This article by a Philadelphia teacher was written nine years ago for the Winter 1995 issue of the Notebook.
Violence in the schools is a topic receiving a lot of media coverage these days - shooting in the hallways, assaults on the play-grounds, vandalism against school property. Commissions at every level have been formed to address the problem.
In response, school officials and educators point their fingers at the violence on the streets. "The schools are the victims of a violent society," they cry. "These children come from dysfunctional homes and neighborhoods." The standard interpretation is that the students contaminate the school with violence that they "track in" from the community.
In public discussions it's rarely heard that the schools themselves facilitate at least some of the violent acts that we are seeing. Rather than wring our hands and point fingers at the community, everyone involved with education needs to focus on the school system and ask, "What role does the school play in allowing violence to take place?"
Psychologists tell us that children cannot begin to master academics until they feel secure. Studies show that students who constantly worry about assaults do poorly at school. Moreover, anxious students often disrupt the school climate, thereby adding to the fears of other students.
If it goes without saying that the atmosphere in a school influences student achievement, then the issue of adequate supervision of children is a key one. In my experience, the quality of supervision makes the difference between a school with many violent incidents and one with few. Surprisingly, it's an issue that is not being addressed by school reformers who often seem more focused on curriculum issues. Why not give some attention to the idea that the school should be a community?
Improving the quality of supervision in our schools begins with making sure that there are enough adults there to do the supervising. With teachers legally responsible for what happens inside the classroom, NTAs (non-teaching assistants) are assigned supervision of the halls and other public areas. For that reason, schools must not lose their paraprofessional staff. More NTAs, cafeteria workers, playground monitors, parent volunteers, and others are needed to populate the public areas of the school and give it a safe climate. These are the very workers whose ranks have been trimmed over the past few years!
And what about the professionals - teachers and administrators? They need to support parents' efforts to get better supervision. They should communicate norms for appropriate behavior. More importantly, school employees need to recognize that their presence in a given area of the building can mean the difference between safety and danger for students and others. Administrators who are invisible set a bad example and their behavior helps to accommodate disorder and mayhem. Disruptive students read the absence of adults as a blank check for engaging in violence and other inappropriate behavior.
What should the school reform movement be doing? Collecting reliable data on school violence is a first step. Activists complain that information can be manipulated to make violent schools appear less so. Identifying schools with a lack of adequate supervision and supporting the hiring of more staff are part of any attempt to improve school climate.
Above all, reformers need to underscore the concept of the school as a community. It's not enough to have the best curriculum, the best teachers, or even the most up-to-date facilities and then ignore the way students interact with each other and with staff throughout the building.
The school's responsibility is to create a climate that is safe and nurturing. An institution which brings hundreds and even thousands of children together under one roof on a daily basis will set conditions for how they treat each other. Let's make sure it does the job right. Let's build the school as a community.