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So What’s the Big Deal

Jerry Hastings has been interning in Karen Warren’s middle school class for students with severe emotional disturbance for several months. He didn’t always agree with her use of candy as a reinforcer, but this time she crossed the line when she bribed the kids to behave while she was being observed by district review personnel.


"Come in, Mr. Drexel, and welcome to Grovepark Middle School. Please let me introduce you to our class," said Ms. Warren in a decidedly anxious tone. Mr. Drexel was from the district review board of the Jones County School System. He had come to Karen Warren’s class for students with severe behavior problems to observe her teaching skills. It was part of the personnel evaluation conducted on all teachers every three years. Teachers were understandably nervous about this review because it went directly into their personnel file and had direct bearing on their standing within the system.

"Don’t let me interrupt your class, Ms. Warren. I’ll just take a seat and you won’t even know I’m here," Mr. Drexel responded as he pointed to a desk on the side near the back. Karen began her lesson with a wavering voice, her hands tightly clenched together at her waist. She was obviously nervous about this observation, but for now her class was calm and somewhat responsive. Mr. Drexel had no way of knowing how atypical this behavior was for Karen’s students or how this unique demonstration of calm attentiveness had come about.

Sitting quietly on the other side of the room was Jerry Hastings, who was interning in Karen’s classroom. After three months, Jerry had settled comfortably into the class routine and was gaining the confidence necessary for teaching students with behavioral concerns. The nine students in Karen’s class were often angry, belligerent, unmotivated, and uncooperative. Sometimes they were even aggressive but Jerry seemed to have the knack for gaining their trust and respect. He spent a lot of time before and after school and at lunch talking to the students and getting to know them. He also got to know their families. He had even been successful in directing the most challenging students in a positive direction through humor and well-constructed lessons that related to the student’s lives.

During the past three months, Jerry had begun to question some of Karen’s behavior management methods. In order to maintain control, she continually used candy reinforcers and other tangible incentives. The students now demanded rewards for even the simplest of tasks. Jerry felt that some level of compliance should be expected from the students without any candy or other compensations. He believed that a certain level of good behavior should be expected as a given in any well-managed classroom. He never felt comfortable expressing his views to Karen, however, and just went along with the pattern she had already established. After all, he was an intern and this was her class.

Jerry knew from the tone of Karen’s voice just how nervous she was about this observation. She had confided to him earlier why it was so important for her to get a good recommendation from Mr. Drexel.

"I really like my position here. The school is close to my house and these are the students I want to teach," Karen had explained. "I really think I can make a difference for them. If I get a good evaluation on this three-year review, it will help insure my job."

Karen was in her third year of teaching at Grovepark, an urban middle school with a student population of around 300. Now in her early 30's, she often remarked that she had wanted to be a teacher as long as she could remember. Her experience as a paraprofessional in an elementary school for emotionally handicapped children had convinced her to go to college and pursue a career in special education. Grovepark was her first teaching position and she was recognized at school as a devoted although strict and by-the-book teacher.

At five foot two inches tall and 100 pounds, she was smaller than many of her 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. To compensate for her diminutive size, she tried to gain respect from her students by being very business-like. She never attempted to gain their confidence or friendship by sitting with them in the cafeteria or during free time. Although Jerry knew that she genuinely cared about the students, he felt she often appeared cold and distant--even caustic-- to them.

Having the same alma mater, Karen seemed to feel a certain kinship with Jerry. On one of his evaluations she had written that he was very effective in handling a difficult group of students. "Jerry projects a professional attitude and displays keen judgment. I genuinely respect his views and methods," she had written on his first evaluation form.

This morning, she had interrupted his math lesson to remind the students about a bargain she had struck with them earlier in the week. "I am sorry to interrupt your lesson, Mr. Hastings, but I want to go over the deal I made with the class about this afternoon." Her voice became louder as the class began to settle.

