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When Schools Are Scary


Dear Debbie,

Since I don’t imagine that any state or school district plans to roll back its school attendance requirements—no more than you intended your bored student to leave school and go home—I am not going to debate whether school is or is not a scary place for most kids. These days, it seems to be more a scary place for the grown-ups, because they have so little “control” over the kids, especially the adolescent ones. I do not use the word “control” to refer to corporal punishment, which has rightly been prohibited almost everywhere in this nation. No, I speak instead of the informal mechanisms that make the classroom a place where teaching and learning can proceed in a respectful atmosphere.

Many young people don’t respect adults. They don’t respect authority figures. They don’t respect their parents, or officers of the law, or teachers, or principals, or the grown-up in the store who chastises them for bad behavior or shoplifting. Our popular media have carried the celebration of bad behavior to an extreme, and authority figures are ridiculed or made to look ridiculous by the overgrown adolescents who write the television programs.

Add to this lack of respect—not by all students, but by enough to affect the tenor of the classroom for all students—the addition of students with severe emotional or social problems, students who demand lots of attention from the teacher. It is a wonder that anyone learns anything.

I recently read Dan Brown’s book, "The Great Expectations School." This is not the same Dan Brown who wrote "The Da Vinci Code," but a young man who decided to enter the Teaching Fellows program in New York City and landed a job teaching a 4th grade class in the Bronx. Poor Dan! He tried so hard, but he was constantly struggling to teach despite the constant fighting, cursing, and disorder caused by a handful of unruly students.

Do other countries have these problems? I don’t think so. An image comes to mind, an experience I had a few years ago. I was in Siena, Italy, touring a beautiful small museum. A group of students about 14 or 15 years old arrived with their teacher; they sat in a circle around her as she explained the meaning of the tapestries on the walls. They sat entranced, listening carefully. I assume she had prepared them beforehand. No one appeared to be bored or incarcerated. Fast forward a month later, when I went to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. A similar group arrives with their teacher. She was trying to explain the great art before them, but she couldn’t get their attention. They were loud, running wildly in circles, completely ignoring her. The guards were called to try to corral them.

Maybe I just stumbled upon a wonderful teacher in Italy and an inexperienced teacher in New York City. Maybe. Maybe not.

How can anyone hope to teach in a school, a class, or a society where disorder is tolerable? And where efforts to establish it are treated as equivalent to incarceration?

Oh, and by the way, I referred to the rule against pizza parties not as an example of out-of-control bureaucracy, but rather to ask you how meaningful school "autonomy" or "empowerment" actually is when the central authorities are still reaching deep into every school's activities and making rules that are utterly senseless.




I think that you erected an important sign-post when you suggested that the Italian teacher prepared her students before going into the museum. I think that preparation is something very much overlooked in American schools and culture. I am amazed whenever I read teachers expounding on how they expect children to arrive at school pre-trained with all of the socialization that they will ever need--and that the problems that unfold in the face of this attitude are the result of parents who either neglect to teach their children how to behave, or actively teach them to misbehave.

Acceptable behavior in a variety of settings is something that must be taught continuously at all levels. Certainly our lack of preparation when taking students out in public is a problem, but even more so is our lack of preparation of teachers to be able to deal with and teach behavior. Not only is "classroom management" not taught in any meaningful way, but we tend to scoff at anyone who thinks that there are people who can do so, particularly based on any sort of research.

We spend a lot of time sharing "horror stories" about our worst cases--and the horrible parents that we believe spawn them. For me this always begs the question: are teachers better parents that the rest of the lot? Frankly, some of best kid-wranglers in my experience have been folks who grew up in circumstances of extended family with lots of time spent helping out with babies, toddlers and young kids. These are the folks that I would prefer to have helping me on a museum trip. This kind of experience isn't typically coming out of the middle class suburbs--nor are the Ruby Payne types likely to recognize it.

But I see kids growing up in these kinds of experiences confronting inexperienced teachers who are clueless about the steps of setting expectations and supporting them. Some rise above and others fall to the lowest levels expected of them, almost challenging the teacher to stand up and act like the adults in their experience.

