Friday, March 18, 2011

How Far Do Consequences Go?

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).


  1. "a significant portion of discipline problems that occur in disadvantaged schools are a result of an unnecessary tension between staff and students."

    I like the use of "unnecessary" though I found most discipline issues arose due to tensions between students. However when we began intensive test prep tensions rose all around and there were more fights (I almost never had fights in my class.)

    Early on I recognized the fact that some school rules would cause tensions to rise. How far was I willing to go to hassle a kid who wouldn't take off a coat? Once when I did this I discovered the child was ashamed for reasons that were beyond me of her clothes. So I began to ask myself why would a child be so adamant to keep a coat on and realized there was often a reason for everything. Now as an elem teacher I had the luxury in my own classroom to explore the psyches of the kids and understand them - which was why even though I had a high school social studies license I never left elem school.

  2. This is such an excellent piece, RE. It should be required reading for anyone in education but especially those who have taken the alternate path - TFA, Teaching Fellows, etc. I have encountered and struggled with many of the problems you are talking about here, except on the elementary level. The difference being that my struggle has often seemed more with the parents than the child. Since quite a few of these parents are not too many years older than high school students themselves it is easy to see why there would be tension. Trust is always the issue in teaching. It comes easier in the more affluent neighborhoods and you have to work your behind off for it in the underprivileged schools. In those schools it takes the patience of saints to work for that trust. The payoff is not always tangible nor immediate. All too often it never comes. Again, thank you for such a deeply reflective piece.

  3. This is such an amazingly thoughtful, wise & rich post. Lots of food for thought here.

  4. I love this post, such food for thought. This is such a thoughtful post. I have been wondering about these issues myself as we struggle to deal with a slashed staff due to budget cuts. For example, I wonder about my administration's obsession with hats. Does it really matter if my kids don't wear hats if their pants are sagging beyond their knees? What's the real emergency here? And who cares if the child is engrossed in a novel that I've recommended? I do have to admit thought, that for the most part, the kids at our school usually comply with our requests.

    As for the 'F-you" comment, I tend to treat that more as an emergency. The kid must be removed for a few days, if only to teach the others it's unacceptable. (And yes, I need some breathing room as well, I'll admit it) If I don't make a scene, let them know it will be taken care of, and proceed with the lesson I find the offending student usually returns to class chastened and apologetic, and the other students know that there are structures in place to handle out-of-control behavior (which I truly think is their greatest fear).

    I am a black woman from an immigrant background which can be both an advantage and a liability. Looking like someone's family member can evoke warm and fuzzy feelings or it can cause students to transfer negative feelings and emotions they have around their own people onto me. I've had both reactions: the people who've sighed with relief when they saw me and the parents who've asked for their child to be removed from my class because black people aren't very smart.

    For me, it's simple- rules should be few, have a real rationale, and be enforced by every adult in the building. It's more difficult for you than me though. Your "kids" are almost adults- all the more reason to look deeply with the kids at what's a hard and fast rule and what's a social custom.

  5. Just posted- sorry for the editing errors. I was typing really fast!

  6. Anon @ 1121: I think your comment about the f-you issue just brings to light the subtleties of classroom management. You're right; if a kid yells this at you angrily or says it in a way that gets the rest of the class riled up, then telling them to calm down is probably not the appropriate response. I was thinking specifically of a situation a few weeks ago when I reminded a student why doing homework was important, and he said it under his breath. He was under a lot of stress that week, and it was clear to the rest of the class that I was in control of the situation and he needed time to clear his head. This, again, just goes to show how important relationships and trust are in maintaining a manageable classroom. But it also goes to show that classroom management is not a flowchart (if this, then this). It requires lots of experience to help you read and react appropriately to each unique situation in the manner it requires.

  7. Salvage operations are typically done with profit motive. How are we profiting here? Is it just for those of "privileged" backgrounds to feel better about themselves? Is it so "parent(s)" of these kids get free day care? How am I, as a net taxpayer, benefitting by throwing money at these net tax consumers?

  8. Perhaps if a classroom takes so much management, we shouldn't constrain kids in classrooms like we corral cattle in feedlots.

    Just sayin'

  9. Perhaps many (or most?) of the students at your school simply aren't educable in any sense beyond acquiring some very rudimentary skills, such as pushing a broom. One downside of living in a relative meritocracy -- which is what America is -- is that in each generation, the more intelligent, focused, and self-disciplined find avenues out of poverty, leaving the least promising intellectual and social material behind. In other words, the problem may be that you are attempting to impart intellectual skills to the academic dross.

