I’ve lost count of the number of teachers I know who have either left their school or entirely abandoned education because of student behavior. A student physically threatened a friend, and the administration provided no consequence. This friend quit soon thereafter. Another started a family and just couldn’t remain emotionally present as a father while dealing with chaos at work all day. At one particularly unruly school, I lost track of how many teachers up and left mid-year; they put their keys on their desks and walked out the doors.
While most discussion about student behavior understandably focuses on its impact on students—the telos of a school is educating children, after all—too often the effects on teachers are simply overlooked. They’re collateral damage that seldom gets a mention.
My experience is typical. According to poll from the National Education Association, for example, amid fears of a coming teacher shortage, almost half of all teachers report a desire or plan to quit because of school climate and safety.
I’m into my seventh year teaching. I’ve taught in rich schools and poor schools, private and public, middle school and high school. My class schedule has been both unforgivingly busy and also free to the point of leaving me bored at midday. I’ve had great administrators and terrible ones. I’ve used more curricula than I care to count. I’ve spent entire Saturdays and Sundays grading and prepping. But nothing has left me more stressed or anxious than student discipline.
It was worst in my first year of teaching, when both my classroom management skills were at their weakest and the school in which I taught was distinctly weak-kneed. Every day was chaos, and the unpredictability of it scared me the most. What insult would fly across the room? Would I have to break up a fight today? For what educational failure or emotional damage was I responsible because of the chaos in this room? I still remember one student laughing at me after I asked him to sit down.
But it wasn’t just me. An experienced educator across the hall quit that year and checked into a mental hospital because of the verbal abuse she suffered from students. The shift from “these students are disrespectful” to “I am unworthy of respect” comes quickly, and it’s emotionally crushing.
In an open letter to Milwaukee Public Schools, one teacher described how her former feelings of joy and excitement about her job have changed to “fear of how my colleagues and I will be abused for yet another day.” What began as regular instances of students cussing out teachers or acting in deliberate insubordination escalated to a scenario where teachers are just trying to put out “bigger fires” like fights and vandalism.
One dismayingly popular policy that fosters such disorder is the eradication of punitive discipline like suspensions. We have countless case studies—from cities like Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh to entire states like Illinois and California—that demonstrate the necessity of discipline. When policies bar schools from using suspensions and instead make them rely on soft approaches like “positive behavior interventions and supports” (PBIS) or “restorative justice,” then misbehavior, bullying, classroom disruptions, and more severe behavior all flourish.
It’s worth noting that the cities and states mentioned above demonstrate that this behavioral pandemonium is a systemic problem, not a result of individual teachers with inadequate classroom management skills. I liken it to sailors. One captain may get from point A to point B regardless of the state of their craft or the weather, but it would certainly be easier if their boat hasn’t sprung holes and the sun is shining. Certain teachers will succeed no matter their environment, but the only way a school is going to be calm and orderly is if there’s a schoolwide approach to discipline that’s enforced consistently and uniformly. And that’s what “discipline reform” has eroded.
Unsurprisingly, most teachers support tougher behavior policies. A Fordham survey from 2019 found that teachers report “putting up with more misbehavior than they used to.” While they see value in restorative justice and PBIS as add-ons, they believe that suspensions remain a necessary part of any behavioral structure. It’s easy to sloganeer in support of abolishing suspensions in policy proposals or from social justice advocacy groups. It’s harder to support these naive policies when you’re the teacher in the hallway breaking up a fight or in a classroom trying to teach the majority of eager students over the din of a noisy few in the back.
And while the emotional toll is perhaps the greatest consequence on teachers, it’s also just hugely time consuming. More misbehavior means more paperwork and more time meeting with administrators, speaking with parents, and wondering whether your response was correct or incorrect or if today will be better or worse than yesterday.
And of course, none of this touches on the lost learning, academic mediocrity, and emotional harm that chaotic environments inflict upon students, all of which are very real.
If we really want to support educators—as so many institutions, advocates, and politicians claim to want to do—keeping student behavior in check is an important, too often overlooked place to begin.