“It was getting to the point that it was scary. There were a few days that I was scared to go to school,” Stacey Sawyer, a former 8th-grade teacher from Cape Coral, Florida, told The Post.
The veteran teacher, 55, quit last June, she said, after student misbehavior spiraled out of control following the pandemic: Fights regularly broke out, ending with teachers hit and punched, and one student allegedly hospitalized after being slammed on the ground.
“Even though I ran a really tight classroom, the disrespect just skyrocketed. Probably 75% of my time was dealing with discipline,” Sawyer said. “The stress of it was just too much. I even hated just driving down the road to school. I didn’t want to go anymore”
So, after 30 years in the classroom, Sawyer decided enough was enough. She now owns a small art studio.
“I knew that if I didn’t get out soon, I just felt like something was going to happen to me,” she said. “I was gonna either get hurt or I was just gonna say something I shouldn’t.”
She’s not alone in feeling that student behavior has gone off the rails since the pandemic.
A 2022 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found 84% of public school administrators said the pandemic degraded student behavior.
And 70% of teachers, principals and district administrators agreed the problem is only getting worse in an April survey by EdWeek.
“General behavior issues have become a bigger challenge in the job,” Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators, told The Post. “It preceded the pandemic, but it certainly accelerated because of the pandemic. It is a serious problem, and it’s threatening the number and quality of educators that we’re able to retain.”
Nearly half of public education employees who left the profession last year resigned, and a third of teachers say they’re likely to leave their job in the next two years.
More and more are citing unruly students and a lack of meaningful discipline as administrators favor restorative justice — a soft-handed approach of mediation — over old-school punishments like suspension and detention.
Jerred Zegelis, 48 of Omaha, Nebraska, left his job in 2021 after nearly two decades teaching journalism to high school students.
He recalled a lack of administrative backup in the face of increasing student dysfunction after the pandemic — and said that school leaders failed to back him up or hold the student accountable.
In one instance, he said, an “out of control” student who threatened him was referred to the administration but escaped discipline with “zero repercussions.” The following morning, Zegelis was demoralized when the student was back in the classroom — and laughing at him with his peers.
“The message to him and all his friends was that really negative aggressive behavior is OK,” he said. “It was so miserable, I was at the point where I was in so much pain that I had to resign for my family.”
Zegelis, who is now a freelance photographer and artist, thinks social dysfunction in the country at large is trickling down to schools.
“The conversation in America — the tone has shifted,” Zegelis explained. “It just seems like there is more chaos in the overall world, and I think our students are a reflection of what we do as adults and as a society. When you have students who are witnessing the antics of the adults in the world, they pick up on that.”
Nick Marmolejo says technology is contributing too.
The 32-year-old from West Texas quit teaching in 2021 after seven years when he became disillusioned with school leadership.
Now, he is an educational consultant and manages a Facebook group of 20,000 teachers from around the world who left the profession.
He estimates 70-80% of them cite student behavior as a contributing problem — and he’s noticed social media and technology have caused many classrooms to spiral out of control.
“They’re seeing little to no participation [by students in the classroom], especially due to phones,” Marmolejo told The Post. “For a teacher, if you can’t hold the attention, you can’t hold down class rules, you can’t teach — it’s just a spiral. From there, you can definitely see aggressive behavior.”
Sharkey, whose organization has 30,000 educator members, says he’s especially concerned about outright violence against teachers: “One of the ugliest components … that really threatens the teaching core, in terms of retaining high performing educators, is students’ physical abuse of teachers going unresolved.”
In fact, a 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association found that one in eight teachers reported experiencing physical violence from students.
And, last school year, 1,350 assault-related workers’ compensations claims were filed across the United States.
In February, Florida paraprofessional Joan Naydich was beaten unconscious by a student and left with severe bruising after she was repeatedly punched and stomped on at Matanzas High School.
The 17-year-old subsequently pled guilty to felony charges.
And in May, an assistant principal in Texas was hospitalized after she tried to break up a student fight. The school district said in a statement that the students involved were “subject to the full extent of disciplinary action available.”
But many other, lesser cases go virtually unpunished. One public school teacher in Georgia, who asked to be anonymous for employment reasons, left his job last year after student aggression exploded.
He says the administration failed to hold students accountable, as they shifted toward “restorative justice” instead of tougher repercussions.
“Students always misbehaved, but there were definitely a lot more accountabilities set up,” he said of the past. “Before Covid, it used to be, if you did X, Y, or Z, there were very clear consequences.”
“Post-pandemic, there were hardly any consequences for anything, in the name of grace and Covid,” he recalled. “Teenagers understand that, and they’re just gonna push boundaries. They’ve continued to push and push and push, and now we’re seeing chaos.”
The lack of consequences, he says, sent things spiraling: “Kids who got into fights often got a very small slap on the hand.”
Some legislators are attempting to remedy the problem.
So far, 10 states have introduced legislation that would enable stricter student discipline, like lowering the threshold for suspension, eliminating two-strike policies and giving teachers more discretion over disciplinary measures.
“This just destroys any morale an educator has,” he said. “It’s reached a crisis point, and, of course, the students are the ones who pay the price when educators are leaving the profession.”
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