‘Teachers at fault too’

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Ask just about any disciplinarian or principal about discipline problems, and they’ll likely say that teachers often are as much to blame as the students are.

“You hit the nail on the head,” says Herman Blade, disciplinarian at Senn Metro High in Edgewater. “You have a lot of teachers who just can’t control kids.”

Students know who will tolerate nonsense and who won’t, says Hazel Steward, Region 3 education officer and former principal of Tilden High in New City. “And it has nothing to do with race, age, size or anything else. It has to do with the person.”

Even if a school has only a few problem teachers on staff, “you spend 90 percent of your time dealing with those few,” notes Howard Binder, administrative assistant at Lake View High.

Poor lesson planning and ineffective teaching methods—such as too much lecturing—often are at fault. “Any teacher who is unprepared can expect discipline problems,” says DuSable High Principal Charles Mingo. “Another thing you have to think about is presentation. When teenagers come into the room, you know they’re not thinking about you. You need to do two things: get their attention and engage them [in the lesson].”

Mingo points to social studies teacher Steve Strull as an example. “Most high school teachers think they are mini-university teachers who can lecture to kids,” he says. “Steve’s philosophy is, he’s going to engage them, make them defend what they’re saying. He also gives them long-term assignments, which means they have to keep busy with research.”

Teachers also mistakenly use seat work to control students, says Barbara Sizemore, dean of DePaul University’s School of Education. “Too many times I’ve gone into classrooms where kids are copying words or doing other useless activity. Too many teachers keep them [students] writing as a means of discipline. There’s no instruction going on, then people wonder why kids aren’t learning.”

Forging better teacher-student relationships would also help improve behavior, says Michelle Smith, a teacher at Harper High’s small school COMETS. “We have all this training on building relationships [among teachers], but we don’t transfer that to the classroom.” Teacher-student relationships are a cornerstone of small schools.

“We don’t have enough ways of dealing with discipline,” Smith adds. “You have to have a general sense of the kid. What works for one won’t work with another.” Some students, she notes, don’t like being “yelled at” and will only rebel more if a teacher takes that tack; with those students, talking quietly with them in private is a better approach.

While training can help some problem teachers, others will always have a hard time with classroom management because of “a personality problem” that no amount of counseling will fix, says Binder. “There’s no utopia.”