Should the toughest kids be assigned to the best teachers?

You know exactly which kids I’m talking about here–their faces appeared in your mind’s eye as soon as you read the blog post title.  These are the kids who are violent and relentlessly disruptive in class, the ones who have a reputation throughout the school as being incredibly difficult to handle.Each spring, the teacher’s lounge is filled with speculation over who will get each of those kids the following year…and in many schools, it’s a highly predictable pattern. The teachers with the best classroom management skills get the toughest kids. And every year, those teachers say, “I don’t know if I can take another class like this one. I need a break. I can’t keep doing this year after year.”

Sometimes the principals listen and spread out the toughest kids among multiple classrooms in a grade level, but many times, they don’t, and the teachers who used to be amazing become mediocre because they have nothing left to give. They stop researching new activities in the evenings because all they have the energy to do at night is sleep. They show up at school early to plan meaningful learning experiences, and then get so disgusted with breaking up student fights all morning long that they put on a movie in the afternoon and call it a day. They don’t have the energy for the hands-on activities they used to do, so they pass out worksheets.

I’m not saying that response is right. What I’m saying is that it’s happening, in thousands of classrooms all across the country. Our best teachers are burning out from bearing too much of the burden.

I understand the need to place students with the best possible teacher for them. The problem is that teachers with strong classroom management skills often feel like they are being punished by getting the most challenging students year after year after year. It doesn’t matter that it’s not intended as a punishment. It feels that way when your job is knowingly made 100 times harder than the job of your colleagues simply because “you can handle it.” What happens when you can’t handle it anymore?

And what happens when the grouping of students interferes with the entire class’ education? I can think of two years in particular during my teaching career when I considered it a miracle that the rest of the class learned anything because my attention was so focused on the third of the class who had constant meltdowns. It absolutely broke my heart to see some of my sweet, hard working kids get less attention and assistance because I had to spend every spare second heading off their peers’ violent outbursts. No child should go to school each day in fear of being harmed by other kids in the class, or be unable to get the individualized learning they need because the teacher is constantly attending to severe behavior problems.

I don’t know of any clear cut solutions. I’m wary of principals burdening brand new teachers with students they know will be challenging–the teacher attrition rate is already astronomical. Some of these kids are so challenging that a new teacher would probably leave the profession before the year is out. I also don’t want to see high needs students suffer under the leadership of a teacher who is unable to handle them.

Maybe schools need to provide more professional development to teachers so they are equipped to handle a wide range of student needs and behavioral issues. It’s rare that a district acknowledges how much classroom management issues interfere with student learning: PD in most schools is centered around improving test scores and implementing curriculum. I did work in one district that allowed principals to identify teachers who struggle classroom management skills and provided extra training through CHAMPS, which is an excellent program, but the change in those teachers’ classrooms was negligible. Without ongoing, individualized support, the results are not going to be transformative. And some kids are just so disruptive that all the PD in the world is not going to prevent the average teacher from being exhausted by 9 a.m. on a daily basis.

Is the solution to get rid of teachers who aren’t able to handle their students? How would we identify those teachers in a fair way? Many of them are not “bad” teachers and are perfectly capable of educating the majority of the student population, they just aren’t prepared to manage the type of kids who throw desks when they’re frustrated and threaten to stab any adult who dares to correct them. Let’s be real: some of these students have no business being thrown into a general education classroom with little to no support. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the teacher for not being able to handle such extreme behaviors in addition to, you know, actually teaching the other 29 kids in the class.

So maybe this brings us to the heart of the issue: schools need to figure out how to meet  these tough kids’ needs, instead of tossing them in the classroom with teachers who are expected to manage on their own. These students deserve small class sizes, psychological counseling, ongoing social skills/coping strategies support through small group sessions with the school guidance counselor, and so on. Some of these students even need individual one-on-one behavioral aides. But these resources take money, and schools just don’t have it.

Where does that leave us? If all outside factors–teacher training, special services, class sizes, and so on–stay exactly the same, what should principals do? Should all the toughest kids go to the teachers with the best classroom management skills? How does this work in your school?