Children cannot learn in a classroom where their teachers spend a significant amount of time dealing with student discipline issues. It can be unsafe for the teacher and the other students and significantly disrupts the learning environment.
Out-of-control behavior by some students is driving teachers out of the profession. In 2021, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Teacher’s Discipline Act, which Professional Educators of Tennessee championed. Since January 1, 2022, this law should guide districts to create better discipline systems and processes in place in Tennessee schools.
Student discipline is a major reason why teachers say they are leaving the profession. This law was centered on the frustration of teachers over the last decade. Educators cite student discipline as a critical issue that they face in the classroom. Teaching is a challenging and difficult job. It is made even more difficult when classroom discipline is out of control.
To maintain control in the classroom, policies must be clearly defined. Let us be clear, today’s infractions are rarely chewing gum, being out of a seat, or throwing paper. Reports include offenses of a sexual nature, cursing at teachers, fights, and sometimes even worse. Students are frequently permitted to commit offenses in school with little repercussion. Student discipline is now a time-consuming and exasperating issue, and teacher input is rarely solicited.
We have seen increases in teacher assaults over the last several years—including sexual ones. Representative Jay Reedy and Senator John Stevens expanded our Educator Bill of Rights this year and is now Public Chapter 153. This now includes the educator's right to report an offense of assault and battery and their right to receive benefits if they are a teacher who is absent from their assigned duties due to injuries caused by a criminal act committed against them while at school or a school function.
Day in and day out, teachers are tasked with the delivery of education to students. The lack of institutional support in classroom management has now made the burden on our teachers more difficult. We need better processes in classroom management. Regrettably, teachers are often left out of the creation process of school discipline policies. Systems and processes are what make everything work, from the most complex to the seemingly insignificant. When processes are flawed, systems inadvertently fail.
Just like children make mistakes in reading, or in math, they also, unfortunately, make mistakes in behavior. All educators understand that students will misbehave. It is important to establish strong boundaries that will best serve all students. One thing is certain — all it takes is one rebellious student who gets his or her way, day after day, to destroy a classroom. Common sense would indicate that more teacher input on student discipline issues might improve job satisfaction, address teacher retention, and solve more student behavioral issues.
Not having a high-quality administrator at every school often means good discipline is even more difficult. Teachers set the discipline for their classrooms, but administrators set the culture for their schools. Classroom teachers must have an administrator who reinforces and supports their authority to maintain discipline in the classroom. Administrators who do not support classroom teachers and set lenient discipline policies end up creating learning environments where unruly students take away from students who wish to learn. An Antioch High School teacher got pepper sprayed by a student for confiscating her cell phone.
Every district in Tennessee is now required to establish a process for a student’s removal and return to the classroom. It will give teachers more voice on the critical issue of student discipline. The act reaffirms existing laws regarding a teacher’s ability to relocate students for safety reasons. It outlines the disciplinary referral process by teachers and administrators and establishes a clear framework for how a teacher can request the removal of a student from class who repeatedly or substantially interferes with the teacher’s ability to communicate effectively with the class and the ability of the student’s classmates to learn.
This law wisely leaves student removal at the discretion of the principal or designee. However, an appeals process is established if removal is denied to the teacher. It also allows the student to have the opportunity to respond with their side of the situation and involve the parents or guardians in the process. It protects the student removal process from being abused or overused. Statewide data will be reported to the TN Department of Education.
The data collection component will give policymakers and stakeholders a glimpse into what is going on schoolwide, system-wide, and statewide. Specific problems can be pinpointed, and if additional policies are needed, data from communities across the state is being used. Future legislation can address systemic issues around discipline, and schools, districts, and the state can be more equipped to address discipline issues earlier to help students, their classmates, and teachers.
Each student discipline policy or code of conduct must now be adopted by a local board of education or public charter school. This law forces compliance with all state and federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. § 794).
We should all want to create a system that serves our students and to do that we must get the discipline process right. Superintendents and Boards of Education must establish policies that can improve the process. With these processes in effect, we can create a better, safer environment for teachers and students that will help retain and attract excellent educators in our state.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee