Hamilton County teachers cite student behavior, lack of support as reasons for leaving

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Liz Langs, who left teaching in the schools, now tutors and operates an individualized learning service, spoke with the Times Free Press on November 3, 2022.

A 5-year-old recently told her mom that she was thankful her teacher's rocking chair was so heavy.

"Why are you thankful for that?" asked her mom, who is also a teacher.

Because then her classmate couldn't throw it at her, the girl replied.

That is one of several personal stories shared by Hamilton County Schools teachers via an anonymous survey conducted by the education advocacy organization UnifiEd about student violence.

Sixty percent of the survey's 72 respondents said they felt student behavior had worsened, 19% reported being personally assaulted by a student and 65% said that while they hadn't been personally assaulted, they knew colleagues who had been.

Though a small sample size, the survey reflects a nationwide trend: Student violence in the classroom has reached unprecedented levels -- and it's why many teachers are leaving.

A study conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2021 found that one-third of 9,370 teachers surveyed reported they experienced at least one incident of verbal or threatening violence from students. Fourteen percent said they'd been physically assaulted by students.

"Violence against educators is a public health problem," the study said.

UnifiEd Executive Director Kendra Young, who spent 20 years teaching at Hamilton County Schools, said the behaviors teachers are describing, especially in little children, are astonishing.

"We have (teachers) talking about second graders trying to choke out other students," she said in a phone call. "But the most shocking thing is just the lack of remorse. They absolutely do not care that they hurt someone else."

Young said teachers anonymously submitted photos of scratches, bruises and broken fingers caused by students. One elementary teacher said a student broke her elbow.

"I've never seen anything like this," Young said.

So far this year, there have been 109 student assaults on Hamilton County Schools' employees, more than half of the previous year's 197 incidents, district officials said in an email. That includes verbal and written threats and making physical contact.

Young wonders if the pandemic has made student behavior worse.

"Kids have, over the last couple of years, been feeling unsafe," she said.

One-quarter of UnifiEd's survey respondents said they either aren't returning to the classroom after winter break or are undecided about it. More than 50% said they personally know one or more teachers who have firm plans not to return after winter break.

(READ MORE: To address teacher shortages, Tennessee may drop major test for many teacher candidates)

"I really think we're going to continue to see this death by a thousand cuts," Young said. "It's this trickle effect where teachers are just leaving, leaving, leaving, leaving."

Unruly behavior

Hamilton County Schools Chief Talent Officer Zac Brown said from August to October there have been 50 resignations and retirements, on par with previous years.

"We're not seeing anything that's not what we've seen in years before," Brown said in a phone call.

But former teacher Bryan Robinson, who taught at the district for 10 years, said he resigned because he was seeing something new: increased unruly behavior.

He left in October after a physical altercation with a student, Robinson said in a phone call.

At the time, Robinson taught a work-based learning program based at Gestamp, an automotive stampings company in Chattanooga. The program offers Hamilton County students the chance to split their day between paid on-the-job experience and classroom instruction.

Two students, who were supposed to be working their shifts, came to his class and caused a disruption. Robinson said he told them to go back to work and shut the door. One of the students knocked on the door and said she needed her phone charger, which another student had. She tried to enter the classroom but Robinson blocked the door.

"I'm standing in the doorway, she starts pushing up against me, trying to get by me, and I said, 'You need to get off me,'" Robinson said.

The student with the charger threw it and it landed in the doorway. Robinson said the student, who was still pushing to get past him, ordered him to pick it up. He refused.

"I finally had enough and gave her a pretty good shove to get her off of me," he said. "And she didn't fall down. She didn't get hurt or anything. And, so, I closed the door."

The student filed a police report and Robinson was put on unpaid leave until the district conducted an investigation.

According to the report, obtained by Chattanooga Times Free Press, students who witnessed the incident reported seeing Robinson attempting to keep the student out. The two were at one point "body checking each other with their hips," a witness, whose name was redacted from the report, said.

Following the investigation, law enforcement determined not to pursue charges. Robinson received a letter from Superintendent Justin Roberston.

"After gathering and assessing the information conducted in this investigation, including your admission of having pushed this student, I have concluded that your behavior amounted to unprofessional conduct," the letter said. "Regardless of the reported actions by this student, it was not appropriate or proper of you to push her."

