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Education

Out-of-control kids driving Wichita teachers away, union says

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

stobias@wichitaeagle.com

April 25, 2017 02:54 PM

UPDATED May 30, 2017 08:44 PM

Student behavior in Wichita schools is disrupting classrooms and driving some teachers out of the profession, a local teachers union leader told board members this week.

Kimberly Howard, vice president of United Teachers of Wichita, cited increasing concerns about student behavior and urged district leaders to address the problem.

“We have teachers getting hit, shoved, even bitten by students. Staff should not be going home with bruises,” Howard said at Monday night’s board meeting.

We have teachers getting hit, shoved, even bitten by students. Staff should not be going home with bruises.

Kimberly Howard, vice president of United Teachers of Wichita

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During her comments to the board, Howard read a letter from Scott Pittman, a Wichita middle school teacher who plans to leave the Wichita district and the teaching profession this year.

“It starts with ‘I’m done,’ ” Howard said. “ ‘After 22 years of teaching, I think it’s time to move on. I’m not ready, and I can’t retire with full KPERS, but I’m done.’

“This is a phenomenal teacher that (USD) 259 has failed,” Howard said. “He asked for support from administration in dealing with behavior. He received none. … We have to address the behavior or we’re going to lose more great teachers.”

District administrators did not immediately respond to Howard’s comments.

Board member Betty Arnold said she appreciated hearing the letter but noted the “many committed and amazing teachers in our district” who continue teaching under difficult circumstances.

“So many that are not willing, when they encounter a problem, to say, ‘I’m done,’ ” Arnold said.

“Our students come to us with a myriad of problems, with a myriad of emotional needs – needs that, unfortunately, it becomes the school’s responsibility to meet,” she said.

Our students come to us with a myriad of problems, with a myriad of emotional needs – needs that, unfortunately, it becomes the school’s responsibility to meet.

Betty Arnold, Wichita school board member

“But we have a significant number of career teachers that have stayed in there, that have fought the battle, that understand that if we are committed to public education … we have to educate those that aren’t the best. We can’t turn them away. We are their last hope.”

Pittman, 56, who teaches math and language arts at Jardine Middle School, said Tuesday that he wrote the letter to make board members aware of teachers’ frustrations. He said he had planned to teach another six years but became so disheartened that he opted to quit without full retirement benefits.

“I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve been cussed out by students,” he said. “I’ve been threatened.

“It got to a point where I did not want to get up in the morning.”

Steve Wentz, president of the union, which represents about 4,100 Wichita teachers, said Tuesday that aggressive and sometimes violent behavior is becoming a widespread problem in classrooms.

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“We can’t have discussions about anything else as far as morale, as far as pay, as far as working conditions or workload until we get a handle on the behavior in the classrooms,” Wentz said.

“It’s nearing a serious tipping point, if it hasn’t already tipped.”

Wentz said teachers in some schools report sending disruptive students to a principal, only to have the student return to class minutes later. Behavior standards vary from school to school, he said, and the district’s classroom management program doesn’t work with some kids.

“This is solvable, but we need to have the conversation,” Wentz said. … “We need to be honest, acknowledge there’s a problem, sit down and come up with solutions that are based on reality.”

About a year ago, union officials said, the district mishandled a threat against a teacher at Christa McAuliffe Academy, allowing a student who threatened to shoot the teacher to return to school after a two-day suspension.

The behavior concerns are being raised again as Wichita prepares to enter into teacher contract negotiations. The process, normally underway by March or April, has been delayed again this year while officials await action by state lawmakers on school funding.

Board member Joy Eakins said she was troubled but not surprised by the union’s concerns.

“We are hearing from teachers that there is more destructive behavior in the classrooms,” she said. “Our community – not just Wichita, but our culture in our country – is really struggling.”

She said she hopes teachers and district leaders can come together to talk about potential strategies moving forward.

It’s not a secret we have a morale problem. We just need to own it.

Joy Eakins, Wichita school board member

“I don’t think we should dismiss it. I think we should take it seriously,” she said.

“It’s not a secret we have a morale problem. We just need to own it. We need to do whatever we can do – step back and take a look at the system and ask: How do we make sure our teachers feel supported?”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias