dealing with thorny discipline issues requires great care, especially if they become public knowledge
For Administrators

Appropriately Addressing Thorny Discipline Issues

By Brian Gatens November 25, 2013

From time to time, messy disciplinary issues are bound to arise in schools. Whether you’re dealing with bullying, a conflict between families outside of school that spill into the hallways, or perhaps a case of student-on-student mistreatment, you’re going to have to work with the knowledge that these issues will become an undercurrent in your school.

dealing with thorny discipline issues requires great care, especially if they become public knowledgeSometimes these situations will escalate and catch the attention of local media. If so, how do you continue to meet your students’ needs and also manage the high level of tension created by these situations? Keep these points in mind:

Maintain a ‘no comment’ policy

As a teacher, you should constantly be looking for ways to help instruct and guide your students. Sometimes this has to do with your class content, but also you may be tempted to speak beyond your class content and teach the children about larger ethical and behavior issues.

However, if your school is embroiled in a widely known controversy (especially one that lands in court), you should maintain a policy of not discussing it inside your classroom. As a representative of the school district, you will be held to a higher standard regarding privacy and confidentiality.

Avoid all social media

At a recent superintendent meeting, it was noted how quickly (mis)information spreads these days. With the high levels of connection between school, families, parents and communities, it’s not uncommon for everyone to weigh in with their opinion and thoughts.

You should avoid even the hint that you are expressing a personal opinion regarding these kinds of disputes. This includes hitting the “Like” button on Facebook or forwarding an article to parents or colleagues. Personal comments, no matter how small the circle may be, should always be avoided.

Presume innocence

As the situation swirls around your classroom, don’t be surprised if you are expected to continue the teaching-learning transaction with the students in question. It’s not uncommon for children to return to school pending the outcome of disciplinary hearings.

As a result, you will be expected to provide the same level of care and concern that you pay to all of your students. Be sure to treat the child the same at all times, avoid any topics that approach their situation and make contact with parents as necessary.

Look at your class content and activities

Depending upon your subject matter, you may have to adjust your topics and activities to show a sensitivity to the situation. This includes hand-selecting student groups, modifying content to work with the situation at hand (such as not spending a week on an anti-bullying unit if a situation like that is being contested in court), and perhaps approaching a historical event from a different angle. Make it a point to avoid any instructional decisions that could inflame the situation.

Always ask an administrator

As with all my other articles, I always encourage teachers to reach out to trusted colleagues and administrators for advice and guidance. There is no need for you to navigate the troubling and controversial waters that surround thorny disciplinary issues alone.

Getting the go-ahead from your supervisor will only serve to protect both your professional life and make certain that you’re continuing to provide your students with an excellent education.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, New Jersey. 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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