Just one more piece to add to the puzzle of what makes a "highly qualified" teacher. It takes some training and experience to get there. For those who don't have it in their native environment, we are going to have to start to provide it.

Many young people don’t respect adults. They don’t respect authority figures. They don’t respect their parents, or officers of the law, or teachers, or principals, or the grown-up in the store who chastises them for bad behavior or shoplifting.

The word "many" covers so many sins. If you are referring to the worst case scenario, then shouldn't you be specific?

For the most part, you are referring here to inner city schools or other schools with a high percentage of barely invested children with even less invested parents.

Why not say so, rather than imply that this is a broad-based problem?

The problem is knotted and deep. Part of it is curriculum (or lack thereof), part upbringing, part messages from the media, part a teacher's own skill at handling problems, and part an explosion of emotional problems into the classroom.

I experience the extremes over the course of the day. In rehearsal for the musical drama club, which I founded, discipline problems rarely arise, and students show their commitment and respect. People ask me what "strategies" I use there. It's not a question of strategies so much as a highly challenging, beautiful, and meaningful projecta that brings the students together. They are there by choice--but once there, I expect commitment from them.

In my regular classes, some students are enormously respectful and dedicated, others disdainful. Other teachers are more skilled than I at handling the range in their classes--but even they appear exhausted at the end of the day. One teacher I particularly respect has often told me how hard it is to handle a class of kids with such wildly different needs and severe behavior problems.

While these problems are likely more intense in an urban school than elsewhere, I doubt they are exclusive to urban schools. A few years ago I went back to my private girl's high school to visit (I have attended a variety of schools, public and private). There had been many exciting developments: a flourishing and expanding science department, study abroad programs, and more. Yet when I spoke with one of my former teachers, she confirmed my suspicion that students were just a little more restless than they were back in our day, and needed continued activity and stimulus.

Perhaps this restlessness is due in part to a loss of silence in our lives. There is always something blaring: the TV, the iPod, even the desktop. The cell phone makes it possible to talk with faraway friends while on the bus or subway, once a time for quiet thought and reading. Without silence, we forget how to listen. Without listening, we forget that we are not the center of everything. So we talk, and talk, and talk, over and under each other.

A school needs to assign high value to listening, and give kids something valuable to listen to. This has to be part of the school culture, or it won't happen. Individual teachers can get kids to be quiet, but if the quiet isn't in their minds, it won't last long.

Like anything else, this isn't "the" solution, but I see it as a big part of a reckoning with the problem.

Diane brings up good points. It is impossible to teach in unruly classrooms. College professors would not put up with the behavior we allow in the k-12 classrooms. Businesses would not put up with the unruly, disrespectful behavior either.

Margo, credentialing programs spend a tremendous amount of time on classroom management, but there are few if any consequences for the students to change their behavior. Classrooms will remain unruly until we hold the students accountable.

Colleges are successful because they can expel and flunk students. Students have a stake in their own education at the college level and we don't blame the professors if students don't go to class, refuse to do the work, refuse to behave, refuse to learn, etc.

No amount of money, statistics, community involvement, caring teachers, engaging lessons, outside motivators, merit pay, etc., will improve education and our schools until the students and parents are held accountable. Students and parents must have a stake in the educational process

I have a question for former teacher. Since my teacher training was back in the dark ages (and there was nothing that I would consider to be classroom management included)--who are the theorists contributing to what is being taught today? I am continually puzzled when I hear this emphasis on lack of consequences for students and the "if onlies" regarding expulsion and suspension. In my reading, expulsion and suspension are good indicators of a problem. No where have I seen any research that supports them as being solutions.

Margo, look at the success of our colleges and universities. If we blamed the professors for the lack of effort of their students, then we would have the same problems in our universities that we have at the k-12 level.

We keep raising the bar for teachers and lowering the bar for students and our k-12 schools continue to go downhill.

