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Substitute Teacher Observations of Classroom Disruptions in Catholic and Public Middle Schools

Updated: Mar 8

By: Dave Rojeck, Ph.D.

Catholic School Leadership/Policy Studies

I have worked in public, private, and religious schools with large, medium, and small populations in urban, suburban, and rural locales with affluent, middle-class, and disadvantaged students at home and abroad with many ethnicities. I have witnessed school culture both as a full-time teacher and substitute in various locales around the world.

I graduated high school from a public school system. By some quirky twist of fate (saved for a future post) I sought masters' and doctorate degrees in Catholic Educational Leadership.

Catholic grade school students
Students in Catholic grade schools often form a tight bond from spending many years together in the same classroom

I have always been fascinated by school culture. Like snowflakes, no two schools are alike. Comparing school types with regard to climate, culture, environment, and identity has always intrigued me, especially in the public vs. religious school realm.

In my recent work as a substitute teacher in public and Catholic middle school classrooms while engaged in semi-retirement recently, I have observed one primary difference in their respective classroom climates, though not in the mode of instruction. Both school types utilize Google Classroom to work through assignments. All the students carry around Chromebooks. Teachers have gotten acquainted with GC over the course of the pandemic for remote learning as a simple way for students to access lessons while at home.

I would like to think teachers aren't simply using a regurgitation of remote learning while back in physical classrooms again. Perhaps substitute teachers can act as study hall monitors (of which I am not completely comfortable) while students work individually on their chromebooks, but students deserve regular classroom teachers who engage pupils with learning activities that include -- dialogue, discussion, cooperative learning, group and partner work et al -- methods that are more apt to engage students in the learning process. Perhaps a case can be made for student neglect if full-time teachers are transplanting their remote lessons from the pandemic era into face-to-face learning in the classrooms. Remote lessons via Google Classroom are fine for homework, but such "instruction" in the classroom limits the traditional definition of teacher. Students deserve teachers who instruct with passion and enthusiasm in the classroom and are not simply study hall monitors.

Catholic School Instruction

Catholic schools exist to weave Christ's Seamless Garment throughout the curriculum, not just in religion class. Thus, if Catholic school instruction in math, English, Science (the secular subjects) look too much like the instruction in a public school, Catholic school teachers need to reflect on interdisciplinary ways to meld Science and Creation, History and the Bible, Social Studies and Evangelization. Even if secular textbooks are used, Catholic school teachers can find various ways to keep the Virtue of Christ at the forefront of learning. For in the course of an average day, secular influence on young minds and hearts is often greater than the influence on spirituality.

Speaking of Faith, how do values born of a shared Faith impact school culture? The short answer is that it depends on the particular school. In Catholic schools, it's hard to deny that with the laity taking over faculty positions borne of the exodus of vowed religious after Vatican II, the striving for authentic Catholic identity is an uphill battle. Add modernist culture to the mix and students seem much more at home in the secular realm rather than a religious one, which can make it difficult to inculcate religious values into the hearts and minds of young people.

Classroom Disruptions

Students in Catholic schools are just as capable of disrupting class as students in public schools but in a different manner and an explanation is in order. By 7th-8th grade in Catholic grade schools, students have become very familiar with their classmates in a K-8 grade school as opposed to public middle school students who are new to each other after having had a different set of classmates in their elementary schools. High levels of familiarity among Catholic school students seem to give them a sort of overt permission to talk and chat in class at will. In public schools, there may be a few unruly students in each class who can present serious problems to the teacher. Substitute teachers deal with such disruptions so that other well-behaved students can focus on the lesson. In Catholic schools, most students know each other so well that a sub teacher's instruction often gets in the way of all the side conversations taking place in and around the classroom.

Public school student
Public school students often attend larger schools with several classrooms per grade

And therein lies the difference between school types for a sub teacher: Significant confrontations with a few unruly students in public school classrooms having little to no solidarity with classmates as opposed to dealing with many minor skirmishes of familial students in the Catholic school.

In either school type, classroom disruptions can limit learning for all students. Major behavioral disruptions should always be addressed while minor disruptive behavior should be dealt with if the teaching-learning process is being impacted.

Students who come to school prepared to learn must be given maximum opportunity to do so. Classroom disruptions must be rooted out, regardless of what type of school they occur. Teachers and parents need to demand learning environments that are most conducive to learning. Uprooting chaotic, disruptive filled classrooms should be a primary aim for all school leaders.

Gormley, M.J., Overfield, R.A., Sheridan, S., Spradlin, C. and Scanlan, L. (2021, February).

The Time and Cost of Classroom Behavior Management. National Association of School Psychologists Annual Convention.

Blank, C. and Shavit, Y. (2016).The Association Between Student Reports of Classmates’ Disruptive Behavior and Student Achievement. AERA Open Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 1–17.

Dave is the director of He has successfully used and shared methods of classroom management that limit classroom disruptions in many types of schools. Join the Fresh Eyes on Teaching Facebook group to engage in pertinent issues that affect teaching and learning.

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