Everyone's Problem-- Whose Responsibility?
by Alesha Jackson on Feb 24 2009 Posted in Class notes
Last week’s post about teachers struggling with recent discipline issues generated a slew of comments from teachers and administrators alike. Some 42 teachers at the school drafted a letter to their newly-appointed principal with hopes that they could address growing concerns amid deteriorating order in the building. On Sunday night, a teacher in the school, Kelley Collings, outlined for us some of the measures members are taking together to correct the harmful behaviors they say have surfaced this year.
All’s well that ends well? Maybe. The discussion was a vibrant one, and one that managed to remain an overwhelmingly positive exchange even when touching on some complicated topics. Some posters offered useful suggestions. Others of you just wrote in to show support. Your thoughtful comments, coupled with the later account of a pregnant teacher pushed in the school’s hallways, compel me to ask: are teachers the only ones responsible for danger in a school community?
There’s a phrase in new teacher training that has filtered into conversations about nearly every aspect of school life: the best use of instructional time. It’s a catchall term that teachers are urged to consider both when they’re executing lessons and when they’re dealing with discipline. The phrase, in essence, should guide their decisions about everything from how they take attendance to the types of assignments they dole out. The point is this: every choice a teacher makes is the result of an attempt to optimize learning opportunities for students in his or her care. So when teachers are forced undertake the dual obligations of instruction and discipline, which task wins out?
Using instructional time wisely means that teachers’ dealings with dangerous behaviors require consequences that are both efficient and effective—that is, options that necessitate minimal time away from teaching and that succeed almost every time. When classroom methods for halting the conduct cease to “work,” the teacher has one of two alternatives: a) to try something else, or b) to seek outside support.
From what I gathered, teachers’ dissatisfaction last week didn’t stem from their reluctance with the former, as Kelley Collings’ comment on the blog points out. By most accounts, they tried to address behaviors fairly-- and in a way that maintains their own professional decorum-- while maintaining the dignity of their students. The frustration in their letter surfaced from deficiency in structures outside of their classrooms to ensure that things inside ran smoothly.
I’ve worked with new teachers in challenging school settings for several years. Their single most enduring dilemma is this: how do they get the students to do what they say when there are no consequences when students don’t? In all honesty, I can rarely offer them a satisfying answer. Why is school violence so surprising when teachers are offered little recourse for dangerous or disruptive behavior?
Here’s one example. One teacher that I worked with last year taught in a large high school here in Philly. On the way up to her classroom, I walked into two students smoking marijuana in the stairwell. I reported the incident to school staff; it turned out that one of the students had been sent to the office for swearing at his teacher. That very same class period, he was told by administrators to return to the classroom he’d just left. I’d run across him and his classmate before he’d made it back to class.
Who is responsible here? Is it the teacher, who followed district procedures for handling the student? Was it school security, who was on the other end of the hallway while this was going on? Was it the school administrator who sent the student back to class?
I advise the new teachers I work with to get to know their students well, even outside of school. I suggest that they encourage students to bring who they are into the classroom in a meaningful way, and that teachers examine how their own beliefs about race, school, and learning relate to the values they foreground in their classrooms. And finally, I also recommend that teachers work with parents and guardians collaboratively, and set goals together. But at the end of the day, if persistent negative behavior is left up only to the teacher to handle, what’s to stop irksome behaviors from escalating to more dangerous ones?
I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, and invite you to comment and share your stories. You can also email me at email@example.com.