Disruption, I think it can be fairly said, is the dirty little secret in our most challenged schools. I call it a secret because it is a standard homily in teacher training that the key to classroom management is good instruction. If the students are engaged, that's ostensibly the sign of quality instruction. Thus, to admit you can't control your class is to admit your instructional skills are wanting. So it goes largely undiscussed outside of schools where the homily is pervasive--"if we had better teachers, we wouldn't have disruptive schools." While there's undoubtedly some truth there, it's a gross oversimplification.

I give you all the credit in the world, Diane, for pointing out the problem with the lack of respect in evidence in our schools. I agree with you that Dan Brown's book does a good job of turning up the lights on it. As a teacher, I used to observe that the standards of behavior I expected from my students too often went completely unreinforced in any other part of their lives--in the broader culture, media and entertainment, and in thousands of daily interactions with peers, on the streets and, yes, sometimes in the home. And in the absence of meaningful consequences, there was no way to enforce any standards of behavior.

I'm not a researcher, but it would interesting to do this study: Go into a struggling school and divide the staff into two groups. Ask the first group to list the five best teachers in the school. Ask the second group to name the five teachers with the best control of their students. I'd almost guarantee the lists are identical. Ask who has the best command of subject matter , however, and you'll hear about the really smart teachers who can't control their classes. In higher acheiving schools, I'd bet there's a greater correlation between those perceived as good teachers and subject mastery.

Part of the answer as a previous poster mentioned, is surely a more broadly shared accountability, that includes students and parents.


You have so eloquently written about the lack of content material in our schools. And surely, without an in-depth background about art, I would hardly see anyone enjoying a trip to the art museum. Without the historical context, what are students/adults to make of some old guy/gal putting paint on a canvas? Too often, those visits degrade to an overly simplistic “I like it/I don’t like it” which takes all of 10 seconds to decide.

So why do the teenagers in Siena, Italy enjoy/learn from the trip to the art museum while the New York students did not?

Possible reasons:

1. We just have ill-behaved kids. (I think not.)
2. Our school system is so poorly designed that our high school students see no benefit in going to a museum.

The idea that the teachers need to maintain better “control” and do better “classroom management” ignores the reality that a single teacher can not contain/control a classroom of 30 (almost) adults. Our colleges do not even try and yet are very successful at educating their students. Why would we expect our high school teachers to be successful at forcing our students to behave and learn at the same time?

We are over-burdening our teachers by both asking them to both “control” their students’ behavior and teach them well enough that they will enjoy a trip to the art museum. When a teacher’s main job is to control the behavior of their children, then *actual teaching and learning* will always take a back seat and in too many circumstances be completely thrown out.

Those Italian teachers were not “controlling” their students more than the New York teachers. Controlling behavior does not equate to genuine understanding and appreciation of art.

Erin Johnson

Since we are at the level of anecdote...I have had a son in Swiss schools, a daughter in German schools, and both attended a private international school in Tanzania. They find their high school in California to be the school where the students are best behaved.

The irony, though is that that the academic standards, as well as the culture of academics is stronger in Tanzania, Switzerland, and Germany than in the US. (According to my daugher "the kids here in Germany are a bunch of over-achieving nerds," to which of course I say "amen.")

How much of the advantages--and disadvantages--of the three non-US schools are due to the practices of early streaming. After 4th grade in Germany and Switzerland, and inherently in private IB schools.

The more I look at different school and university systems, the more careful I get about making too many generalizations too quickly. Mass public education both abroad and in the US is inherently complicated--and culture bound. It is important to look at what we can learn from other school systems. But each system also needs to be understood in a broader context as well.

Former Teacher:

I'm not sure why you side-stepped my question about the content of classroom management training that is included in credentialling programs these days.

But there are many reasons why a superficial comparison between K-12 and post secondary education doesn't provide much help. Obviously there are some profound developmental differences between a second grader and a graduate student. Certainly the cost of matriculation is differently allocated. As a current student myself, I reserve the right to withdraw from the class of a professor who doesn't know their stuff. I note that in most of my classes there are generally a few self-removals before the end of the quarter--for various reasons. I cannot ever recall a professor suspending or expelling anyone, though.

