Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Last Day of the Year

Last Monday (one last day of school for students after a week and a half of Regents exams), my school took our students to Van Cortlandt park for a field day. We organized soccer, volleyball, tug of war, badmitten, baseball, hiking, etc...  While I'd guess only a little more than half of our student body chose to show up (which is probably not that much less than show up on a regular school day), it was a nice way to end the year.

Until the train ride back.

We dismissed students from the park at the end of the school day. At that point, staff were no longer legally responsible for them, but we did offer to help them manage the subway system so they could make it back to their stop without getting lost. But getting something like 200 students on a train without a plan for organization (like the one we'd created for getting to the park) doesn't often go smoothly.

The 1 train waiting at 242 street filled with rambunctious teenagers pleased to be done with school for the year (despite the fact that the vast majority of them have been asked to attend summer school). Three cars specifically filled with our students.

By the time we got to 225 street, the students on the car I was on were nearly all yelling and beating different parts of the subway car. Knowing I was no longer legally responsible, and knowing that there was little I could do to stop the pandemonium, I stayed seated, covered my ears, and considered changing cars.

However, two other teachers took it upon themselves to attempt to change our students' outrageously inappropriate behavior.

First, they tried asking nicely. Then, teachers tried pointing out how embarrassing the student behavior was. Then teachers tried raising their voices. Then they tried asking nicely again. And then some more voice raising. And then some more comments about embarrassing behavior.

The students' responses weren't exactly what the teachers were hoping for. Students began arguing with teachers, telling them they should lighten up. It was, after all, the last day of school. As the yelling increased, students began mocking staff, some making threatening remarks.

This was exactly what I'd expected would happen. I'd been in this situation before. Some of our students, especially among the most rowdy, are unlikely to change their behavior for an authority figure they have no personal relationship with, especially in an environment outside of school.

I eventually went over (after being asked by one of the teachers trying to help the students see the error in their ways) and tried to reason with a few of my students who were participating, but it wasn't very helpful. There were lots of students and only a handful of teachers. And the most disrespectful students empowered many of the others to act inappropriately. As the trip went on, more and more students were emboldened to disrespect teachers and other passengers as a means of impressing their peers.

The other teachers and I eventually gave up our efforts, realizing, in that moment, we were in a tough situation with no appropriate solutions.

It was a sad way to end the school year. I feel like it also reminded me about some things I've long known about attempting behavior modification with students, I just can't put my finger on exactly what those things are - but I'm pretty sure I wrote about some of them here.


  1. James: That story is sad, but not surprising. Having worked with lots of low-income, low-performing students, I can well imagine the type of behavior that they might display.

    I wish that more edu-policy types would read detailed stories like yours. These stories really show what working w/ these low-performing, inner city kids is like for their teachers, and serve to undercut the rhetoric of "if only teachers cared more/tried harder/accepted less pay" then the kids would all do great in school.

    The reality is that it is very challenging to work with many students, and no matter how well-intentioned, well-educated, etc. a teacher is, these students will likely to be difficult to teach. Blaming our hard working teachers for their problems isn't the answer.

  2. How did you transport the students to the park? I'm wondering what the difference could be if both were on the metro.

  3. debryc: The difference was that when we left in the morning, we took the kids in small groups of approximately ten students and two teachers that left every ten minutes from the school. Also, they were not nearly as rambunctious in the morning as the were after the day was over.

  4. Working with inner city high school kids is VERY challenging. Having done so for 21 years, and done about 15 field trips a year with those kids, I know that it takes an enormous amount of work for the field trip to be successful. Reading about what happened at the end of your last trip really does not surprise me. It sounds like the responsibility for the kids had been relinquished and they knew it. I don't know what kind of training had been done ahead of time, either. That is a key piece for working with inner city youth. You cannot expect it to go right the very first time you take them some where. Also, they knew school was over and there would be no consequences for their actions. Unless, of course, you have those students again next year. Then, you can use it as a jumping-off place for the lesson for the first day of school.

  5. That sounds quite unpleasant for everyone involved. Sorry you had to end the year that way. As dkzody wrote above, there may be some chance to make it a learning opportunity for returning students. I don't know if this would work in your school, but I could see engaging with students around revised rules for leaving campus, along with some explanation about what's appropriate and why. If the new rules seem unpleasant, students might learn that their actions have consequences. (I don't mean that to sound all authoritarian and tough - just saying that there's cause and effect to be understood here).

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone. I think the situation poses some very difficult questions about how to best respond to such behavior.

    As I sat in the train listening to the kids assert that school was out and teachers could not tell them what to do, I couldn't help but wonder how right they were. As the school day was over, teachers were essentially trying to teach students how to behave on their off time. Because many of the students being addressed did not have the teachers addressing them in class, I thought it was comparable to a concerned adult addressing any random teenager behaving inappropriately. I was conflicted over the appropriateness of teachers taking that role.

    The other wondering I had was exactly how badly were the students behaving. They were essentially being obnoxious. Anyone trying to read or think on the same car would have had to switch cars for their own sanity. Students stepped outside of our unwritten norms for subway behavior. I don't think anything they were doing was illegal. I essentially felt like we were attempting to communicate values that are far more appropriately communicated by parents. So, I was again conflicted over our appropriate role in the situation.

    In terms of follow up. There's a large part of me that feels this needs to be used as a learning experience by teachers. Follow up with students nearly three months down the line is extraordinarily unlikely to be useful. While we could talk about appropriate ways to dismiss, the students were on their own time. I don't know how far school staff can really be responsible for student behavior outside of the walls and time constraints of the school day.

    As I was watching the mayhem, I thought that the best way to address it would be to isolate the biggest troublemakers with their parents and staff and have a conversation about how their behavior negatively impacted the school and their classmates. I think it needed to be turned into a learning experience. I think suspending kids or yelling at them would be incredibly unlikely to have any positive effect. As the earlier commenters seem to understand, it would likely only serve to distance staff from students further and increase disrespectful behavior.

  7. James wrote: "As I was watching the mayhem, I thought that the best way to address it would be to isolate the biggest troublemakers with their parents and staff and have a conversation about how their behavior negatively impacted the school and their classmates. I think it needed to be turned into a learning experience."

    That sounds like a good idea.

  8. When I first read this I couldn't help but think the kids were right. School was over for the day and they did not have to respect teachers' authority. I think that the 2 teachers who tried to curtail the behavior just emboldened the kids even more for the next time. As for the kids? Ask the biggest troublemakers' parents to help chaperone next time!

  9. This is really a question of crowd control - and on a subway no less. I would have considered talling the students they were getting off at the next stop and see if the mass could be broken up a bit.

    Really James. Did this trip do anything to close the achievement gap? Wouldn't it have been better to just keep them in school taking standardized tests all day?

    I always feared this on trips even though I was an elementary school teacher. THus I was a total control freak on trips. I can't imagine trying to control so many students.

    Sometimes high school kids playing hookey would attach themselves to my class. We used to go on Fridays and every week we would meet the same crowd of kids going to Coney Island.