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Education Leadership Perspectives

Views from the Principal's Office

By Brian Gatens

Teachers and the Law: Classroom Best Practices

By Brian P. Gatens

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In previous blog posts, I’ve written about how teachers can avoid legal issues as they navigate the sometimes rocky waters of today’s educational environment. For this installment, I’ll pass along the best practices for teachers inside the classroom.

If you’re a full-time teacher, you spend almost your entire work life inside the classroom, delivering content to children. Given that education is highly regulated and that we live in a society where lawsuits can be filed on a whim, it makes sense to make sure you’re not doing anything in the classroom that invites legal challenges. While the following commonsense tips will not guarantee you a career spared from litigation (and should not be considered legal advice — that’s strictly a lawyer’s job), they can help you steer clear of legal minefields.

Have Fair and Authentic Assessments

There are two sides to your students’ classroom experience: what you you teach and how you measure students’ progress. I strongly advise making certain that your assessments, tests and quizzes are fair, used the same way among classes and returned promptly. Any returned work plays a role in students’ grades, and those results follow them forever. 

Do Not Surprise Parents and Students

As you may know from reading my other work, a common theme of mine is communication, communication and more communication. I strongly suggest that you get into a regular pattern of notifying students and their families of the children’s progress in the classroom. Do not wait until the last minute to deliver bad news about a child’s progress or grades. And always make certain to notify parents as soon as you begin to sense a downturn in their children’s work. 

Don’t Make Discipline a Punishment

I spent my early in a challenging urban private school environment, where our principal always reinforced to us that the goal of a disciplinary situation is not to punish the child — it’s to prevent a repeat of the behavior that led to the situation in the first place. When students misbehave, it’s tempting to think some kind of punishment will “teach them a lesson,” but you cannot afford to act on that temptation. Focus on identifying what triggered the bad behavior and finding ways to keep it from happening again.

Don’t be Too

‘Social’ in Your Media

With the advent of social media, we all live more and more of our lives in the public eye. As a result, it’s not uncommon for well-meaning teachers to improperly disclose information about their students online. The best thing to do is to have your students’ parents sign off any social media that you plan to use during the school year. 

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Staying clear of legal entanglements is obviously an important factor in your teaching career. Occasionally, I’ve seen conscientious and well-meaning teachers make serious errors in judgment. The most important thing is to make certain that you communicate with all the necessary people, think before you act and don’t hesitate to ask for your help from colleagues and administrators if something happens to cause you concern.

Also in this series:

Part 1. How teachers can avoid legal tangles.

Part 2: Best email practices.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal

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