If you go back and review what instructors knew or thought that they knew about the Virginia Tech shooter--and how little that they felt able to do in response, you might find an analogous situation, but that doesn't help to prove your point.

There does seem to be an unspoken something that teachers want to be able to do that they feel that they are prohibited from doing (the elusive "meaningful consequences"). I ask--what is it that you want to be able to do, what prevents you, and most importantly, what is it that leads you to believe that it is effective?

Interesting posts!
I teach from this premise:
Antecedents have the capacity to change behavior; consequences maintain behavior. From my worldview, a teaching model is proactive, and emphasizes the antecedent, not the consequence.
And Robert, I think your proposed experiment and analysis is fascinating.
For me, teaching is about respect AND content knowledge, requiring constant attention to both.

Perhaps there is some connection between the rugged-individual-bucking-against-the-powers-that-be ethos of American culture, the State compulsory schooling laws that herd children into holding pens, and the disrespect that children express.

Just maybe an educational system that respected children's capabilities for making meaningful and important decisions about what to do and how to do it would evoke more respectful behavior.

In my understanding there are three things that are always learned in every situation even if only unconsciously; the power structure by which we manage our own and other people's behavior for the common good, the exchange processes by which we get what we need, and the patterns of consciousness that result from being embedded in those power structures and exchange processes. (I've written more about this here: http://www.teach-kids-attitude-1st.com/learning-theory.html) Based on this understanding it is important to understand that compulsory schooling laws, high stakes testing laws, and other measures far removed from the classroom have subtle but very real impacts. Children and most teachers do not have any conscious knowledge of these effects, but they are effected nonetheless.

I would argue that the disrespect that you observe in children's behavior is a systemic problem not a classroom management problem. Disrespect is coming from the top and it is being sent right back up from the bottom. Teachers are stuck in the middle.


Don Berg

As someone in the business of selling books I find your comments about corporeal punishment innane. No, my dear, it is not completely obvious by way of liberal bias that corporeal punishment is part of a bygone and unnecessary age. Punishment is the missing ingredient that all educators seem to miss when meditating on the need for improvement in the schools. It is so obvious that you all miss it for what it is the: the sine qua non for all instruction--particularly where young men are concerned.

I very much want to believe that other countries do not have the discipline problems that we have, but I simply can't find any evidence to prove that theory.

That said, I agree with many of the comments that discipline is a serious hurdle, at least in some schools, and is consistently overlooked.

I apologize in advance for my long posting. I won't add anymore responses to this blog, so that other voices may be heard.
I agree with Sean and Corey's responses.

Margo, Cho was kicked out of his Virginia Tech classes and should have been kicked out of the university. Unfortunately the university tried to help him through one-on-one instruction. Many of Cho’s peers complained about him, yet Virginia Tech did nothing. Our society is so worried about offending the troublemakers that we make everyone else suffer. Cho never should have graduated from high school and he should never have been allowed into college. Cho should have been referred to social services/mental health services, so he could receive the help that he needed. His high school teachers should have been more honest with the colleges where he applied. We have to quit making excuses for students and start holding students accountable.

If you yell and scream, throw things, cuss out the professors, etc., then you will be expelled from your university classes. The student from Florida who interrupted John Kerry's speech was arrested and had to write an apology for his behavior. He is on probation and must prove that he can behave. Why can't we do this at the middle school and high school levels?

Margo, universities and businesses do not tolerate non-performing troublemakers and neither should our k-12 schools.

We need to stop letting students dictate to us how they will behave and what if any school work they will do. We (the educational community) should decide what students need to know in order to be kind, caring, productive adults. If the students don't like it and/or are bored, too bad. I didn't like every class I took and some of the most “boring” classes ended up being the most meaningful and helpful in life. I'm glad I was held accountable and that my teachers were not blamed for my inadequacies.

I knew when I was five years old there were consequences for good and bad behavior. My first grade class had 45 students and ONE teacher (no aides, no counselors, etc). We were well behaved and a lot of learning went on in the classroom. We also had only one principal for grades k-8. We didn't need vice principals, deans of discipline, counselors, behavior specialists, etc., because everyone knew there was a heavy price to pay for misbehaving and/or not participating in class and completing the work.

