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Teaching Tips & Tricks   |   Feb 16, 2013

Should the toughest kids be assigned to the best teachers?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Should the toughest kids be assigned to the best teachers?

By Angela Watson

You know exactly which kids I’m talking about here–their faces appeared in your mind’s eye as soon as you read the blog post title.  These are the kids who are violent and relentlessly disruptive in class, the ones who have a reputation throughout the school as being incredibly difficult to handle.

Each spring, the teacher’s lounge is filled with speculation over who will get each of those kids the following year…and in many schools, it’s a highly predictable pattern. The teachers with the best classroom management skills get the toughest kids. And every year, those teachers say, “I don’t know if I can take another class like this one. I need a break. I can’t keep doing this year after year.”

Sometimes the principals listen and spread out the toughest kids among multiple classrooms in a grade level, but many times, they don’t, and the teachers who used to be amazing become mediocre because they have nothing left to give. They stop researching new activities in the evenings because all they have the energy to do at night is sleep. They show up at school early to plan meaningful learning experiences, and then get so disgusted with breaking up student fights all morning long that they put on a movie in the afternoon and call it a day. They don’t have the energy for the hands-on activities they used to do, so they pass out worksheets.

Should the toughest kids be assigned to the best teachers?

I’m not saying that response is right. What I’m saying is that it’s happening, in thousands of classrooms all across the country. Our best teachers are burning out from bearing too much of the burden. I understand the need to place students with the best possible teacher for them. The problem is that teachers with strong classroom management skills often feel like they are being punished by getting the most challenging students year after year after year. It doesn’t matter that it’s not intended as a punishment. It feels that way when your job is knowingly made 100 times harder than the job of your colleagues simply because “you can handle it.”

What happens when you can’t handle it anymore? And what happens when the grouping of students interferes with the entire class’ education? I can think of two years in particular during my teaching career when I considered it a miracle that the rest of the class learned anything because my attention was so focused on the third of the class who had constant meltdowns. It absolutely broke my heart to see some of my sweet, hard working kids get less attention and assistance because I had to spend every spare second heading off their peers’ violent outbursts. No child should go to school each day in fear of being harmed by other kids in the class, or be unable to get the individualized learning they need because the teacher is constantly attending to severe behavior problems.

I don’t know of any clear cut solutions. I’m wary of principals burdening brand new teachers with students they know will be challenging–the teacher attrition rate is already astronomical. Some of these kids are so challenging that a new teacher would probably leave the profession before the year is out.

I also don’t want to see high needs students suffer under the leadership of a teacher who is unable to handle them. Maybe schools need to provide more professional development to teachers so they are equipped to handle a wide range of student needs and behavioral issues. It’s rare that a district acknowledges how much classroom management issues interfere with student learning: PD in most schools is centered around improving test scores and implementing curriculum. I did work in one district that allowed principals to identify teachers who struggle classroom management skills and provided extra training through CHAMPS, which is an excellent program, but the change in those teachers’ classrooms was negligible. Without ongoing, individualized support, the results are not going to be transformative. And some kids are just so disruptive that all the PD in the world is not going to prevent the average teacher from being exhausted by 9 a.m. on a daily basis.

Is the solution to get rid of teachers who aren’t able to handle their students? How would we identify those teachers in a fair way? Many of them are not “bad” teachers and are perfectly capable of educating the majority of the student population, they just aren’t prepared to manage the type of kids who throw desks when they’re frustrated and threaten to stab any adult who dares to correct them. Let’s be real: some of these students have no business being thrown into a general education classroom with little to no support. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the teacher for not being able to handle such extreme behaviors in addition to, you know, actually teaching the other 29 kids in the class.

So maybe this brings us to the heart of the issue: schools need to figure out how to meet  these tough kids’ needs, instead of tossing them in the classroom with teachers who are expected to manage on their own. These students deserve small class sizes, psychological counseling, ongoing social skills/coping strategies support through small group sessions with the school guidance counselor, and so on. Some of these students even need individual one-on-one behavioral aides. But these resources take money, and schools just don’t have it.

