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Hang In There

As a teaching coach for probationary teachers, Nancy's job is to support and assist new teachers in their first two years. She becomes concerned when one of her promising young teachers, frustrated by severe behavior problems in her classroom, confides that she is thinking about quitting.


On Wednesday morning, Nancy Hooper stopped by the office at Johnson Elementary to sign out and say goodbye to her friend Mary, the office secretary. "I'll probably be back on Friday," Nancy said as she checked her watch before indicating her sign-out time on the itinerant staff roster.

"Back again on Friday?" Mary asked in a low voice. "Those kids are really giving Allison a rough time, aren't they? We've already had several students from her class in here today with discipline referrals."

Nancy shook her head as she responded. "If Allison wasn't such a strong teacher, I would be worried. But I can see that these discipline problems are taking their toll on her," she added. Nancy had not been honest with her friend Mary when she said she was not worried about Allison. In reality, she was more than a little concerned. During their visit just an hour ago, Allison had expressed extreme frustration and disillusionment about what was happening in her class. She had even indicated that she was considering quitting: that's how difficult her situation had become.

Nancy's job was referred to as a coach for probationary teachers. After teaching for a number of years herself, she now mentored new teachers not yet granted permanent status in the district school system. Although teaching proficiency was the goal for these new teachers, there was no established set of criteria. Permanent status was granted after two years of teaching at the discretion of the district. Teacher coach positions had recently been created to improve the system for granting permanent status. In this capacity, Nancy was assigned a number of teachers who were in their first or second year. She guided, assisted, supported, and evaluated them during their probationary period. Some needed more support than others, but most of her charges were ultimately granted permanent status.

Johnson Elementary was known throughout the district as the school with the highest enrollment of minority and lower socioeconomic families. Many of the children attending Johnson lived in inner city public housing projects.

Johnson also had a reputation for being the dumping ground for teachers who had not been successful at other schools in the district. District administrators denied this but, none the less, Nancy considered several teachers at Johnson to have weak or poor teaching skills.

Allison Stevens, however, was a well-trained teacher with good instincts in the classroom. She had graduated from the state university two years ago with excellent credentials and a professional confidence that was rare in a young teacher. Last year at Johnson, she had shown her skills in the classroom and her third-grade class ran smoothly.

Nancy was impressed with Allison's sensitivity to the physical needs of the more active and energetic children in her class. She allowed them to take short exercise breaks (referred to as brain-gym) every so often to "reenergize their brains," and she taught from different centers around the classroom to allow the children some seating flexibility. She was good at modeling and doing guided practice and she often allowed students to work with partners to help them stay on task and avoid frustration. Nancy could tell that Allison knew what she was doing and was enjoying the experience.

Unfortunately, this year Allison was struggling with discipline problems in her classroom as well as a broad range of academic and social abilities. A handful of students in her class were so unruly that Allison rarely got through a lesson undisturbed. Her discipline referrals that she sent with students to the office listed off task, disrespectful, defiant, and disruptive as behavior violations.

To complicate matters further, Allison had inherited a number of students from one of the second-grade teachers Nancy considered to be "weak." This teacher had allowed inappropriate behaviors to escalate by being absent often and for long periods of time, as well as by being distracted by personal issues during the times he was teaching.   Even worse, he simply had  not prepared his students for third-grade work. So, in addition to being significantly behind in math and language arts, students from his class were unaccustomed to both classroom structure and concrete academic expectations.

Nancy hated to see a really good teacher become discouraged and leave the profession. It distressed her to see this happening to Allison now. She was trying to give Allison as much support as possible but things were going from bad to worse. Nancy worried that Allison's discouragement in dealing with the disruptive students in her room was becoming problematic.

Allison was coping with the situation by referring ten students in her class for special education evaluation because they appeared to be either severely disturbed, or desperately in need of academic assistance. "The principal has been encouraging all the teachers to cut back on the number of referrals we make because special education is already so large in our district," she explained to Nancy.  "I am persisting anyway because the children need the help. It doesn't do much good though. Even the ones I referred to the psychologist months ago haven't been tested yet!" she added. 

"What are you doing about managing these students’ behaviors in your classroom?" Nancy probed.

"I give them verbal warnings, then time outs where I move their desks to an isolated place. Sometimes that helps but if they don't shape up I have to send them to the office," Allison replied. "I have 32 children in this room and I don't know what more I can do."

"Maybe we could come up with a behavior contract for Jamal and a few of the others to help control some of their off-task and disruptive behaviors," Nancy suggested.

"Yes, that might help, but these kids really need is to be in special education," Allison replied in a irritated tone of voice.  "How can I teach the rest of the students if I'm constantly dealing with them? They are so socially and academically delayed that I can't teach them and my other students at the same time. I expected them to be tested and placed in special classes by now.  I just don't know how much more I can take," she continued in a wavering voice.  "I don't even want to get up and come to school any more."

"Allison, I know you are frustrated but please, just hang in there.  Special education isn't necessarily the best solution for all of these students' problems.   I'll help you develop some different strategies for dealing with their behaviors within this classroom so you can teach," Nancy reassured her. "Don't give up because I know we can get through this."

Allison told Nancy that she was okay and would indeed stick it out a while longer. "After all," she said, "I didn't go though such a rigorous college teacher education program to give up so easily." But her weak smile and shaky voice betrayed her brave words.

"I'll be back out to see you on Friday, okay?" Nancy said. Before she could say goodbye, she noticed Jamal sitting by the door with a sign saying "Closed" hanging from the front of his desk.

"Can't you read the sign? I'm closed!" Jamal yelled as another student tapped him on the shoulder.

"Isn't that the truth," Allison whispered to Nancy as she shook her head.

As Nancy headed towards the visitor’s parking lot she considered her next step. "I've got to get busy and put together some intervention techniques fast or we're going to lose a very promising teacher," she thought to herself as she drove out of the parking lot and headed towards her office.


Discussion Questions


  1. List what you learned 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. List reasons why some students in Allison’s class are having trouble with behavior and academics?
  2. Why do you think Allison believes that many of her students need to be referred to special education?
  3. Do you agree with Allison’s rationale?
  4. What other options, besides special education, should Allison consider for helping these students?
  5. List some of the methods that Allison is using in her classroom to manage behavior.
  6. Considering the problems some of the students in Allison’s class are demonstrating, what other methods might be used to organize her classroom.
  7. What kind of behavior contract would you develop for Jamal? How would it help him control his behavior?
  8. Do you think that referring students to special education programs is the appropriate solution to Allison’s problems? Why or why not?


CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major Areas:

Differing learning styles of students and how to adapt teaching to these styles

Teacher attitudes and behaviors that positively or negatively influence student behavior

Issues in definition and identification procedures for individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Ones own cultural biases and difference that affect one’s teaching.

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