In my thirteen years of school only one person flunked and she was held back. My husband grew up in South Central Los Angeles (the inner city), and his experience in the school system was similar to mine. 35-40 years ago our schools worked because of accountability and consequences. We may have better teachers today, and more engaging lessons, but our school are not doing well because we of social promotion and lack of accountability and consequences for the students.

In all of the schools where I taught over 50% of the students were flunking all of their classes. This is happening at the schools all over the country. The students have 5 to 6 different teachers per semester, in middle school and high school, so that is 10 to 12 different teachers per year, yet over 50% of the students flunk all of their classes. Were all 10-12 teachers every year terrible? Are the teachers to blame for the students who refuse to study, participate, and behave?

For those of you who say expelling the students and turning them over to social services will cause more problems, what about the problems caused by leaving the non-performing troublemakers in the classroom? How many students are harmed and dreams denied because we allow the non-performing troublemakers to stay in the classrooms? Will we completely destroy our educational system and spend every dime we have to try to “engage” students who don't want to learn and who don't value education?

Education should be free, but it is up to the student to partake. We need to hold students accountable and teach them good behavior from the beginning of their academic career. If a student doesn't want to learn, then call the parents and/or send the students to social services, but get them out of the classroom. Allowing non-performing troublemakers to stay in the classroom harms the learning of all of the other students and causes good teachers to leave the profession.

No amount of money, statistics, community involvement, caring teachers, engaging lessons, outside motivators, merit/combat pay, etc., will improve education and our schools until the students and parents are held accountable. The students and the parents must have a STAKE in the educational process.

Three steps to help fix our schools:

• Retain students who flunk their classes and send them to alternative schools if they are more than two grade levels behind
• Standardize exit exams at every grade level. If you don’t pass you are not promoted to the next grade level
• Expel students who are disruptive. Disruptive students should not be allowed to destroy the education of the other students. Let their parents and/or social services help the angry, disruptive, dangerous “students,” and do not let them come back to school until they can behave.

Former Teacher - great points.

The reason that we have all these difficulties in managing students is because we expect too much of our teachers.

If we used external exams, instead of grades, as the primary method of advancement then the motivation to be distruptive as a student is drastically lowered. That is, students who are disruptive in an external evaluation environment become anti-social as they prevent their peers from learning the material needed to advance. There is almost nothing better than having peer pressure aligned with learning to create a positive, quality learning environment.

The way we have it set up now with the teacher assigning grades, disruptive behavior allows the class to slow down and the relative amount of work (for all students) decreases.

Our classrooms need to be focused completely on learning. And for that to happen the responsiblity to learn needs to rest with the learner.

Erin Johnson

I find a lot of the comments here interesting and helpful: I agree with Erin Johnson about the burdens on teachers, Don Berg about the systemic problems, Robert Pondiscio about the "smart teachers who can't control their classes," and Former Teacher about the need to remove disruptive students from the classroom (just to name a few). And yet my "teacher's conscience" tells me Margo/Mom is right too--there are things a teacher can do right there in the classroom, and approaches that actually work over time.

The problem is, teachers do not always have the power to do what they need to do. Let's take seating. Changing the configuration can help up to a point. What if you're a traveling teacher, and you come to rooms where desks are in little groups and kids sit facing each other? You can have them rearrange the desks, but at the expense of class time. Moreover, the kids will take that as license to start playing around.

This "cooperative learning" ("workshop-model," etc.) business wreaks havoc when the kids do not handle it responsibly. It takes away authority from the teacher, sending the kids the message that they should be paying attention to each other, not to her. Yet the schools cling fast to it and tell the teachers they should simply assign differentiated tasks and hold the students "accountable." Forget that that's only useful for certain kinds of lessons.

Teachers come home every day with their spirits broken and with hours of work ahead of them. Many feel awful about wanting to leave, but are (mostly) deluded in thinking anyone will shed a tear if they do. The system churns on--more inexperienced teachers march into the classroom, brightening lives until their own lives lose fire. And teachers who leave are branded as careerists who weren't serious about teaching in the first place.