Where does that leave us? If all outside factors–teacher training, special services, class sizes, and so on–stay exactly the same, what should principals do? Should all the toughest kids go to the teachers with the best classroom management skills? How does this work in your school?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. No, no, no. They exhaust any teacher, so why should one teacher have a large group of these students, while others at that grade level don’t have any. Your comment about the other students in the class missing out is a really important one. Maybe the teacher with the best classroom management shouldn’t actually get any of these tough kids, but have some time & space available to help other teachers at their grade level support and manage these kids in their own classrooms. I’m fortunate, I teach in Cambodia, and probably the worst problems I have to deal with are kids who just cannot sit still and focus on tasks for more than about 5 minutes at a time, or kids with learning difficulties that we don’t have access to assessment facitilities for to determine the best ways to meet their needs. Occasionally I get a kid who doesn’t really care about learning, but that is more because they are immature than anything else. My hat goes off in respect to teachers in 1st world countries where kids have all the rights and teachers, who are responsible for teaching and training the next generation of politicians, doctors, lawyers, teacher, engineers and all other professional as well, as paid less than middle level administrators with no-one’s lives in their hands. Let’s spread the challenge equally among all teachers, and provide them with the support they need.

    1. So true! I like the idea of spreading the challenge equally among all teachers and to provide support, whether from the principal, counselors, and Special Ed department.

  2. This is why, 6 years ago I left the classroom. I became a special Ed teacher so I stayed in education, but the burn out of class after class of tough kids was too much. I love special ed and am glad I made the switch but it would have been easy to leave education all together and head to law school.
    After leaving I tried to advocate to not out those tough kids in the same room year after year, but despite my efforts it frequently happened.

    1. This is the problem I am having, and I’m a Special Ed teacher! My class is labelled as resource room, but they are giving me students that have severe behavior disabilities with little to no support! I’m being treated like a self-contained classroom when the majority of my students only have SLD. I can see why SpEd has a higher burnout. I’m going to be finishing my 4th year teaching (only second in SpEd) and I am so over it. I am not equipped to handle the struggles I face every other day.

      1. I totally get what you mean! I’m a 2nd year teacher (both years in resource) and I’m exhausted!! We seem to get so many students with severe behavior issues. I’ve gotten pretty good at handling them, but it is at the expense of my very at risk (academically) students who need me just as much. It’s like I either teach my low kids, or do a room clear to handle an out of control kiddo. I love my job, but I am already so tired…

        1. I think that it’s sad that Special Ed teachers are leaving the profession. I think that we mainstream teachers need to know EXACTLY what special ed teachers are responsible for, since at least at our district, it’s a mystery! I know that I had a colleague (big teddy bear kind of teacher) who taught a Special Day Class for the severely disabled and he was attacked by a student. He retired at the end of that year. So sad! On top of this, the hiring of special ed teachers is not getting done.

  3. I will be very interested to read the comments on this post. I truly believe that schools need to invest more in school psychologists because truly some of these really difficult kids need emotional services that regular classroom teachers are absolutely not equipped to handle, nor is it reasonable for them to do so with a class full of other kids. I don’t know the perfect solution, but I do know that expecting the testing results that principals and districts want is not possible when you have a students who you can’t even get to pick up a pencil for fear they’ll stab you with it (joking…sort of).

    1. One of my colleagues got stabbed in the arm by a student with a pencil! Nothing happened to the student and she retired! If this happened to me, I wouldn’t bother with administration and a referral. I would call 911. It’s getting ridiculous in some classrooms!

    2. 100% agree. There will be burnout of all great teachers. This is why good teachers leave the profession and get burned out.

  4. So true!!
    I was just saying to my hubby last night that I need to go in on Tuesday morning and pass out ‘appreciation’ notes to my lovely hard working kiddos because they are not getting the attention that some of the others are getting.
    I am so torn about how to spend my time, do I sit with the student who is having a meltdown throwing books, or should I read with my 3 grade level below reading level group, or do I carry on and teach the majority of my class (my “Bs”) and ignore the outliers? I’m all for differentiated instruction but the behaviour challenges are what is killing me!

    1. I feel you. I teach 6th grade and I have an unusually tough group this year. out of 26 students I have 7 that are constantly interrupting and disrupting. Not to mention the below level group that actually NEEDS me. This is my 3rd year teaching…I am in no way a veteran…and this class is giving me a run for my money, I’m only 31 and there is no way I should be as tired and upset as I am every night. All of the fun things I had planned as far as field trips and interactive hands on activities have to be invariably canceled because there are many students that cannot handle it, and that frankly I cannot trust in a situation outside of the school building. I see students no longer trying, a blatant lack of respect for adults, and an attitude of “why do we have to do this” I teach history and do all I can to make it come to life with projects, role plays, tactile and kinesthetic activities but so much time is lost on behavior management. I love what I do, and I wouldn’t trade my job for anything in the world but if we had a little more support in the behavior department and more people in the school equipped to handle behavior issues we would be in better shape.

