Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Violent Students: What is a Teacher Supposed to Do?

            What would you do if a 16-year-old student became verbally abusive, doused you with a milkshake, and then picked up a chair with the intent to throw it at you? Unfortunately, this is not a random scenario; incidents like this one that happened at a U.K. high school recently are not isolated cases. How are you, as a teacher, supposed to handle a situation like this?

            Robert Cox, a 13-year teaching veteran, made the decision to push the out-of-control boy into a chair and physically restrain him there. A video record of the incident showed that he was attempting to protect himself and other students. He was fired for his efforts. Obviously, Mr. Cox’s reaction was seen by the administration as unacceptable. Instead, he was accused of escalating the incident and provoking the boy, thereby causing the problem.

            So what should you, as a teacher, do in such a situation? Do you simply talk to the student, try to calm him down? Do you back away and give the child time to cool off by himself? Do you threaten the student with disciplinary action? Do you do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of all students, even if that means physically restraining an out-of-control student?

            Keep in mind that teachers are human beings. Reacting to a physical threat is instinctual. Mr. Cox had already been physically threatened when the student had thrown a milkshake at him, so it was likely that the chair may indeed have been the student’s next projectile. Was his reaction out of proportion to the threat? Perhaps not.

            Of course, each situation is different and much depends on the personality and experience level of the teacher. I have not seen the video of Mr. Cox’s incident, but I have personally witnessed several such cases when I was teaching in the public schools. Occasionally, a teacher involved in an incident will overreact to a perceived threat, but most often the out-of-control student is truly in danger of harming the teacher, other students, or himself.

            I always try to keep my cool in these situations. Sending for help, talking to the student, and keeping other students from coming too close are priorities. The few times I have had to restrain a student before he or she injured me or someone else, I did not react from anger. Perhaps that is the key. If you can keep the situation from becoming a personal battle between teacher and student, you can keep your head and consider your options. You’re the adult; he or she is the child. Use that experience and keep your cool.

            Teaching is a noble, honorable profession. It is difficult to believe that handling volatile situations like this has become fairly commonplace for teachers.