Principal Davis works in an urban middle school that is racially and academically divided. Davis finds himself balancing support for first year teacher John McCullum with the need to respond to discipline challenges on a case-by-case basis. Some may perceive Davis as inconsistent, while others may see him as a practical realist. Meanwhile, how will John handle class disruptions without the help he feels he needs from his boss?

John faces his seventh period class.

Overall, John was enjoying his first year of teaching at Parkside Middle School. But when he thought about his seventh period class, his breathing became shallow and a radiating knot of anxiety formed in his stomach. Parkside was an urban school that served two distinct populations, a middle class community from the north side of the city and an economically disadvantaged population from the south. John found the mix to be challenging, but his seventh period proved to be positively overwhelming. It consisted of fifteen eighth-grade students: four high-achieving students, and eleven whose academic performance ranked considerably lower than the others. Of the lower achievers, there were about five who talked, laughed, and attempted to dominate both the class and its teacher throughout the period.

Two students from John’s seventh period class

Using resources from the internet and handouts from an in-service training session on classroom management, John had coped with the behavior problems in his seventh period reasonably well. Unfortunately, doing so had taken a great deal of energy, and the intensity of the conflicts was escalating. More and more, John had a difficult time concentrating on his lesson delivery as the students distracted him. It seemed to John that these kids were constantly setting up situations in which either he or they won control of the class. Becoming frustrated, John sought advice and support from Principal Davis.

Principal Davis

Davis, a middle-aged man who had grown up in this area, was currently serving his tenth year as principal of the school. During this time he had earned a reputation as a fair and open-minded educational leader. Davis repeatedly encouraged his faculty to get to know their students on a personal level. He advised John and the other beginning teachers, “Call parents and learn about the community these students come from. Get to know the students outside of the classroom, and let them get to know you. Then you will be able to relate to them and earn their respect inside of the classroom.” John knew this advice was based on experience. Davis was rarely found sitting behind the desk in his office. He constantly circulated through the halls of Parkside, talking to students and popping his head into classrooms. Davis prided himself on knowing the names of almost every student in his school. Consequently he was well-liked by the students and the community at-large.

Even so, getting to know his students better was exactly the problem. John sensed their apathy and lack of respect, and he simply wasn’t sure how to bridge those barriers.

A review game gets out of hand.

Because he was new to teaching, John was relying heavily on the history text to guide his instruction. He knew that it was dry and often uninspiring, but it covered the standards well. John needed the structure it provided.

He also knew his students needed a break from the textbook grind. Last time they reviewed for a test on European history, John saw one minority student flip through the pages of the text and mutter, “Here we go…the parade of dead white guys.” So, rather than use the text to review for this upcoming test, John opted for a game. He created a Jeopardy-style game board complete with categories and point values. John was hoping using a variety of instructional techniques would decrease behavior problems and better involve his students.

After directing the students to form groups of their choice, he began the game with the expectation that although the class would be rowdy, the game would prove to be an enjoyable and effective review technique. John realized immediately that the students had selected themselves into groups along racial lines. He suspected that this could potentially lead to problems, but could think of no way to correct the situation at this point. Unfortunately, he was yet to appreciate the full volatility of the situation.

When an argument erupted between two of the students from opposing teams, he quickly stepped between them. Ignoring the obscenities being exchanged, John moved quickly to separate them because they had already begun pushing and shoving one another. After separating the students, he was able, with considerable effort, to restart the game, which continued more or less successfully until the end of the class period. As the class was dismissed, Chris and Richard resumed their heated exchange at the door. On his way out, Richard bumped into Chris, shoved him, and threatened, “Move your ass, redneck!”

Chris’s eyes grew wide, and his chest grew puffy as he followed Richard out the door. John moved to intervene before the situation escalated. He knew both students were hot tempered and capable—even on a calm day—of getting into trouble. He called Richard and Chris back into the classroom, but only Chris complied. Richard ran down the corridor and turned the corner.

Chris tended to keep to himself, and today was no exception. He stood wordlessly looking at the floor, waiting for John to say something. Because Chris did not start the argument, and because John thought that it would have been fruitless to discuss the issue with only one of the students involved, he released Chris to go home.

John reflects on the situation.

Alone in his classroom, John reflected on the incident. He felt helpless, overwhelmed, and distracted. He wondered what he could do differently to eliminate, or at least reduce, the number of conflicts in his seventh period. He had seen the tension mounting recently between these two students, but he had no idea how to deal constructively with that. John thought about Principal Davis’s advice and confessed silently that he still knew little about his students outside of school.

Richard had not been a behavioral problem up to this point, though he had been having academic difficulties. John decided to get Richard’s cumulative folder and look over his IEP. John hoped the IEP would be helpful, but was not optimistic. IEPs seemed to be written in a code that only special education teachers understood. After briefly examining the mound of documents, John learned little. Richard was an academically weak student. He had been retained twice, and he had a behavior plan that didn’t seem to be working.