My own "horror stories" are on the mild side, but they get under the skin: kids saying inexcusably rude and inappropriate things to me (as well as to each other); talking loudly throughout class and laughing in my face; coming in unprepared and blaming me. Once or twice, and you get over it. Day after day, and it's harder to separate from yourself.

Any school that wants to address this problem must address it both systemically and individually. They must bring in a real curriculum and get rid of mandaded models and fads that restrict what a teacher can do. They must remove disruptive kids from classrooms and help teachers address the daily problems that come up. They should hold assemblies and parent conferences in order to discuss the school's program and expectations. Why don't they do these things? In all fairness, many administrators work energetically to deal with problems and help teachers. But no one really wants to touch the fads.

Diane and Debbie,
After reading your blog on the school systems, one thing comes to mind...what happened to our school system. Not 50 years ago, children would go to school, respect the teacher, learn what was expected without complaint and be successful. Maybe this was because each student was taught what they needed to know and the schools and parents were on the same team. I think that is a major point that we are lacking in today's society (I'm sure you have heard that before). Our government seems to have the idea that if we force children to stay in school by creating punishments if they don't, that these students will become successful. I disagree. We have to look at how we are teaching and change it to make the students WANT to stay. Standardized testing is not the way to go...especially holding a student back a grade if they fail it. We are creating a hatred for the school systems and it is falling back on the teachers. How much sense does it make for a teacher's job to hang in the balance if their students do not pass the standardized test? All this is doing is making it so we are teaching to the test...a great disservice to our children.
I don't know if I will see it as a teacher, but hopefully my daughter will not be exposed to this type of learning style that is obviously, wrong!

My apologies to Don Berg--of course you are right with regard to the problem being systemic. Classroom management, for lack of a more appropriate term for teaching behavioral "stuff" along with "content" is more or less a symptom. Systemically the issues of student behavioral learning are overlooked (teachers--and I still hold to this until Former Teacher lets me know exactly what it is that is being taught--are not taught much about the behavioral aspects of working with children). We have a dogged allegiance to individualism that plays out in teachers being thrown into classrooms (despite the presence of some mentoring programs in some places) with a sink or swim attitude.

Diana's example of the itinerant teacher is a telling one. First off, we know that the itinerant is most likely the lowest person on the totem pole, also most likely to have the most challenging students (the remedial classes, integrated algebra, business English, whatever) and the most preparations (maybe even taking on an out of field assignment because it needed to be filled). That is how our assignment system operates. So, least experience, most work, least support (no classroom). It might be helpful if one or more of those teachers who had their classrooms arranged in the face-to-face small group style worked with her on developing lessons that stressed that kind of work (and kids should be listening to each other, but the adults need to be able to set the parameters of responsibility on what they are discussing)--or adapted their classrooms to better suit her more limited repertoire of teaching strategies. Those are building-level supports that could be initiated by experienced teachers. There are no legal prohibitions. No one will get sued. Classroom behavior is likely to improve. This is the beginning of a situation in which a young teacher knows that someone "has her back." Can't help but think that going home at the end of the day would feel better.

There are other systemic improvements that would require some system change--and teachers could ask for and support them. These would include rearranging the way that teaching assignments are doled out to increase the likelihood of the most experienced teachers taking the most challenging assignments. Generally teachers unions oppose these kinds of concessions--but it doesn't help the conditions of learning, nor does it help with teacher induction.

It is very easy to wax nostaligic about the way that we remember our own upbringing (especially when it focuses on how good we were in comparison to the current crop of youngsters), but this does not provide the best, most accurate, or highly scientific means of making decisions. Part of what is not in most of our memory banks is what was happening to students of other economic class, other racial groups, or those with disabilities. There were powerful consequences attached to each of these things. Students with disabilities might receive no education at all--or preparation for menial labor, lower socio-economic strata were routed into developing secretarial skills, home economics and shop classes, or not graduating at all. African-American students were counseled that even if they aspired to college, there would be no place for them there. At the time I graduated high school, reasonably well-paid factory jobs were still readily available to non-graduates.

