Recently I've taken a break from thinking about all of the ridiculousness going on in the ed politics world. It wasn't really by choice. I think I just burnt out on it. Instead, I've spent more time thinking about how schools work and effective classroom practice. One of the topics I've been particularly interested in is school discipline. Frank Beard sparked my interested when he agreed to share his thoughts on my blog about his experience teaching in Kansas City. They were further pushed as I worked on reviewing Lois Weiner's book and I engaged in dialogue with my colleagues about ways we could ensure a more positive environment in our school.
As I've advanced in my teaching career, it's become more and more clear to me that a significant portion of discipline problems that occur in disadvantaged schools (note: these are the only schools I've ever worked in, so everything I say in this post will necessarily be colored by those experiences) are a result of an unnecessary tension between staff and students. Too often, new teachers from privileged backgrounds fail to understand that imposing the same expectations they developed when they were in school on the disadvantaged schools they're now teaching in will, in many ways, exacerbate problems already experienced in those schools. Often, studies on this phenomenon refer to this group of teachers from privileged backgrounds as "white." Although that tends to be the color of their skin, it's not always, and far more than skin color, it's ignorance that's at the root of the problem.
In a conversation I had at lunch with a colleague a few weeks ago about the general lack of decorum we have at our school (e.g. we commonly deal with theft, vandalism, and fights - to say nothing of the reality that more than half of my students routinely come late to class), he mentioned how frustrated it made him that our students seem to experience few or no consequences for their behavior. I thought he was implying that the administration was largely to blame for this (although I could have been wrong). I asked what consequences he thought would improve student behavior, who he thought should implement them, and how they might change school culture as a whole. After a little more conversation, I made the argument that students don't generally receive consequences for their behavior because we don't have the resources to provide the kinds of consequences he probably would have expected for similar behavior in the high school he attended in suburban Denver. I see twenty to thirty kids violate the discipline code in the three minutes between classes. You'd need an army of deans to stay on top of all of those consequences.
The first student who told me to go fuck myself blew my mind. My jaw dropped and I just stood there paralyzed. I remember thinking the she should be suspended, that there should be a long parent-conference, and that she should apologize. But after the parent agreed with the student's behavior, the in-school suspension only increased the classroom tension, and the student only fell more behind academically, I started to wonder whether my desire to respond with consequences was more about getting some sort of revenge for diminishing the authority I believed I deserved or about really improving the student's behavior (I think it was probably about both). I think many teachers, especially those accustomed to more privileged schools, emphasize consequences for poor student behavior (especially when it's a behavior that undermines the teacher's authority) because it's a way of getting back at kids; there's a desire to let them know who's boss. But unless the behavior violates the hidden norms of the community at large (behaviors students see other students participate in and, more importantly, behaviors they see their role models participate in outside of school) and the consequences are reinforced by other teachers, parents, and peers (by way of acknowledging the consequence as valid), there's very little value in attempting to institute consequences that teachers who were educated in privileged schools are used to. When a student tells me to go fuck myself now, I politely ask them to calm down and open to page 47. I then make a mental note that I need to have a conversation that aims to improve my relationship with that student at another time.
At the NY Social Studies Conference in Rochester this week I was talking to a teacher from an affluent suburban district whose students were suspended for having been captured holding red cups in a Facebook picture. This teacher told me that many parents in the district spoke to defend the actions of the administration and many spoke against the suspensions. There were community forums and talk of legal proceedings. If a student at my school were in the same situation, absolutely nothing would have happened in terms of discipline. And I don't think that means we're holding them to lower expectations. I think it means we're conscious of our socio-political realities and that there may be more effective ways of addressing a possible drinking issue.
However, many of the students taken by my small school in its first few years (because it needed to get its numbers up in order to receive more funding from the DOE) were literally pulled off the streets. Many of them are overaged, emancipated (or simply have no family in the area), and lack much of a formal education. At nineteen or twenty years of age, there's little to nothing a staff can do to improve (consequences or no consequences) their alcoholism if they don't care to change it themselves. They'll soon age out of the system. In the meantime, school will serve mostly as a daycare service (since they'd rather be there with the few people in their lives who accept them than dealing with the much harsher realities of the real world).
Social Education (a publication put out by NCSS) recently published an article (well worth reading) on peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding in schools. It drew on a body of work that defined peacekeeping as primarily an exercise in the reinforcement of existing power hierarchies. Its tools are security cameras, punishment, verbal berating, and sometimes physical intervention (as I found myself doing last year in order to disrupt a fight between a student and staff member). Peacemaking, while it employs some of the tools of peacekeeping, spends more time on addressing the causes of specific conflicts. Its tools include peer mediation. Lastly, peacebuilding is defined as a method that includes both tactics included in peacekeeping and peacemaking, but focuses more on addressing the socio-political disparities that are often at the root of so many conflicts that emerge in schools.
When I first started teaching in inner-city schools, I scoffed at administrators who said that the best way to keep kids from being late was to engage them in interesting activities at the beginning of class and have discussions with them about why being on time is important and why being late violates a degree of respect it's important for us to have, not only for each other, but for ourselves. Today, I wholeheartedly agree with those administrators. Unfortunately, this tactic will also be largely fruitless if there is no trust between and among students and staff. This is why effective classroom management in disadvantaged schools relies so heavily on the effectiveness of the teacher to develop meaningful relationships with students, and this is one place where being "white" often makes a difference. White teachers (and sometimes minorities from privileged backgrounds) must often work harder to gain the trust of marginalized non-white students in disadvantaged schools. These students have learned to distrust not only authority, but especially white authority, and with good reason. My race and privilege have hindered my ability as a teacher throughout my career, but I think its impact has been lessened as I've gained experience working with disadvantaged youth, experienced a portion of the absurdity they're subject to on a daily basis with them, and gained confidence in my abilities and career choice. Nevertheless, I'm confident that a teacher with identical pedagogical and social competencies who also had a similar background to underprivileged students would be a superior teacher in my environment.
The sooner you understand that students are affected by both what happens in and out of the classroom, the sooner accept the reality that schools, teachers, and administrators cannot be held solely responsible for school decorum. A school in a seriously underprivileged community could easily spend all of its time working with students on how to behave. On the other hand, the academic needs of those students are likely also horrendously high. In these environments, it becomes depressingly obvious just how finite our resources are. Time cannot always be allocated to work on behavior and academics simultaneously. You must make a choice: provide high-quality education for those students who are interested or work on getting students to conform their behavior with the dominant culture. (Patrick J. Finn's book, Literacy with an Attitude, does an excellent job describing this tension.) In a recent email conversation I had with Larry Cuban, he referred to this situation as a salvage operation. I'm afraid I have to agree.
Pre-service teachers should be conscious of the expectations they bring to disadvantaged schools. I'd highly recommend that any pre-service teacher (especially those from privileged backgrounds) spend significant time volunteering/pre-teaching/working in the communities they expect to teach in before the school year begins. When I was in DC, there was talk of inviting pre-service teachers into disadvantaged neighborhoods to live and work with the families of the students they would be teaching. I think that would be useful if done well. If you go into urban teaching attempting to impose the unwritten expectations you developed in your schooling, you'll likely fail miserably and get smacked in the face a few times along the way (metaphorically and possibly literally).