I am not surprised by Dropout Nation‘s reports on how schools and districts handle (or mishandle) discipline. I am not surprised that too many schools have abdicated their discipline to police officers. I have lived through the experiences and the data. Harsh discipline data doesn’t tell everything. But it does shine light on what needs to be fixed in the classroom as well as in society.
For many, many years I technically violated our union contract by going out on the yard during lunch and after school. This is because supervision wasn’t part of our duties as teachers under our contract. Over that time, I deterred or broke up my share of altercations. In my classrooms, I also found that I can maintain order. Over time, I have learned this: A committed, caring teacher can discern a goof-ball from one with malicious intent; in fact such a teacher can soften the edges of those hardened young people because they relate to them more respectfully than adults even in their life, and they appreciate that.
The ability of a committed caring teacher extends into the classroom. When I started out, my first principal said “The best classroom management is a good lesson plan.” Any parent knows that if you keep children occupied you reduce the opportunities for dumb things to happen. A classroom is no different. Schools can improve their discipline with better trained teachers and leadership creates an environment that encourages learning and deters disruptive behavior.
The 500 lb Silverback Gorilla in the room people don’t want to acknowledge is the dearth of prepared, qualified, and committed educators where they’re needed most. Teachers who only drop worksheets or lecture incessantly will invite mischief, or worse chaos. Teachers who do that tend to be the least qualified and least committed, and sadly those teachers end up where they shouldn’t be: in schools where committed, caring teachers who know how to manage classrooms are needed most. Harsh discipline can also be a function of how and why it’s meted out, as well as what you do after the harsh discipline. The problem begins before teachers go into classrooms. If you do a survey of education schools you’ll find very few that have a stand-alone course in classroom management.
Again, I am not surprised that too many schools abdicate their discipline to police officers. There are far too many schools that simply don’t have enough supervision during those non-classroom hours — from lunch time to recess — when incidents occur that might lead to discipline and worse. Especially incidents of police officers shooting students happen. I’ve also always thought that most of these tragic officer shootings are a function of their inexperience with young people. That is all the more reason not to have traditionally-trained police officers walking the corridors of schools.
There will still be situations where harsh discipline must happen. I’ve known students disciplined harshly for dumb stuff. At the same time, I’ve also known students who indeed needed to be removed from the school environment, and not allowed to return until they came with a parent. If the consequences for behavior are clear and consistent, what may seem as harsh from the outside will be accepted by the student and family. What the adults do in a school AFTER harsh discipline goes far to limiting repeat behavior. Acceptance, commitment, and support to those young people is necessary to counterbalance their burdens and manage the learning environment for everyone else.
That this sounds like what good parents do should be no surprise, and a bell-ringer: You’ve got to love these young people as your own children. If not, seriously consider another line of work.