    A question: What would be the consequence of your telling a student to go fuck herself? If it exceeds in its severity the consequence of a student telling you to go fuck yourself, then you can see who is really in charge of your school. And so can the students.

  10. Although I agree with you RE, at my school I think a lot of these issues could be addressed with some old school consequences such as dependable detention.

  11. PRCalDude - I don't think the profit motive piece carries over in the metaphor. It's not about profit.

    Anon @ 342: relative meritocracy on the whole, maybe - for a lot of people in disadvantaged communities, I'd say the US is decidedly not.

    Anon @ 932: I agree, but I'm afraid for us it's a question about where you apply the limited resources that you have, and I tend to think consequences often get you the least bang for your buck, even short-term

  12. I'm just trying to figure out what benefit I, as a taxpayer, am accumulating by throwing my money at uneducable savages. Judging by your glib response, I'm guessing my benefit is negative, thus I have no desire to educate inner city yoof or whatever it is you're attempting to do.

  13. It sounds like what you are saying is that you are really a babysitter to human apes and perhaps it doesn't even make sense to have a teacher in this position. Just someone who can cue up the next video or lead the class in a round of "spell your own name".

  14. Anon at 3:42 said, "A question: What would be the consequence of your telling a student to go fuck herself? If it exceeds in its severity the consequence of a student telling you to go fuck yourself, then you can see who is really in charge of your school. And so can the students."

    Well put! As a former teacher, I firmly believe that schools now lean WAY too far in favor of elevating student "needs" over basic decorum and the need of the school as a whole to have an orderly environment. It's not too much to ask for a basic level of reasonable behavior from our nation's students -- and as you pointed out, we certainly expect it from their teachers...

  15. PRCalDude and Udolpho: I didn't realize the 19th century got internet. I apologize. The Rudyard Kipling/Cecil Rhodes demographic is not the majority of my readership.

  16. PRCalDude - you clearly are a massive douchebag.

  17. I just finished reading this post (which was very interesting) as I'm about to walk out of the door, so I'll make this brief.

    What bothers me so much about difficult urban schools, like the one that I worked at, is this:

    1. Many students, if they are to survive anywhere outside of their community, badly need to be taught how to behave

    2. Many already know how to behave and are ready/willing/excited to learn

    3. Both groups of students are tossed together into one room--the former often making it difficult for the latter to learn--and teachers are left to sort out the mess with few if any support/resources. Furthermore, those teachers are often finding their job security tied to their students' test scores (which understandably are often less than stellar in such an environment)

    When teachers--or anyone for that matter--argues that the two groups of students should be separated, they're accused of supporting the ever so evil "tracking", not believing in ALL children (you must type that word in all caps or you hate children), and of having low expectations. And yet teachers are simply pointing out the obvious: tossing them together doesn't work. If you cater to the first group and focus on teaching behavior, then nobody learns much. If you focus on the second group and teach academics, then the first group disrupts class and again nobody learns much.

    I know I'll take a lot of criticism from certain people for saying this, but I firmly believe that the answer has to do with separating both groups. Too often I think school leaders and education "experts" see urban students are prime ground for sociological experiments and grandiose utopian efforts--as if they want the urban districts to be gigantic Boys & Girls Clubs instead of legitimate institutions of education.

    I firmly believe that students with behavior problems need support, but that shouldn't be offered at the expense of the other students who are clearly ready, willing, and prepared to learn. That's what I think needs to change.

  18. Hmmmmm....

    In regards to... "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"

    HUH? So, when our own children that we have sired and raised behave in a poor manner and we correct them, are we trying to get back at them as well? NO, we are trying to teach them boundaries and self control. The consequences are a deterrent to the bad behavior!

    In regards to..."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."

    So, when do they learn that aberrant behavior must cease? Who will teach them if not their parents? Aren't we interested in helping to produce productive citizens? How productive will they be telling their supervisors to "F" off?

  19. Anon at 341: Let me clarify..

    In regard to your first point. My argument is that the utility of consequences is highly dependent on the context under which they're administered. If you attempt to impose a consequence on a student, and nobody else in the community aside from the teacher is willing to uphold the legitimacy of that consequence, it's very likely that it will be at all effective. Additionally, if consequences are your only recourse to poor behavior, it is equally unlikely they will be successful. Lastly (on that point), I definitely think many adults react to others with consequences as a means of gaining some sort of vindication for their in their own righteousness. I think this often occurs with teachers working in environments they're unfamiliar with. They may not be attuned the the realities facing students and the catalysts for their behavior. This can often lead to worthless consequences.

