Do You Need “Proof” To Hold Students Accountable?

Do You Need Proff to Hold students Accountable?It’s not often I’m surprised by an email.

But a couple years ago I received one from a teacher who wouldn’t hold students accountable unless he had what he described as “proof.”

Unless he had witnesses to back him up, or an outright admission from the offender, then he felt he had to let the misbehavior slide.

He also required every student who admitted wrongdoing to fill out a reflection form.

He didn’t do this because he felt it was beneficial to the student.

He did it because he was fearful that parents might not believe him. He was fearful they would take their child’s word over his own.

So he emailed SCM seeking advice.

At the time, the idea that a teacher needed proof beyond their own eyes and authority was foreign to me. But since then I’ve received a number similar emails—with more and more coming in recent months.

Notably, the writers of these emails assume that this is just the way it is.

They assume that there is nothing you can do about this hole in the system, that you must be able to point to something or someone outside of yourself as evidence a student misbehaved.

So, for example, if a student rolls their eyes at you or flashes an obscene gesture or privately tells you to go jump in a lake—or worse—then you can’t hold them accountable.

They’re afraid that because the student can claim it never happened, that it’s one word against another, then they have no leg to stand on.

They have no proof.

Predictably, they find themselves arguing with students, raising their voice, and trying to get them to admit their bad behavior. They find themselves trying to convince them that they really did see what they saw.

They find themselves carrying deep resentment and outright dislike for their most challenging students.

This is, of course, a frustrating and stressful position to be in, especially if students make a point of exploiting this perceived loophole. Especially if they flaunt misbehavior and disrespect right in front of them.

Which is precisely what was happening to these teachers and the point of their emails. They were upset and tied in knots seeking a solution.

But here’s the thing, and what I communicated to them:

You are the teacher of the classroom. You are the leader tasked with shaping and inspiring your students and preparing them to be vital and contributing members of society.

You are all the proof you need.

Once you know the truth, you have an obligation to the misbehaving student, their parents, and to the rest of your class to hold them accountable. Even if no one and nothing on earth can back you up.

When you become a teacher, you take on the responsibility to do what is right no matter the critics. You take on the responsibility to do what is best come heck or high water.

You take a stand for the benefit of everyone involved, including yourself. You adhere to the truth because it’s the truth.

As for handling complaining parents, or parents claiming you’re making things up or picking on their child . . .

As long as you have the truth on your side, you have nothing to fear.

Because when you have the truth, deep down everyone will know it. Yes, even a parent in the midst of their most vociferous complaining. It will seep from your every pore and fill the aura around you.

When you look them in the eye and confidently and pleasantly give them the facts—and only the facts—whether they like it or not they’ll know it’s true.

And here’s the surprising thing: Teachers who faithfully follow their classroom management plan with every student and in every situation receive far fewer complaints. They receive far fewer accusations or contentious meetings with parents.

In fact, for the most part it’s something they never have to deal with.

To be respected, admired, and trusted by students and parents alike, you must square your shoulders day after day and do what is right and what needs to be done.

Don’t hesitate. Don’t shy away. Don’t pretend the misbehavior didn’t happen or soften the hard truth.

Instead, honor your commitment to protect your classroom from all disruption, disrespect, and the like.

Teach life lessons now so your students don’t have to endure more painful and irreversible lessons later on down the line.

Be a leader worth following.

As for proof?

You are the proof.

PS – If you’re a principal and would like to improve recess behavior, click here.

Also, if you haven’t done so already, please join us. It’s free! Click here and begin receiving classroom management articles like this one in your email box every week.


6 Responses to Do You Need “Proof” To Hold Students Accountable?

  1. Susie June 13, 2015 at 11:30 am #

    I really enjoy reading your articles. They have helped me in so many ways. However, this article really paints the picture of how sad the state of our schools has become. Kids have been given too much power. Parents have railroaded our schools. Administrators have become puppets who don’t support their staff. Students and parents are always right. What progress we have made in our educational system! Instead, teachers fear being reprimanded for doing what if right. We walk on eggshells in our schools, we hide in our classrooms, and we try to ‘fly below radar’ until the day we can retire. What was once a noble profession has become a joke. Until school boards, superintendents, administrators take back our schools and enforce a standard of courtesy, we can expect to have cameras installed in our classrooms within a few years. All be cause we are not permitted to hold a student or parent accountable. I’m glad I made the decision to get out after 15 years of teaching. I want to leave at the top of my game not when I’m paranoid and burnt out. I would like to know more about how to handle a principal who is a bully to her staff. Poor administrators are the cause of most of the imbalances in our schools these days.

