverberate in our classrooms, perhaps most of all in the areas of social skills and behavior. The result is a sometimes-scary work environment for teachers and school staff, complicated by the fact that many don’t feel supported in a crisis by either school administrators or parents.
None of this is a strictly Virginia problem. A nationwide survey released in February by education research firm EAB (eab.com), found that 84 percent of teachers believe their students are “developmentally behind in self-regulation and relationship building compared to students prior to the pandemic,” and that violent classroom incidents have more than doubled since COVID.
“Teachers today find themselves in the midst of chaos, fueled by declining trust in and respect for teachers in general,” says Hope Chapel, a longtime Henrico County middle school teacher who decided to leave the classroom after last school year. “Perhaps most concerning is the attitude that many students bring to school, influenced by the media and community attitudes. They feel justified engaging in rude and disrespectful behavior.”
Educators routinely experience that disrespect, along with refusal to do classwork, students on cell phones during instruction, disruptive behaviors, and threats—threats that must be taken seriously in light of the violent events at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News earlier this year and in other schools in and beyond Virginia.
Chesapeake Education Association member Amanda Lambert, a high school English teacher, recently told a student to get off his phone while she was trying to teach. He refused, so she told him to come speak with her, only to have him refuse again. When she told him to step out into the hall, he repeated his refusal before finally ending his call by explaining to the person on the other end of the conversation, “Gotta go. My teacher’s tripping.”
And that’s pretty minor compared to this incident related by Fairfax Education Association member and special education teacher Nevine Youssef: “A student with a disability hit her teacher on the head while taking a test because she didn’t want to complete the test. The teacher suffered a concussion, was out of work for a month, and endured headaches, nausea, and difficulty with walking. She continues to suffer from severe headaches at least three times a week and is so traumatized she’s thinking of switching her career to a safer one.”
Other teachers report that students routinely leave class without permission, destroy school property and items that belong to other students, that online bullying and conflicts spill over into classrooms—the list goes on. There are stories like these happening in schools across the state. Today.
While not the sole culprit, two years of pandemic-related upheaval in schools has certainly ratcheted up behavior issues. “Students were not in a ‘normal’ structured environment for over 18 months,” says Education Association of Suffolk member Claudette Pierre. “While not having to follow any classroom rules, they were setting their own schedules, engaging in online classes at their leisure, having little to no accountability in any area related to school, and having excuses made for their failure to engage, remain on task, come to class regularly and on time, and be prepared with an emphasis on learning.”
Youssef agrees, noting that with virtual instruction, many students lacked supervision at home: “They did what they wanted, had no class rules, and didn’t interact with peers and staff. There was no real social interaction for about two years. Now that they are back in school buildings, they have to follow class rules, re-learn social skills, and follow a schedule.”
Another factor in today’s hard-to-manage classrooms, as described by Joy Gavin, a Chesapeake Education Association member, is the aftermath of unfettered internet use by students at home all day, every day while schools were closed. They weren’t spending that time on educational sites, she says, but “on social media and other sites where everyone can say anything—and most children don’t put effort into fact-checking. Constantly hearing their own thoughts and opinions voiced back to them has resulted in an uptick in absolute thinking. Their viewpoint on any given issue is the only one that’s valid, and they can point to all these people who agree with them. Different sites have different algorithms, but most keep exposing you to content similar to what you already like, so they’re not really being exposed to different viewpoints. Now we have a group of children with fixed ideas about a variety of issues and they’re so used to a homogenous experience that they feel threatened by anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Many students seem to have completely lost their ability to allow other people to just exist if they’re doing something they don’t agree with.”
Educators have long looked to parents and administrators to be allies when behavior issues arise, but they’re often finding that support less and less available in today’s climate. Many feel they’re no longer given the benefit of the doubt by either party.
“Respect is a key element in any relationship,” says former Henrico teacher Chapel. “As a new teacher, I was trusted to manage a classroom full of students while providing effective and engaging lessons. We were respected as professionals by our administrators and the parents of our students. Today there’s a growing lack of respect for teachers in our communities—gone 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.”
Teachers encounter this lack of respect in different ways. “I’ve asked students what their moms would think of their behavior, and I’ve been told either, ‘She won’t care’ or ‘She ain’t gonna do (bleep).’ Sadly, many aren’t wrong,” says Chesapeake’s Lambert. “Right now, I’m dealing with a parent who’s angry because their child turned in work two weeks after it was due, and it wasn’t graded in two days.”
Many children now feel free to speak to adults as if they were peers. “I had a student that told me to get off his ‘meat,’” says Mary Beth Shelar of the Charlottesville Education Association. When she brought this to his parent’s attention, the response was “a list of excuses as long as my arm.”
Teachers can handle difficult classroom situations exponentially more effectively when they’re confident they’ve got administrators standing behind them. “I’ve heard administrators blame teachers if their students misbehave,” says Shelar. “The first thing some do is ask, ‘Did you establish a relationship with the student?’ Really? I’ve been doing that for 33 years of teaching. We can have a positive relationship with our students and those students can still make wrong choices—they still need to be held accountable.”