The letter goes on to say Robinson may return after a two-day, unpaid suspension and would be compensated for all other days he was out.

But Robinson had already submitted his resignation, the reason being personal and health reasons.

"I've been so unhappy for so long," he said. "I had been headed in that direction anyway because in the nine years that I had worked, I've had seven different principals," he said. "I was really tired of that: never having any consistency and never having any support from administration."

He said support was especially lacking when it came to student misbehavior.

"(Students') language, cussing, has been really bad," he said. "No respect at all. And then the administration, again, seems to automatically take the side of the student versus the teacher. The kids would get sent to the office, just to come right back and kind of smile as if to say 'See? I told you nothing would happen.'"

Exit plan

Thirty percent of respondents to UnifiEd's survey stated that no consequences were assigned to students who acted out with violence. And when asked how their concerns about students are being addressed, 65% said they are "not being addressed at all."

Liz Langs, who left teaching at Hamilton County Schools in 2016 to start her own tutoring business, said there's pressure on teachers and school administrators to cater to parents.

(READ MORE: 30% of Hamilton County Schools third graders may need summer literacy tutoring)

"A lot of times to maintain a really good relationship with parents, I don't think schools necessarily are completely honest about what's happening," Langs said in an interview. "I don't think they want to deal with upset parents. I get the feeling that our job as teachers is to keep parents as happy as possible. And I don't think it's always beneficial."

Langs had six years of experience teaching before moving from Michigan to Chattanooga in 2015. She spent only a year at the district before deciding she needed to leave the profession.

"I have a lot of conversations with former teachers, too, because a lot of them work for me," Langs said. "And there's a common theme that comes up with everyone which is: 'I was really, really tired of not feeling like I was enough.' No matter what I did, I was being asked to give more of my time."

She said, depending on who a teacher's principal is, the educator may or may not be supported when it comes to difficult students.

"I've had principals that were incredibly supportive," she said. "And I've also had principals who were not accessible, meaning if I had an issue, I couldn't necessarily go straight to them."

She said teachers can be viewed as incapable or too demanding.

"If you reach out for support, you're putting a target on your back that you need more," Langs said of her experience at Hamilton County Schools. "Because you're asking for help, that's your way of saying you can't handle it, or you're weak."

That stigma is why a lot of teachers don't feel safe reporting issues, she said.

"When it's a repeated behavior and it's a pattern and it's disruptive, it gets to a point where you do need support," Langs said. "And it just depends on what resources the school has available to support you and the student."

She said she's heard from many Hamilton County teachers looking for an "out." Some ask about working for her and others seek general advice.

"I just had coffee with (someone) last week," Langs said. "We talked about how she can start to prepare for an exit plan. I think that's in the back of a lot of people's minds."

Winter staffing

Hamilton County started this year off in good shape for staffing while districts elsewhere scrambled to fill positions amid a teacher shortage, but that may not be the case next semester.

It isn't clear what solutions are needed to help students and keep teachers in the classroom, Young said.

"I don't know how we get people to come together, but whatever is going on, we're seeing symptoms of the disconnect in our kids and it's painful," Young said. "It's hard to listen to what teachers are going through. And what children are going through."

Via UnifiEd's survey, teachers asked for more parental and district accountability.

Some suggested that allowing students who have been violent to simply re-enter the classroom is setting them up for failure, and that parents and students should be required to participate in some type of re-entry process before the student is allowed to return to class.

Langs said teachers have reached a serious breaking point. In order to stay, they need to be able to see a better future for the teaching profession as a whole -- but that's not happening.

"They don't want to leave," Langs said. "They want to stay. But there's nothing keeping them. And that's the problem. There's nothing hopeful that they're seeing. And I think it's just to a point where they know for their own sanity, for their own health, they have to make a change. So, in some ways, their hands are tied, and they feel like there's not another option for them."

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.

Student assaults on school employees by school year

— 2022-23: 109 incidents so far.

—2021-2022: 197 incidents.

—2020-2021: 75 incidents (pandemic year).

—2019-2020: 234 incidents.

Source: Hamilton County Schools