A Disciplined School

Lately on my twitter feed there have been some stories about centralized detentions, classroom management, and low-level disruption. This seemingly is coming mostly out of England, but I have seen posts about it in the U.S. Most articles I read from public school teachers have been lamenting the support to fix low-level disruption, while those coming from schools of choice point out the improved environment under strict discipline.

I would say that most teachers believe that the majority of their students are good people and capable of some measure of success. Sometimes I have heard this broken down into a 10-80-10 rule, where 10% of the students are highly motivated, 10% are unreachable, and the other 80% could be swayed either way. Those teachers in schools of choice rarely, if ever, encounter that unreachable 10%, so when they write about strict discipline and teachers being free from the pressures of engaging lessons, it has a tinge of delusion for me. When students go to a private school, boarding school, or charter school, there is an element of choice that a traditional public school doesn’t have.

After I read another post about a school where teachers are free from the pressure of engaging lessons, where learning is the responsibility of students, I sometimes find myself envious. Just imagining working in a school where every student comes prepared to learn, where the slightest disruption is met with removal, makes me giddy at times. I suffer from flights of fancy where I dream about just being able to tell some of my students to simply go away. But I work in a public school, where if a student is removed from class it is my fault. My fault that the material wasn’t interesting. My fault that I haven’t made it accessible to students who still count on fingers. My fault that I didn’t call home enough to discuss the behavior of 17 year olds.

In a public school, we don’t get to choose our students, and the students don’t get to choose if they come to school. Standards are different when choice is involved, and choice seems to be a hot topic in education lately, especially considering who the new Secretary of Education is. I don’t think anyone would have a problem with the idea of giving parents freedom to choose where their children are educated, but when the outcomes are essentially the same what are the parents and students really trying to accomplish?

The harsh reality is that most parents that choose to take their students out of a school, do so to escape the unreachable 10% that cause school to be a living nightmare for some students. If the school is large enough, students usually have the option to be tracked away from their struggling peers. This was my experience in high school. I was able to take accelerated math classes or AP classes, which created a very homogeneous classroom environment for me. Some of my peers who I shared a practice field with, that I got along great with in the hallways, I think would have driven me insane in a classroom.

This past Thursday we cancelled school because of icy roads and I found myself watching Ellen. On the program was a story about a charter school that was achieving amazing results with undeserved children. I don’t doubt the result, but the bravdo comes at the expense of acknowledging the reality that charter schools don’t serve all students.

For example, let me use the numbers from this KIPP study and compare it to the 100 students I have under my watch this year. First, all 100 of my students would have to want to be here, so before they set foot in my classroom, every single one of the 100 has a family that wants them to be here. Using admissions criteria I would be able to eliminate about two thirds of the IEP students that I currently have. Of those 100 students that wanted to be here I would be able to get rid of 15 during the first year and then 15 the next by designing policies that some students can’t follow. Once I’ve done all that I could present a successful school. Get rid of 30 students, who were motivated to show up in the first place, and then I can claim success.

So I started doing a little thought experiment, what would my classes be like if I could remove 30 students? Which students would I want gone? Maybe it was a day that seemed to be plagued with the, “when will we ever need this,” mantras, or maybe it was a day that I just couldn’t get the kids to stay focused and work, on those days it seems relatively easy to think of 30 students that I don’t want anymore. The days that it is such a struggle to teach makes me nostalgic for those classes where it never was. (But that was with different students and different admin, and I don’t know if it will ever come again.)

Over time I’ve learned to embrace the struggle though, not to simply push it out and pretend it doesn’t exist. Those students who struggle the most are the ones that need to be met with the most empathy. My first year teaching was spent at an alternative school with a student body that consisted predominantly of those who had been kicked out of traditional schools. I spent most of my first year blaming the students because as students, they weren’t like me. There were two events that I think had a lasting impact that potentially saved me from becoming yet another teacher burnout casualty. First, I was fortunate to work under a wonderful mentor, and one dinner conversation about what students really need keeps coming to mind. The second was a couple of sermons delivered by my pastor that have stuck around as well. Both had a similar message, empathy, and the sermon also had the message of discomfort.

I didn’t know how to relate to my students and the impetus to find empathy for them made me uncomfortable. I found it hard to find empathy for behavior that I thought was incomprehensible. It would have been so much easier to just write off the students as lazy, unmotivated, poor decision makers who have no view of the future. To start fixing that though, all I had to do was listen. When I listened I started to view my students struggles as ones of circumstance and not of behavior. At first it was having sympathy for the gang members that felt trapped. Then it was for the girl who couldn’t get a job because she didn’t have papers. Then it was the kids just trying to survive class. Next it was for the student who just doodled the entire class period. And it just kept growing and growing. I can’t deny the role that faith has served in this part of my life. Each time I had empathy for a student it made me uncomfortable with my own preconceptions and values, which kept sending me back to the sermon about being comfortable with the uncomfortable. To think that students don’t drive me nuts at times would be a lie, but these habits have become so ingrained that it has manifested itself in my relationship to my students.

This year I lost a student at the semester. She moved into another district. This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor will it probably be the last.  The student that left wasn’t an honor roll student. She wasn’t a highly motivated student. In fact, on any given day she could make my life miserable. During my first year I would have thought good riddance, but now all I can think about is how much I wish I still had that student in class, how I miss seeing some of her artwork, how I miss some of the YouTube videos she would tell me to watch, or, when I could get her to work, how I missed the challenge of trying to make her see that she was more intelligent than she believed.

I feel sympathetic to those that choose charter schools. Sometimes there are just too many competing interests in a class, students whose prerequisite knowledge isn’t there, students who are only motivated by honor roll, students who are preoccupied with a test in another class, students who have an intrinsic love of the subject, and students who just have to be there. Many days it can feel like madness trying to motivate and engage all those groups and I wish we had a system that allowed more leeway. So from the perspective of a student or a parent, choosing a different school allows me to find a homogeneous environment.

But what I saw on Thursday was just wrong. When Ron Clark, KIPP, AUSL, Betsy DeVos, or any other successful charter school seems to have a solution to the problems in public schools, it always rings a little hollow to me. Operating a school of choice is inherently admitting that not all students are worth your time. When administrators, teachers,  and policy makers lament the failures of those of us who accept the least among us, while boasting of success by expelling the neediest, seems like…qualification to be Secretary of Education.



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