UP students witness Oregon's crisis of disruptive learning

By Colette Clark | March 31, 2019 10:15pm
Photo: Unsplash

Editor’s Note: Each UP student mentioned in this article has been granted anonymity to protect the confidentiality of the schools they work with. The UP students requested anonymity as to not violate the non-disclosure agreements they have with the schools they work with. Each name with an asterisk* is a pseudonym. 

UP education major Jane* began the school year with high hopes of making new friends, exploring the city of Portland and beginning her field experience at a local school. Jane had always wanted to be a teacher and she couldn’t wait to experience helping out in an actual elementary school class. 

But she soon realized that classroom behavior wasn’t what she expected. In her first few weeks working at an elementary school, she saw one student rip posters off the wall and another student punch his teacher. 

“I looked at these kids and thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into? Do I really want to teach?’” Jane said. 

What Jane witnessed is not all that unusual, according to a new report by the Oregon Education Association (OEA) that details the growing extreme student behavior seen throughout Oregon schools. UP’s School of Education students who are in these classrooms have witnessed instances of children becoming disruptive or physically aggressive, which can sometimes lead them to ask if teaching is the correct career path for them. 

The OEA report states that Oregon is undergoing “A Crisis of Disrupted Learning.” Disrupted learning occurs when a student’s poor behavior affects how other students are behaving as well as the teacher’s ability to control the classroom and maintain a safe and focused learning environment. 

Behavior like this used to be less frequent. But over the last three years, OEA members are sharing more and more of these disruptive instances in Oregon classrooms. 

“Educators have reported a noticeable increase in disrupted learning environments across the state over the last several years,” the OEA report states. “This increase, however, is difficult to quantify.” 

The information from the report included data collected through community forums held across Oregon and a series of surveys in which parents, educators and community members could share experiences and look for solutions. 

The report cites overcrowded classrooms, student trauma, poorly trained teachers, lack of resources and a decrease in time for P.E. or play for the children as some of the reasons for this increase of poor behavior from students across Oregon. 

“Educators describe how overcrowding and cramped classroom conditions make it difficult to maintain a calm environment conducive to learning,” the OEA report states. 

Another UP student, Jake*, is not an education major but works part-time at a local elementary school. He once was asked to help a kindergartner finish his math assignment, but the student was chewing on the workbook pages instead of completing them. When Jake asked the little boy to stop, he spit in Jake’s face. 

“After this happened,” said Jake, “I wondered if I wanted to continue working with kids. It’s just as exhausting as it is fulfilling.” 

Some faculty of the education department are concerned that the report, and the publicity it has received, may not give adequate attention to the personal trauma some of these disruptive behaviors stem from. 

“I don’t think of it from a crisis standpoint,” said education professor Hillary Merk. “I think of it from a more solution standpoint. Kids are facing way more trauma than students from when I taught. If we just call it a crisis I feel like that’s unfair to the student, unfair to the teacher, unfair to the families.” 

Merk teaches ED-150, the introductory education course all freshman education majors take in their fall semester. Merk teaches students what it means to be a teacher, as well as how much compassion and energy it takes. It is in her class that students first start their field experience by helping out in Portland Public School classrooms for 36 hours during the semester. 

Merk taught in Oregon public schools for several years before teaching at UP, as did Joan Flora, director of student placements for field experience for students. Merk and Flora both said they believe the term “crisis” is not an accurate or effective way to approach or discuss student behavior in the classroom. 

“It’s an absolute disservice to the work that we do,” Flora said. “To stand in judgment of the anxiety that many students are facing, or to be in judgment of students who are actually receiving more trauma, seems like the opposite of my calling. My work has always relied on compassion.” 

The report addresses both student and teacher anxiety and trauma. More and more children come to school with the burden of issues at home, learning disabilities or mental health issues. These issues can cause stress on the teachers as they try to also to tend to the other students’ needs as well. 

“Many educators also note that more students are coming to school with substantial social and emotional needs, physical health needs and mental health challenges,” the OEA report says. “These intense unmet needs (such as hunger, homelessness, and traumatic events at home) affect students’ ability to learn.”  

Fifty-six percent of the surveyed participants for the report said their classroom or their child’s classroom had undergone at least one room clear this school year. Room clears are a procedure in which students must exit their classroom due to extreme or dangerous behaviors exhibited by one student that could potentially harm the other students. 

This is tricky for everyone involved, as the disruptive student or students who are left alone in the classroom in a room clear may experience issues with isolation while the other students miss out on their learning time, according to the OEA report. 

“This report is an overview of the current realities that educators and students are experiencing,” according to the OEA. “As well as the resource needs and innovative ideas that will move Oregon toward meeting everyone’s needs. Positive learning environments where students, educators and families thrive are achievable.” 

Zoe*, another UP education major, said at the beginning of her field experience, the class’ teacher told her that she hated teaching and was currently looking for a new career. Zoe found this to be disappointing, but not discouraging. 

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” Zoe said. “And I want to help these kids rather than just dismiss them.” 

While some professors do not see the behavior as an issue, some students have questioned whether or not they want to continue working with children.

With only 16 rising sophomores, the School of Education had a retention rate of 70 percent of the 2022 class for the upcoming 2019-20 school year. The disruptive classroom behaviors that Jane witnessed, such as the student punching his teacher, was one of the reasons Jane decided to leave the School of Education and change her major for her sophomore year at UP.

Professor Merk and Joan Flora hope to remind everyone that it takes a lot of compassion to be a teacher and that it’s important to be sensitive to what these teachers, parents, and students are all going through. 

“I don’t want people jumping to ‘oh that’s just a bad kid’ or ‘oh bad parent,’” said Merk. “Multiple people have to come together to think about the ways to better support the kids and teachers, and families and classrooms that are going through these ‘crises’.”

Colette Clark is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at clarkc22@up.edu.