Help! What Are Some Alternatives to Group Punishments?

Dear We Are Teachers,

I’m a new 8th grade teacher struggling with classroom management. I know group punishments are ineffective, but what am I supposed to do when over half the class won’t stop talking and I can’t narrow it down to a few offenders? A parent criticized me for making the class write apology letters, and my principal said I can’t hold the class late or assign extra homework. I don’t get it. What’s the alternative?

—Outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned

Dear O.O.O.,

I agree that group punishments aren’t effective, but simply providing the feedback “don’t do that” doesn’t help you at all. Put this back on your principal.

“I’m taking your recent feedback on group punishments seriously and am interested in learning better, more effective ways to address student behavior. Can you connect me with a teacher on campus with strong classroom management skills I could observe during my planning period? I’d love to pick their brain on what works best while preserving student relationships.”

By identifying another teacher on campus, your principal is 1) connecting you with, in my opinion, the best PD available, 2) aware of you taking initiative and embracing feedback, and 3) gently led to the work they should have done in the first place.

Watch the teacher your principal recommends closely. Ask them about the procedures and routines they already have in place and how they got them there. Do they call/email parents? What do they tell students when they talk to them privately? I would recommend setting aside time once a week for several months to observe, as questions will come up on a rolling basis.

But I understand that this is more of a long-term thing. Check out these 11 strategies for an out-of-control class you can put in place as early as tomorrow—or some of them, next class period.

Dear We Are Teachers,

I’m in my first year of teaching high school bio. I love it apart from one issue on campus. Many of my 1st period students travel to the same English class for 2nd period. Their teacher emails me at least once a week asking me why I ignored a student being out of dress code. We’re not talking huge infractions here: things like leggings, piercings, and open-toed shoes. She’s a much more senior teacher than I am and is highly connected in the school, so I’ve been hesitant to tell her to back off. I usually just apologize. But in her last email, she threatened to cc our principal on her next email if I “continue to ignore school guidelines and leave [her] to deal with the work [I] refuse to do.” How do I handle this without putting myself on her permanent naughty list?


Dear M.D.S.M.,

Ask any teacher to think of their school’s most senior, highly connected teacher and they will immediately have both a face and a name. We all know this teacher. And they can be the most wonderful human you know OR the type of person that tells administration you had a cowboy boot–sized drink in your hand when you ran into them at the rodeo. On spring break. Very much off contract hours. On your personal time. (OK, I’ve made my point.)

Here’s the thing: Just because this teacher is highly connected doesn’t mean they’re highly respected. I can almost guarantee that a teacher who is hell-bent on dress code violations—the most inconsequential student offenses, in my opinion—is a teacher whose complaints are most often met by sighs and eye rolls at the front office.

Respond with this: “Hi Ms. ____. I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you. I keep an eye out for dress code violations the best I can, but my radar is just off sometimes. In the future I will try harder. I don’t want to create extra work for you. Thanks for your patience.”

If this teacher wants to escalate the situation, she can. You can provide your emails as evidence that she has been aggressive and threatening and you’ve been polite and accommodating. Even if an administrator sides with her (which would genuinely shock me), what are they going to do to you? Give you a dress code write-up quota to hit each month?

My guess is that your principal will take her whining exactly as seriously as you’ve been taking dress code violations. LOL.

Dear We Are Teachers,

I just do not have time. I love the idea of not working past my contract hours in theory, but in practice it’s another story. My conference period is often taken up covering for other teachers, being pulled into a meeting, or holding interventions. This leaves maybe 10 minutes at most during my lunch break to plan. If I don’t take work home, I would have to wing it every day. How are other teachers only working their contract hours? I don’t understand how it’s possible.

—I want to be in this club!

Dear I.W.T.B.I.T.C.,

I was very, very firmly in the “don’t work past your contract hours!” club until my last year of teaching. Then, like you, I suddenly had no time. That year, I went from having two conference periods (I know, don’t hate me) to one, from zero issues with the books in my classroom to 5,900, and no babies of my own to one baby of my own. Plus, during my one conference period I was pumping in a literal supply closet. (If you have not been hooked up to a milking machine before, just know that it is not conducive to typing and/or brain tasks.) All that to say: I hear you.

Do want to stay at your school? If so, go to your principal and say this: “I love working here and want to stay. But I just don’t have the capacity to get my work done with our current schedule. Do you anticipate there being room in the schedule next year for protected planning time for teachers?”

If you don’t particularly love your school, look around! Many schools now recognize the importance of professional-personal boundaries and create schedules with teachers’ needs in mind. Be clear in your interview that you’re willing to work hard and give 100%, and you’re looking for a school that has the support structures in place for you to excel.

And until you make it to next year, ask your principal if you can have a sub for a day to plan out the rest of the year. If they say no, create an independent, silent work day for your students. Voilà! You now have a planning day.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at

Dear We Are Teachers,

I teach 6th grade in a pretty wealthy district, so we get a lot of springtime requests for letters of recommendation for private schools. I have a child in my class with a long history of disrespect to teachers and peers. This fall, he started an Instagram bullying campaign that caused a classmate to transfer districts because of its effect on her mental health, and in January he started blackmailing other kids for money. And his parents? Let’s just say he learned the way to treat people directly from them. The 7th grade teachers on my team are begging me to write him a glowing recommendation so he gets in and leaves our school. I, too, want to spare them from this family—but lying feels wrong. What should I do? 


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