  2. Linda June 13, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    Sometimes it is my administration wanting proof.

  3. Chris June 14, 2015 at 5:01 am #

    Great article!

    Recently I had a 10 year old girl call me an insulting name in her own language (I am a language teacher).

    I thought I recognized the word she said and inquired further with her and her friend who was involved to see if I had heard correctly. I asked for them to tell me what was said. They wouldn’t. I then used a dictionary and told them this is what I heard (pointing to the word) and asked them if it was true. They denied. I let it go at that.

    Later, my manager came to me and asked what happened in that class. She had been informed by the student’s adviser that the student said I called her this insulting name instead. I was so surprised. I hadn’t thought she could make up such a lie.

    Though, I later found out it’s not the first time she has tried to get the foreign language teacher into trouble. It happens every year apparently.

    And I feel dumb about the dictionary thing. I just wanted to at least try to find out what was said before considering how to take it further.

    Fortunately, we have CCTV in our classroom so I don’t worry too much about lies and the school doesn’t believe her anyway.

  4. Chuck June 21, 2015 at 10:25 am #

    I had a student/parent combo that transferred to our school this year, and apparently this parent is used to her child being a little angel or at least of teachers bowing to her when she complains that teachers are lying about her kids behavior.

    I didn’t put up with it. I told her each time she sent me an angry email about how her kid never had problems at this other school, and how dare me for my accusations, calmly that I would LOVE to have a meeting with her and the principal to discuss her kids behavior. Funny thing. She always never responded after that point. A lot of bark and no bite.

    I have had a kid who did something that I called him out on, and parents who were quick to call me racist for calling him out on it, and that I had no proof. I had to back down on that one, even though I’m sure it was that particular kid, because I didn’t see it with my own eyes, and was instead using implications such as where he sat in the classroom, events in other classes that happened that day, and his handwriting.

    I bided my time, and the very next time he did something (which was plagiarize an entire paper – he was a chronic cheater) I saved the proof and sent it to the parents. They were very cooperative after that. Sometimes it really is a shock to them, and they need to see the evidence in front of them.

    I’m lucky to have a good administration that is on my side. I don’t think this is always the case for all teachers.

  5. Charlotte June 26, 2015 at 10:21 am #

    I had to stop reading when you said all you need is truth on your side and you would have nothing to fear. A co-worker friend of mine (a young teacher) shared teaching Art classes with me had a horrible experience even though truth was on his side! Three or four boys who were already on what the principal called “social suspension”–which meant that at the very least they could not sit near each other, but ideally should not be in the same class (we’d received emails informing us of this from the principal)—were harassing a special needs boy who they knew they could tip him over the edge to react, then get in trouble. This young teacher held them back to talk to them about how cruel and unkind this was. He also told them if HE had done this when he was in school his father would have worn him out! Those boys left that discussion and went directly to the office (a very short walk!) and told her that the Art teacher told them “if they came to his house, he’d beat their A $$ es!!” Rather than believing the teacher, the principal chose to believe those hooligans! Therefore the young Art teacher was put on a THREE DAY SUSPENSION–WITHOUT PAY!! The outcome was an Art teacher willing only to show up, teach a lesson, and leave. No trying to guide students in better behavior. Thankfully that was just one day per week. And he had a principal who backed him up at his other school.
    Lesson learned:have witnesses when you need to speak with students alone.

    • Michael Linsin June 26, 2015 at 4:22 pm #

      Hi Charlotte,

      You’re confusing a couple things. The article is about accountability. Pulling aside and lecturing, which we’ve written about extensively on this website, isn’t accountability. It’s a common classroom management mistake that is fraught with many risks—including the one mentioned in your story.


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