Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

If I were the all benevolent dictator of education in America and was asked to address the greatest challenge we face today, it would be this: Student Behavior. It’s a problem across the board. Disruptive students are destroying the learning environment for those who want to learn in far too many classrooms across the country. Even in our more affluent districts where the behavior isn’t as threatening or serious as in other schools, three or four students can destroy the academic atmosphere their teachers are trying to create and have no apparent desire to change their behavior.

The purpose of this article isn’t to fix the blame for the problem but to encourage us to fix the problem. It is the single most important challenge we educators face today and one of the greatest deterrents to academic success. Let’s address it with a sense of urgency.

Let me preface my remarks with a story of a conversation with a friend at a party. She told of a dysfunctional acquaintance with two preschool age children headed down that same path, wondering what was ever to become of the kids. I jokingly said, “I know the solution. Wait ten or fifteen years and we can blame it on public education.”

The report “A Nation at Risk” published in 1983 stated that “Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purpose…and high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them….That we have compromised this commitment is, upon reflection, hardly surprising, given the multitude of often conflicting demands we have placed on our Nation’s schools and colleges.” (Google “A Nation at Risk.” It is great food for thought.)

I will be the first to admit that I don’t have many answers. It is not the purpose of this article to give advice but rather to encourage all of us to prioritize the issue and to work aggressively to find alternatives to the status quo. We need to create schools that maintain a climate conducive to academic excellence for those who want to learn while finding alternative methods and venues for those students who do not function well in a traditional school setting.

Perhaps it is time to place more attention and devote more energy to those who behave in class and respect their opportunity to learn and grow. It is not the top students who need our focus. They are in the advanced classes with others who want to learn and respect an academic atmosphere and they will do just fine. It is the middle of the road students who are hurt most by the disrespect and disruption of the four or five students in each class who choose not to respect structure and order and discipline. We need to advocate for the students who do behave and honor their right to a quality education.

None of this means that we ignore the needs of our students at risk. Most educators have a strong desire to help all students become successful, happy and productive members of society. We have poured a huge amount of energy and financial resources towards that objective but the plain and simple truth is that what we are doing is not working. This is not an indictment of education or of society in general, but a call to action by everyone to work together to resolve the issue. If nothing changes, nothing changes.

A single article is not going to scratch the surface of our educational challenges, but I invite you to think about two things. First and foremost, and a top priority, is to determine what to do with the disruptive and even violent students in our current settings.

Teachers have a passion for teaching and learning but are frustrated by having to put up with constant disruption with seemingly no support. You as educational leaders have to work with teachers to develop clear and concise discipline policies with equally clear and concise consequences for students who stand in the way of other’s opportunity to learn. It is imperative that teachers document and report disruptions consistently. If students push the envelope on a regular basis but are not quite to the point of being removed from class, that needs to be documented by every teacher. Students are rarely disruptive in just one class but show patterns of disrespect. All teachers documenting the minor but repeated disruptions of individual students would support disciplinary intervention from counselors and APs. That would take a huge burden off of the teachers and afford them the opportunity to do what they love to do — teach.

We can address alternatives in another article, but let’s reflect on this for a moment. For most students, brick and mortar schools with rows of desks and traditional teaching methods are wonderful. Most educators fit that mold. But we really need to look for alternative educational venues and curriculums for those who will perhaps never succeed in a traditional setting. It would benefit all students.

As we begin a new school year we can apply a little of Henry Ford’s philosophy. When he told his engineers to develop a V-8 engine they told him it was impossible. He answered, “You don’t understand. I want you to design a V-8 engine.” After working on the project for six months the engineers echoed that it was an impossible undertaking. Henry repeated, “You don’t understand. I want you to design a V-8 engine.” The V-8 engine became a reality.

By making student behavior one of your school’s top priorities, good student behavior, quiet and well ordered classrooms and the academic excellence you aspire to will become a reality.

Denny Smith is a former teacher and coach, a motivational speaker, and author committed to making our schools and communities safe and welcoming for all people. More information is available at or email

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