Classroom Management?

As I sipped my cup of coffee today, I read the newest New Yorker piece passed along by some friends on facebook by Elizabeth Kolbert entitled “Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?” and had a few thoughts spark (as the caffeine began to kick in) about the relationship between this article and my experiences in the classroom.

Last year my high school hired a program called Guided Discipline to begin to address the major classroom management issues that were overtaking the school like a slow-moving tsunami. Teachers were faltering, students ruled the roost, and the school was looking like a hot mess. It didn’t look like a school as much as it looked like a house party from a John Singleton movie (Note: Banner image from “Boyz in the ‘Hood,” my hands down favorite John Singleton movie ever). Guided Discipline is a program run out of a great organization called Educators for Social Responsibility, and as much as many of it’s ideas were solid and common sense (for example, you should apologize to the student when you are in the wrong & it is necessary to repair relationships with students after any sort of altercation b/c you still have to teach them), a large part of their idea of discipline just couldn’t and didn’t work in this age of academic accountability.

I know–that makes no sense when written–so let me explain:

I remember one of the first sessions of Guided Discipline (it was six day-long Saturday sessions–ouch!), our facilitator told us that we were too strict with the students; she subtly insinuated that we were mean to them (in a disciplinary way) and that we needed to forge relationships with them in order to teach them and hold them to higher standards. She said something along the lines of, “You wouldn’t treat your own children the way you treat your students, would you?”

In some ways she was right, but deep down she was very, very wrong.

I wouldn’t treat my students the way I treat my own children (age 5 and almost 3) because I would get fired. I am very strict with my own kids. I am not sure exactly why I have this perspective amid the lackadaisical parenting of my bougie peers here in Park Slope, Brooklyn (which is referenced in the New Yorker article as one key geographic location where kids dominate the home). Maybe it is from my Christian upbringing of “spare the rod, spoil the child” (although I do not spank), but I think a lot of my perspective on parenting comes from the candid feedback I got from my colleagues of color who blatantly asked me when pregnant and a new mom, “You’re not going to be one of those White parents who doesn’t discipline your kids, are you?” or “You’re not going to be one of those White parents who has brats for children, are you?” and other candid questions like that. They made no bones about how they perceived White parents, and no, I didn’t/don’t want to fall into that racial stereotype as a parent for many reasons. Therefore, we have rules in our house and in public. I enforce them. My kids sometimes follow them. When they don’t, there are consequences. It is exhausting. I often feel like the “mean” parent of my friends and that I am constantly bossing my kids around,  and I constantly question myself and my perspective, but at the end of the day I simply don’t want my kids to grow up to be assholes. Because it can happen. I have met 8 year old assholes on the playgrounds, and the sad thing is it is not their fault their already assholes, it’s their asshole parents’ fault. Right?

I tried to explain to our facilitator for Guided Discipline that I am much more strict with my own children than with my students, and that my students get accommodations that are quite simply ridiculous and allow them to behave even more crazily in class due to a lack of school structure, behavior and discipline policy, or high standards for behavior and for academics in the building. One of the issues mentioned in the article is that adults do everything for children today and that adults never tell children NO. It explains,

Also key, Druckerman discovered, is just saying non. In contrast to American parents, French parents, when they say it, actually mean it. They “view learning to cope with ‘no’ as a crucial step in a child’s evolution,” Druckerman writes. “It forces them to understand that there are other people in the world, with needs as powerful as their own.”

In an age of academic accountability with forces like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, schools are slaves to their graduation rates and test scores. All schools are held in bondage–those with poor, minority kids and those with rich, White kids–now that I have a five-year old who just completed her first year in public school I see that it’s ubiquitous. With these pressures in mind, kids can’t fail, therefore students are never told NO and teachers must do all the work for them. Student doesn’t do his work? Teacher must give him make up work. He doesn’t do make up work? Teacher must give him more. Teacher must call his parent. Teacher must meet with student for individual tutoring. Teacher must refer to guidance counselor. Student comes to class high as a kite? Teacher must keep her in class if she’s not disturbing others, even if her presence is giving everyone a contact high. Student hasn’t been there in five weeks, we need her attendance. Student calls you a “Fucking White Bitch!” and doesn’t get suspended. He comes back to your class the next day with attitude. Teacher needs to make sure he makes up the work from the day he got kicked out for cursing at you. Teacher can’t give him a zero for missed work. Seven seniors need a missing English credit and it’s May. Can teacher please give them an independent study? Teacher gives it. Students don’t do it. Teacher sees them at graduation anyway. How did they graduate, the teacher wonders…

Those scenarios all happened to me. Nobody ever said NO to a student. I was told (either directly or indirectly) I could not say NO to these students. Wouldn’t NO have made sense? No, you can’t go back to Ms. U’s class because you cursed her out. No, you can’t have any more make up work because it has been provided to you three times and you didn’t do it. No, you can’t come into the building today because you smell like a walking blunt and yes, now your probation officer will be contacted because you have missed weeks of school. No, you cannot graduate because you did not acquire the credits needed. Teachers had to work, work, work for students who continuously did NO work!  Schools are so scared about being put on a city/state low performing list or shut down that they have taken on the bad parenting practices that just might be destroying the futures of many kids.

Schools can pay thousands of dollars for professional development in classroom management for teachers, but if the school itself is not willing to give the teacher the power to say NO and to hold the students to higher standards of behavior and academic integrity, then that money may as well be turned into one dollar bills and tossed in the air at a school talent show for students to wrestle over during an impromptu dance off to “Cat Daddy” (this *did* happen last year). Because god knows that, once again, nobody will say NO to them as they fight over a few singles.