"Remember Monday when I told you about the visitor who was coming later in the week? He is coming at 12:30 and I expect each one of you to be on your best behavior while he is here." Karen directed her voice toward the back of the class where the trouble usually started. "Any misconduct will not be tolerated," she added. "I don’t want to hear a sound out of you unless you are asked a question. I warn you, if anyone is rowdy while our visitor is here, I will take away all Candy Store privileges. If that happens, you will write essays instead!" she cautioned.

The students groaned in unison at the mention of essay writing. "Man, that stinks! What do you think this is?" called out Toni, the self appointed spokesperson for the class.

"If you do behave," she continued, "and I have no trouble from anyone, I will triple your good behavior points that you can spend in the Candy Store at the end of the day," she concluded.

"All right!" several boys responded as high fives hit the air and giggles and whispers filled the room.

"Do I make myself clear?" she asked in a threatening voice.

"We get your drift, Ms. Warren. But you better come through with your promise or else!" Tony answered, making sure Karen got the message.

Jerry cringed as he heard the deal. He didn’t agree with Karen’s routine use of candy to produce results in the classroom, but this time she had stepped over the line.

"How do I handle this?" Jerry thought as he stood to continue with the math lesson.

That afternoon, Jerry stiffened inside as he sat listening to the lesson Karen had so carefully prepared for this occasion. Glancing over at Mr. Drexel periodically, Jerry could tell he was pleasantly surprised at the conduct of the class. Thoughts of what he might say to Mr. Drexel drifted through his head.

"Didn’t you see the big candy jars in the classroom?" he would have liked to point out. "Do you really think a group of kids labeled Emotionally Disturbed would normally act like this during class? What do you think is going to happen when you leave? Maybe you should stand outside the door for a few minutes to see how things really are," Jerry thought to himself.

Until today, Jerry felt that he and Karen shared a mutual respect for each other. Now Jerry felt it would be difficult to continue to act as if everything was okay. He decided he had to confront Karen.

After the students were all loaded on the bus, Jerry returned to the classroom and sat down across the table from Karen as she sat writing lesson plans for next week.

"How did I do? What did you think about my lesson?" asked Karen as she looked up from her lesson plans expectantly.

"You did great, Karen. I thought the lesson went very well," Jerry answered as he contemplated what to say next. "I just wonder if it is really ethical to offer the students what amounts to a bribe, just to get the behavior we should expect from them anyway."

"You know it is standard operating procedures in these classrooms to offer students incentives for good behavior," Karen replied with a shocked expression on her face. "How would we get them to do anything otherwise? Do you think they would have behaved if I hadn’t offered them extra points?" she continued defensively. Her expression had now changed from shock to annoyance.

"I’m sorry, Karen, but I really have a problem with the way you handled things today," Jerry responded apologetically. "I just think you are sending these students the wrong message, that’s all."

"Fair enough, Jerry, your point is well taken. Just don’t make this thing out to be more than it really is," Karen conceded. "So I instituted a little bribery. Administrators expect you to be in control. This observation was important to me and I did what I had to in order for it to go well!"


Discussion/Study Questions

1.    List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.

2.    What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters

3.    What are the issues/problems in the case?


Additional Questions

1.    What methods did Karen use to motivate and manage students?

2.    Do you think her methods are appropriate? What are the possible positive and negative outcomes of her methods?

3.    Do you think Jerry’s attitude about behavior management might change as he gains more experience working with               students? How so?

4.    Can all teachers use the same methods of behavior management effectively?

5.    What do you think is Karen’s rationale for her methods?

6.    What other classroom management techniques might be effective in Karen’s classroom?

7.    What do you think are the student’s perceptions of Karen’s methods?

8.    Is teacher control of student behavior critical in a classroom?

9.    How do you think Karen views her students?

10.  What ethical dilemmas in terms of classroom behavior management are represented in this case?

11.   Should Jerry have confronted Karen about her methods?

12.    Do you think Karen’s statement, "Administrators expect you to be in control," is justified?


CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case


Major Areas:

Basic classroom management theories, methods, and techniques for students with exceptional learning needs.

Ethical considerations inherent in classroom behavior management.

Other Areas:

Research-based best practices for effective management of teaching and learning.


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