      I work in a private school, there are 2 classes on a grade level and there are no funds for extra personnel in the building. I feel that although many parents want their children to have a private school education they are doing them a great disservice by not putting them in a public school where they could be getting the services they so desperately need. As the blog said, instead of constant professional development about common core and state tests we should have professionals come in and tell us how to handle the kid who flips a desk when he’s mad or sits and cries because they just don’t ‘get it’, or gets so angry at me that he is milliseconds away from hitting me. We’re asked to be so many different things as teachers-parents, nurses, psychologists, or just an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on-but we cannot do it all on our own.

      1. Jen, I too am a history teacher and I also see the exact same things you are seeing in class. However, sadly, I am seeing them at the high school level. At my public school there is a very high level of blatant disrespect for adults and any and all kinds of authority, and a constant questioning of “why do we have to do this?” with all levels of students. I have been fortunately blessed with a very small and very talented class at the end of the day, so usually my day ends with happy thoughts and amazing ideas coming from these kids. BUT, it’s the middle of my day that leaves me tired, wringing my hands, and wondering what it is that I can do to get the information through AND how to survive until June.
        My mother warned me not to go into the teaching profession. She was getting out at the time. I thought it was just that she was tired and ready to retire. Little did I know how many times I would hear her words echo in my ears in the first 3 years of my teaching career!

    2. I totally get what you are saying and I am in the same boat. I have been teaching for 15 years now, and this year is by far my worst. I have three very high needs students in my room, with little support. These three kids take up all my time and all my attention, and it is definitely not fair to the other seventeen kids in my room. There are many days when all I can do is damage control and get very little actual teaching done. I have a headache every day and go home exhausted because of all the stress I am facing this year.

  5. After teaching for 18 years I have had these kids. I have had these classes. I have been the teacher who gets the majority of extremes. I have wanted to leave education all together. I have had years when I didn’t know if I would make it to the end.

    This year, I have a great group of kids, except for the one. This is the first time I have feared that one of my students might be so extreme, that one day I will turn on the news and he will be the face behind a Newton-like massacre. He is not getting what he needs to be emotionally and psychologically healthy. Who do we blame, parents, school, or doctors? I don’t know, but it is way more than one class getting or not getting attention. It is way more than one teacher getting burnt out. I feel like as a member of society that I have a responsibility to fix this but I don’t know how. I even know that the resulting tragedy of this child’s life will not be within this school year. I see it. I know it is coming. I watch the random outbursts. I reward the rational behavior. And praise the good things. Then I watch the insanity happen again.

    The other teachers who have had him and who know him (because they are close by) all look at each and say he is insane. The principal, the counselor, and the school psychologist all know and see it too. Yet it goes on day after day. Sure, I can handle it for 3 more months, but what are the repercussions for society in the future?

    1. Shannon, I feel terrible for you. I think it shows great wisdom to worry for his future beyond how it affects you and the kids in your classroom. It’s so easy to get tunnel vision. These children need emotional help before we can think about educating them. Maybe it’s lack of funding or whatever, but we do such a disservice when we don’t get these kids the help they need.

    2. Shannon, I agree with you! I had a student one year that explained to me how he killed his animals at home, and how he buried them. Yet, the school knowing this did not feel he needed help. I feel that we see early signs of trouble, and it is ignored. Its really sad to me that we do not provide these children with more help. I think of the school shootings in our country, and wonder why those kids where not identified earlier as having emotional problems. I think we need to invest more in school psychologist, and take teacher input more seriously.

      1. If you are that worried about your student, and believe that he poses a risk to the staff and other students and your administration is ignoring the behavior, contact the Department of Children and Families. They have to follow up, and will probably work with the student’s parents to arrange for him to get the help that he needs. So many times our hands are tied as educators – I have seen administration time and time again ignore dangerous situations because if they don’t acknowledge that there is a problem there is nothing that needs to be fixed. I recently left teaching in a public school and work for a private company now. I am so happy to no longer be involved in the public education system. So much focus is put upon the politics and the funds and the neglect of our next generation.

    3. Oh my goodness Shannon! THIS IS THE ISSUE, ISN’T IT?!!! We are expected to deal with students like this and act like there isn’t something wrong with them for fear of a lawsuit or something! What about our rights as teachers to a safe workplace and those of the other students, who deserve our all too?! It just burns me up!

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