That accountability will only come with support from the top. “Administrators need to be trained and supportive,” says Fairfax’s Youssef, “and a behavior plan should be in place. When a student is misbehaving how will administration support us?”
Teachers definitely have some thoughts on how we might make headway on all this. Alisa Downey of the Roanoke County Education Association offers a short but powerful list: smaller class sizes, less pre- and post-testing, more social and emotional instruction and, perhaps most important, increased mental health staff and resources for both students and staff.
Suffolk’s Pierre agrees with that last point. “Some school administrators, both in the building and in central office, are unaware of what’s happening inside their buildings,” she says. “We need more school psychologists and social workers on hand and accessible.”
She’s aware of the increased emphasis on educator self-care that has grown out of pandemic fallout, but also sees an important need for school administrators to provide “continuous support—emotionally, socially, and in the classroom—to teachers, as well.”
Teachers know they must play a critically important role, too, if headway is going to be made in improving student behavior. “We have to make sure our expectations of students and their responsibilities are clearly laid out and explicitly stated,” says Chesapeake’s Gavin. “Some students no longer know what we think they know in terms of behavior, so we have to tell them what we’re looking for. This goes to work ethic, as well. We must have firm, naturally occurring consequences that make sense. You can show grace and still hold people accountable.”
Her Chesapeake colleague Lambert agrees. “When there’s a standard, it needs to be enforced consistently between classrooms as well as between teachers and administration,” she says. “If teacher or assistant principal A allows a rule to slide but teacher B holds the line, the kids will make life miserable for teacher B, which isn’t fair.”
For Lambert and teachers across the state, though, some quality backing from parents would certainly be appreciated: “Review school and classroom expectations with your children. Read the syllabus. Be familiar with the student handbook.”
Gavin adds, “Monitor your child’s access to the internet and have conversations about how to evaluate information.”
The general public doesn’t really seem to understand how much the situation has deteriorated in many schools. Lambert recently spent an hour with a first-year teacher she mentors. “She spent half of the time in tears because the behavior issues she’s dealing with have her ready to quit,” she says. “She’s dreamed of doing this her entire life and has stellar evaluations. Eighty percent of her first block class is failing because they refuse to do work and are constantly giving her hell. Sending them to administration does no good, referrals go nowhere, and the parents just shrug and say, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ She is suffering, and I’m doing everything I can to help her. Things are awful right now.”
Allen is editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.
Kelley Green and Rebekah Butler Cagle’s teaching careers both got off to the same flying start—less than two weeks into their first year in the classroom, both were punched in the stomach by an angry elementary school student.
That’s not all the Virginia Beach Education Association members, who teach in different schools, have in common, either. This year, Green’s fourth and Butler Cagle’s first, both have had students threaten to bring guns to school. Both have felt that the danger they’re in, and rising student misbehavior, have been downplayed by school administrators. Both have driven to school in the morning with sinking, anxious feelings in the pit of their stomachs.
And why wouldn’t they? This year, Green was also verbally abused during a phone call with a parent who showed up soon after at an open house and physically assaulted her. Butler Cagle had a student do hundreds of dollars in damage to her classroom when he was sent to the “calm down corner.”
Enough was more than enough, so Green and Butler Cagle took their plight, one shared by teachers across Virginia, to the floor of the 2023 VEA convention. There, they proposed a New Business Item calling for VEA’s Legislative Committee, members, and staff to push for a new law at next year’s General Assembly called the Educator Protection Act. The Act would include:
Convention delegates enthusiastically embraced the proposal, not only adopting it but doing so unanimously, prompting a tearful, emotional reaction from both Green and Butler Cagle.
“For four years, I’ve been told I’m being overreactive and too dramatic,” says Green, “To be told by educators from all over the state, ‘We validate your experience’ was so hopeful.”
Butler Cagle wants the impact of such a law, if created, to “make everyone feel like they belong, and that they have the safe learning environment all our school documents say we’re entitled to.” After Abby Zwerner was shot at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News in January, Butler Cagle shared her thoughts in a TikTok video. You can see it at https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTR3oFTxH/.
“We deserve to be protected, too,” Green says. “We’re also someone’s kid, and we deserve to go home and see our families at the end of the day, too.”
Already, at least one legislator in the Virginia Beach area who learned of Green and Butler Cagle’s proposed law has volunteered to sponsor it in next year’s General Assembly session.
Here are some numbers related to student behavior in our public schools, from the Virginia Department of Education’s “School Climate Reports” for the 2021-22 school year, the most recent data available (bear in mind that these are only the numbers officially reported):
VDOE breaks its figures down into six categories: behaviors that impede academic progress; behaviors related to school operations; relationship behaviors; behaviors of a safety concern; behaviors that endanger self or others; and behaviors to determine persistently dangerous schools. Here are a few examples:
According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers in Virginia earn 32.7% less in weekly wages than other (non-teacher) college-educated workers. Virginia’s teacher wage penalty is the worst in the nation.Take Action Now