A copy of Richard’s IEP

A copy of Richard’s Behavior Intervention Plan

John thought about calling Richard’s parents to discuss their son’s behavior. Earlier in the year John had tried several times to call Richard’s parents to introduce himself, but he was never able to reach them. He would have to try again, but before doing so John wanted to provide Richard with an opportunity to address what he perceived as flagrant disobedience.

As John was leaving for the day he found Richard outside the building. John approached him and asked if he would like to talk. Richard responded by walking away and saying, “I don’t got time for this.” John, stinging with indignation, immediately went back into the building and submitted a disciplinary referral. He then returned to his classroom and phoned Richard’s parents. Unable to reach either parent at home, John began typing the letter notifying them of their son’s referral.

See a copy of the letter that John sent to Richard’s parents below:

While he was using his computer, John decided to check on the school’s harassment policy. He wanted to be clear on this issue before any potential meeting with Richard’s family.

Relevant sections of the school’s Student Handbook

The situation escalates.

When Richard arrived at school the following morning, John presented him with a referral notice and walked with him to the office for a conference with the principal. On the way, John explained that the referral meant an automatic afternoon detention and In-School Suspension (ISS). When John attempted to explain to him exactly why he was given a referral, Richard became agitated. John could feel the familiar sickening knot forming in his stomach as he realized that he was losing control of the situation.

Richard asked, “How come Chris didn’t get a referral?” John attempted to explain several more times that the referral was not given for fighting, but for using discriminatory language, running away, and refusing to return. Several times during John’s explanations, Richard turned away and dismissed John with, “Man, just shut up.” With each explanation, he repeated the same refrain, “How come Chris didn’t get a referral?”

Less than half an hour later, John went to the office to complete some copying and noticed Richard still waiting outside the office for his conference with the principal. As he went about his chore, Richard began to make comments in a staged whisper to the student next to him. “That teacher, he’s a bigot.”

John was caught off-guard. Did Richard really think the detention and ISS were racially motivated? John decided to try to talk about the incident one last time. He sat down next to Richard and began, “Man, this has nothing to do…”

“Don’t call me man!” Richard interrupted and completely shut John out.

Adding fuel to the fire.

Richard showed up in class. Obviously, Mr. Davis had bungled the ISS schedule somehow, and now John had to deal with Richard in spite of the tensions created by the situation. Wary of further outbursts during today’s class session, John tried his best to appear unaffected by Richard’s presence.

Fortunately, Richard remained quiet throughout class. When John reminded him of his impending ISS and detention that afternoon, Richard declared with great indignation, “Mr. Davis never assigned me an ISS. Anyway, I have to catch the bus or I’m never getting home.”

Doubtful that this was truly the case, John nevertheless instructed him to go on home, and added, “Make sure to make arrangements to stay for ISS tomorrow. If you don’t, I’ll be forced to send in another referral and that could mean an out-of-school suspension.” Richard shrugged and walked out the door.

After Richard left, John went to the office to talk with Principal Davis. John was shocked and dismayed to discover that Principal Davis had waived Richard’s ISS.

Upon arriving the next day for his afternoon detention, Richard announced, “The only reason I’m staying in this detention is because Mr. Davis said I had to.” Richard refused to take a seat and instead walked around the room striking the computer, walls, desks, and other objects with a yardstick that he had picked up.

John attempted to ignore Richard’s behavior and focus on his paperwork, but the noise Richard was making was far too loud for him to concentrate. When John delivered a stern look in his direction, Richard confronted him.

“Why are you looking at me? You got a problem?”

Richard’s voice and body language implied a physical threat. John sensed that Richard was soliciting a fight. His pulse quickened, and much to his chagrin, John found himself sizing up Richard’s physical bearing, comparing it to his own, inch-by-inch, pound-by-pound.

At that moment, John saw a teacher walking down the hall. Slipping out of the room, he asked the teacher to get the principal. The teacher, who happened to be Richard’s English teacher, was quick to grasp the situation. Stepping inside the classroom, she ordered him in a stern voice to sit down. Richard retaliated with several sharp remarks. It was clear that he was ready to take her on as well. Realizing this, she went downstairs to the principal, who told her to release Richard from detention.

Before he released Richard, John told him that he intended to report his behavior and to refer him again. Initially, Richard refused to leave until he had completed his detention because he thought that John would not be able to write another referral if he stayed for the duration of the period. Finally, John told him that he could stay if he wanted, but he would still get another referral. John wondered if Principal Davis would now be compelled to enforce an ISS. Richard insisted upon remaining for the entire period.

Despite Richard’s presence, John’s mind was racing. He kept spinning back to the same thoughts…What had he done to address the causes of the friction in this class? How should he address social and coping skills with these students?