“My principal seems fine with kids running wild.” Several of my students are disruptive and disrespectful. They use bad language, don’t do their work, and whenever I send one of them to the principal’s office, he is back immediately. I feel like I have no administrative support.

Suzanne: It's hard to judge whether or not your principal is effective, but either way, he is sending a clear message: You’re on your own when it comes to student discipline.

When I worked as a teacher, I once found myself in the situation you describe. On the rare occasions I had to remove a student from my classroom, the principal didn’t seem to know what to do with the troublemaker. It wasn’t just my problem; it turned out the principal was unsupportive of everyone when it came to discipline.

So here’s what we teachers did. We met as a small group and devised classroom disciplinary rules and consequences. We shared those rules with our students and sent the discipline plan home to their parents. We were clear and consistent. We tried to keep all of our students in the room, but when a student had to be removed, he didn’t go to the principal’s office. Instead, he went to a colleague’s room, where he sat in the back until his regular teacher allowed him to return. This strategy was particularly effective when the “time-out” classroom contained younger or older students rather than those at the student’s own grade level. The student simply sat by himself at the back of the room, ignored by everyone.

We were unafraid to call or meet with a recalcitrant student’s parents, and we frequently did so. In the end, things improved because we realized it was up to us to provide discipline for our students if we wanted the year to be productive and safe. We couldn’t control the principal’s behavior, but we learned we could control our students’ behavior. 

“I want to teach to a different grade.” But my principal says he likes my work and doesn’t want to move me. I can’t imagine teaching at the same level for the next 20 years. How can I negotiate a change?

Suzanne: One of the problems of teaching as a career is that it’s easy to plateau after several years at the same grade level or in the same subject. True, every year means new students and curriculum changes, but sometimes we need a challenge to keep our batteries charged.

While it’s gratifying that the principal appreciates your expertise, you might gently point out to him that you shouldn’t be penalized for doing a good job. After all, your record suggests that you’d be just as competent at another grade level.

Check to see who is retiring at the end of the year. It’s unlikely your principal will move someone out of a position just because you’d like to have it, but an opening through attrition should be accessible to you. (It’s also possible someone besides you is harboring the desire to change grades.) Next, talk to your principal at the beginning of the year about a change for the following year, and remind him every so often. Finally, think about what you can do to stay fresh while you wait: workshops you could attend or conduct, leadership positions you might fill, mentoring jobs to share your expertise. Do your job and do it well, but keep your desire to change on your principal’s front burner. 

“Parents won’t leave me alone!” I gave parents my cell phone number and encouraged them to contact me with any questions they might have. I wanted to show I am committed to helping their kids succeed. Now my in-box always has messages, and every evening brings a barrage of phone calls about assignments. I feel like I have no life of my own anymore.

Suzanne: A cynic might say that no good deed goes unpunished, but teachers are not cynics! So instead I will say that your commitment to your students’ progress is laudable, but you do have to find a way to separate your professional and your personal life. No one should be on call 24/7; even doctors hire services to deal with calls from patients after office hours.

You may not be able to completely extricate yourself from the situation this year, but you can take some actions that will mitigate the frequency of after-school contacts.

If your school has a website that allows teachers and parents to communicate with one another, ask parents to visit the site before contacting you directly. Post homework assignments there so that students and parents can check to see if the assignment is to complete all the
odd problems or all the even ones. Check your messages on the site daily, but at your convenience. 

Send parents an e-mail and/or send a note home with students addressing the issue tactfully but in a straightforward manner. Here’s an example:

“Dear Parents/Guardians, I am always happy to answer your questions or concerns, but I would appreciate your contacting me during school hours or before 9 p.m. on weekdays only. If I am not available when you call, please leave a message and I will get back to you as soon as I can. If you would like to meet with me for a conference about your child, please call the school at (phone number) and I will contact you as soon as possible.” Reasonable parents will certainly get the message.

If calls or texts do come after 9 p.m. (or whatever time you decide is appropriate), don’t feel that you have to answer them. Let them go to voice mail; you can decide when (but not if) you want to return the call. You need to answer parent calls, texts, and e-mails in a timely manner, but not necessarily immediately. If you don’t respect the boundaries you’ve set, parents won’t either.

These suggestions should reduce the frequency of parent contacts, but a few parents may continue to call or e-mail you regularly. Unfortunately, you’ll have to handle these contacts
for a while. Next year … use your school e-mail account or website and do not give out personal contact information. And by the way, if you’re thinking of using Facebook to communicate with students and parents, check first with your principal about your school’s social media policy.