Teachers Losing Tolerance For Classroom Spitballs


Parents, be warned. Your child's next outburst in algebra class may be his last.

Across the country, teachers are demanding stronger codes of conduct and swifter punishment to handle discipline problems in their classrooms. Some are requesting - and receiving - more authority over discipline for chronic troublemakers.

Certainly the teacher crackdown won't take American public education back to the days of canes and dunce caps. But it does signify that the societal return to traditional values - such as respect for authority figures - is percolating in many classrooms.

The issue also points up the differences between teachers and principals in their approaches to discipline.

"This is one of the biggest problems that teachers complain about," says Gary Landry, spokesman for the Florida Education Association in Tallahassee. "They take chronically disruptive kids to the principal, he slaps their hands, they return, and then 10 minutes later the kids are back at it again."

The task of disciplining or suspending troublemakers generally falls to school principals. But some states and urban school districts are now giving teachers greater say over who can stay in their classrooms.

This spring, the Florida Legislature passed the Teacher Authority Act, which allows teachers to remove a chronically disruptive youngster to another classroom or to a so-called alternative learning environment. A new law in Maryland gives teachers the right to be consulted before a student is returned from suspension. Some cities, such as Boston, New Orleans, and Cincinnati, have set up smaller alternative classes where disruptive students can get more attention.

Parents seem to support stricter discipline - at least so long as it isn't aimed at their own child. A 1994 poll by the Public Agenda research group found that 73 percent of parents favor removing persistent troublemakers from the classroom.

In a nationwide survey of teachers last year, the American Federation of Teachers found that 56 percent said the level of student discipline had gotten worse, and 66 percent of those said inconsistent or lenient punishment was the cause. The teachers union survey also reported that 77 percent of teachers spend at least an hour of class time each week regaining control of their students.

But many educators say removing a disruptive student may not be the solution, especially if the teacher is the one who is the problem.

"In a well-run building and a well-run classroom, you have far fewer disruptive students," says former teacher Kathy Christie, now spokeswoman for the Education Commission for the States in Denver. "Giving teachers the power to remove students may be a protection for teachers who need to get their pedagogies [teaching skills] in gear."

A high percentage of students who "act out" have learning disabilities or deep emotional problems, she says. In Colorado, teachers must adjust their teaching methods to meet the specific needs of such children. But teachers receive no guidance from the state when these children disrupt classes. In addition, some teachers grapple with fear that stricter disciplinary action may make them a target of a violent students or of a lawsuit by irate parents.

Still, some principals say teachers need to look at their own methods before tossing a student out. "All of us have different learning styles," says Lillian Brinkley, an elementary school principal in Norfolk, Va. "If there is a misfit between a teacher's style and a child's style, then the teacher needs to adjust."

Some students may continue to be disruptive, she adds, "and we have our 'frequent fliers.' " In those rare cases, "we need to find the least restrictive learning environment for that child."

To be sure, individual attention is difficult to achieve in 30-student classes - and smaller, alternative classes come at a price. Not all school districts can afford to hire additional teachers and create specific programs for disruptive students.

In Massachusetts, the problem of disruptive students led state leaders, including Gov. William Weld (R), to suggest boot camps for chronic troublemakers. But this year a bill to create alternative programs for such students received little support.

"I think the legislature has generally supported teacher concerns on this issue," says Kathleen Kelley, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers in Boston. "The problem is when they deal with alternative education as a route, there are concerns about the money involved."

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