    In regard to your second point: I sense and sympathize with your frustration. If parents (MOST IMPORTANTLY), mentors, teachers, or other important community members refuse to act as positive role models and uphold the values of the community at large, I'm not sure we'll be very effective at producing productive citizens. It takes a village to raise a child, but if that child's going to be healthy, s/he must be raised by a healthy village.

  20. If someone commits a mistake a certain consequence will be applied. And mistakes are not avoidable but there are those that are acceptable and there are those that surpass the allowable limit. But the thing is why do they commit such unallowable mistakes such as crimes? Then we go back to how they were raised. And I also think that students are not supposed to be suspended or left out of the class for some simple mistakes. Aside from being a troubled being they will even become academically behind and it might worsen their situation. Furthermore, if parents can’t watch their kids while having their education then it might be a good idea to take them to boarding schools and you will be confident that they will be well guided.

  21. I couldn't disagree more with this article. We are doing our students a major disservice if we just accept the students' realities or make accommodations for their outbursts. This does not happen in society. I don't care what one's background is or where they come from, but everyone suffers from stress and hardship in one form or another. It is how we learn to cope and react to it that matters...and ultimately determines our "success" in life's journey. Yelling "fuck you!" at people is not acceptable, in any situation. If hats are not allowed in schools, then so be it. Just like only clear bags are allowed in stadiums and a quart sized bag of liquids on a plane. Too bad, that's life. Uniforms can save lives, depending on what gangs are established in the area. Someone was just shot and killed in front of my school as kids walked out the door. I wonder which direction the victim's hat was tipped and what colors he had on? Had it not been for my silly rules about hats and uniforms, one of my students may have been dead on the ground too. I refuse to accept students' situations as an excuse. A hurdle, yes. A battle every day? Absolutely. But I will spend 15 minutes a day debating about a hat and lecturing a student for a half hour about why saying fuck you to someone is unacceptable. I am tough and unbending because everyone around them has simply accepted them as "this poor unfortunate soul." I have higher expectations for them than this. I will not allow my students to leave my room at the end of the year wondering why the rules don't apply to them or thinking it is okay to be ignorant to another person. They come back to me years later and thank me. They deserve more than their teachers "accommodating" them. A student once asked me a question and it has stayed with me since. He asked

  22. (Continued) ..."why are other kids expected to wear a uniform but it doesn't matter if I wear one?" This kid was notorious for wearing his pants down to his knees, gang banging, cussing out teachers...he was BEGGING for someone to give him tough love, some discipline. I was one of the few who kept on him EVERY DAY about these "problem behaviors" that some may see as a waste of time. In fact, some may see it as "ignorance" or not "understanding where he comes from." No, in fact, I do not understand where he comes from, nor will I ever pretend to. I do understand one thing though- I refuse to "feel bad" for him. I believe that he can be a survivor.
    But survivors are not people who can't control their anger, or dress and act like gang bangers. Survivors are the kids who are pushed out into the world beyond what they are used to. I will fight the fight every day to help these kids become, at the minimum, capable of at least holding down a job so they don't have to turn to drug dealing and crime. And that involves simple things like wearing a uniform, not wearing a particular hat, and certainly not telling someone to fuck off. And I do not discipline my students because I have some personal vendetta- it is because i love them- and if I don't, it will be the county jail or a rival gang member. 9 out of 10 students actually thank me for expecting no less from them, and expecting them to be respectful and for not accepting less. Expecting them to be polite, and yes even conform because let's face it- that is REALITY. We have to conform in this society, at least to a degree. I have my students return to the door to close it again if it was too loud! I certainly hear alot

  23. ...(continued) alot of fuck you's in the beginning of the year, but by the end of the year I hear alot of "thank yous" If I failed to at least show my students how to behave socially by the end of the year, then I have failed them. If we, as a society, thinks it is okay and have to make exceptions for our disadvantaged youth, are we helping them be successful or are we leading them into a bleak future I which they continue on their path? I have been to places and taught in places in Africa where the kids literally live in tin shacks and dirt floors. Their parents are dead. There is disease. You want to see underprivileged and despair? Our American kids, the poorest of the poor, live in Beverly Hills compared to these children. These kids are respectful and have goals. ALL of them. So I don't want to hear our American children complain, tell me to fuck off, or use their hardships as an excuse. Shake it off, toughen up, and lets get out of the situation instead of using it as a crutch and an excuse. Darwin.