When to write a referral

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Continuing posts for the newbies, mostly at the middle school and high school level:

New teachers often hesitate to seek outside help with disciplinary issues. They understandably worry about making a bad first impression. For any teachers out there who are afraid to call in the cavalry, this post is for you.

You must ask for help with some issues. Actions at the start of the year establish precedents. That kid who curses at you has to be taken down. His or her fellow students need to see that you are not a pushover. The misbehaviors on the following list call for immediate referral to the Dean or other administrators working in the disciplinary pipeline:

♦ Drugs
♦ Fighting — this includes serious verbal altercations as well as physical assaults
♦ Harrassment, intimidation or bullying of other students
♦ Horseplay meant to disrupt class or horseplay that does not stop when you say stop
♦ Some forms of insubordination
♦ Possession of weapons or look-alike weapons
♦ Profanity or serious verbal disrespect toward the teacher
♦ Refusing to identify yourself (This tends to be hallway issue.)
♦ Skipping class or extreme tardiness
♦ Smoking
♦ Vandalism

Beyond the items on this list, disciplinary referrals become more discretionary. One five-minute tardy will not be not worth the paperwork, especially since administrators tend to be too busy to manage what they perceive as trivial problems. Three tardies in a week make a different story, though. Attitude should be a determining factor in the referral process. Was the behavior deliberately disruptive? That’s probably a referral, but you might want to handle disruptive behavior yourself. Did the student intend to swear? Sometimes words just slip out. Did the horseplay spill over into class from the passing period? You may be able to address that with a short reminder about the rules and a small consequence such as cleaning the classroom before school. Littering and pencil doodles on desks call for natural consequences such as desk-cleaning duty. Afterschool and lunch detentions act as deterrents for other behaviors.

Misbehaviors which you should try to tackle on your own before issuing referrals include the following:

♦ Academic dishonesty
♦ Bothering other students short of bullying
♦ Breaking school rules (a few rules call for immediate referrals, especially when safety issues are in play)
♦ Cursing not directed toward you that is not bullying
♦ Disruptive behavior that continues after you bring the behavior to a student’s attention
♦ Horseplay
♦ Huggy kissy stuff — PDAs
♦ Littering
♦ Property misuse
♦ Tardiness

Defiance, disrespect and insubordination create their own gray area in deciding on disciplinary interventions. Technically, these behaviors probably ought to call for an immediate referral to administration. Writing that referral on the spot makes perfect sense. If Ozzie refused to do his classwork, told you he did not have to listen to you, and then ripped up his paper, no one will think badly of you for referring Ozzie. A student who acts that far off the chain almost always has racked up a long paperwork trail behind him. The administration already knows Ozzie. If not, his last school most likely warned them he was coming.

Still, I probably would not write that referral in August or September or even October. Ideally, I want to convince Ozzie to join my class. I’d rather start by giving him a detention with me. I might meet him in the library after school. It’s better not to be alone with students after school, troubled students in particular, so I recommend libraries or other public places. While in the library, I would try to talk with Ozzie, try to find out why he had ripped up that paper. I might do the paper with him. Lots of Ozzies are acting out because they have fallen so far behind that they prefer to get in trouble rather than be embarrassed. I would probably call home, but I might let that first incident pass without calling, letting Ozzie know that I chose to give him a second chance rather than calling parents immediately.

Those defiant, insubordinate students are often leaders within their peer groups. If a teacher can convince them to buy into the program, they can bring other students in with them. You may not be able to pull an Ozzie in, but when you can, the results are worth the struggle. These students can be top-notch first officers as you captain your classroom, helping to keep routines and disciplinary procedures running smoothly. The truth is, I love my Ozzies and I think they sense that. Rebels appeal to me. This country and most of the world was built by rebels.

I’ll admit that some kids just want to mess with you. The argument for trying to manage that disrespect and insubordination before asking for back-up is simple: Those kids are testing you. When you refer too quickly, you show weakness. You might as well say, “Just wait until your dad comes home!” I suggest issuing a detention instead. Call home. If those actions don’t work, then write the referral, including the missed detention.

Eduhonesty: Referrals are tricky. You will learn the climate of your school with time and that climate will affect your choices. Some administrations manage disciplinary issues much more efficiently than others. Talk to your coworkers about this issue. How do they handle the issues that are troubling you? When do they refer? How supportive is the administration? How many referrals are too many referrals? Will the administration view too many referrals as a reflection of your management skills?

I’d suggest managing as much as you can by yourself once you know how your particular school works. We learn by doing. We learn by practicing our craft and fine-tuning our responses. We want to become accomplished disciplinarians. No content-oriented presentation matters as much as classroom discipline. By teaching discipline, compassion, and appropriate behavior, we benefit our students for the rest of their lives.