All this backward look at history adds up to the fact that there were students who were systemically put out, pushed out, or denied entry. At that time, they might still have had access to means of economic support. Not so today. The economic consequences of denied participation have escalated. The consequences weigh heavily on us all (check into the cost of imprisonment and the rising number of inmates; look into unemployment, food stamps, lack of health care). And the data tend to support that it is students from these same groups who disproportionately receive suspension and expulsion--even when the "crimes" are equivalent.

Mr. O'Reilly (who, I believe is being modest when he says he makes his living selling books--if I am not mistaken he makes a substantial living from stirring up the ire of listeners and watchers who buy-in to the answers of an extremely conservative agenda), is very likely to disagree with all this "liberal" stuff. But, I would urge all to put the politics aside, as well as the emotions regarding how we remember our childhood, and consider the data. Read the research. As educators, and educated people, I think that this is a reasonable way to operate.

Margo, as long as you and others continue to make excuses for bad behavior and/or lack of effort, we will continue to have problems.

My friend quoted a statistic stating that blacks are incarcerated at a higher rate than whites and therefore our system is unfair and racist.

I said, "Men are incarcerated at a much higher rate than women, so is our system sexist too?"

As Mark Twain once said "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics."

Bottom line, teachers should be able to teach and students should be able to learn and anyone preventing that from happening should be removed from the classroom.

Margo/Mom: for clarification: I am not the lowest on the totem pole. Many teachers are traveling this year. That's a separate issue that I can't get into here.

I have a lot to learn, but I do not have a limited repertoire of teaching strategies. I use group work amply. I use class discussion. Independent work. Jigsaw. You name it. Different lessons call for different kinds of teaching. My problem is not with teaching strategies, but with handling kids who blatantly disrespect and disrupt the lesson.

My first two years, I had my own room. This year, things changed. By the end of last year, I felt I had a grip on classroom discipline and "management." This year, it got thrown off.

I would not make assumptions about the skills and knowledge of teachers who get thrown into such situations. I don't mean to come across as defensive--this isn't about me. It's about systemic problems that then get associated with the teacher herself and her qualifications. "X is traveling, so she must be the lowest of the low."

Some of the kids make those assumptions too. That's part of the problem. They see a teacher with a room; respect goes up. Without a room; respect goes down. That is, not all the kids, but the ones most likely to disrupt in the first place. I have a few who do everything they can to help me. One runs up to me in the hall with a big smile and takes the heavy bin off my hands. "Miss, I'll carry it," he says.


Leonard Cohen, a Canadian, agrees that American democracy has subtle and not-so-subtle effects.

"Its coming to America first,
The cradle of the best and the worse ...
Its here the family's broken, and here the lonely say,
the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way ...

I have one native born American student with a father at home. When it reaches this point, where do the kids get access to the uncles and coaches and other mentors?

The school should fill this gap and, at our best, we could use electronic technology and digital miracles for real education and socialization. But high poverty neighborhood schools have no credibility, and kids and adults all feel free to succumb to peer pressure. Before cell phones, I don't remember moms being regularly summoned to school to beat up their daughters' rivals.

Robert I agree that instructional improvements and professional development can't do the job, but I'd offer a corrective about comparing teachers. I teach social studies which is much easier than math, or foreign language, and there is no comparison between the challenges with my freshmen as with my seniors. And being a veteran, I can get all of the disciplinary backing I want. A principal, who was frustrated by her inability to suspend a chronically disruptive student for attempted murder because the student was on a 504 for a medical problem (which is governed under IEP rules), allowed me to study every disciplinary referral in our school for a year. When principals had time, they did an excellent job but when things got crazy, they would ignore nonviolent disruptions. They NEVER provided disciplinary backing for young or struggling teachers. The principals did their best but then they would repeatedly get undercut by the central office and forced to take dangerous students back, prompting morale to plummet.

American anti-intellectualism contributed. If a principal was punched, someone was always suspended and if an administrator was bloodied, someone always went to jail. But if a teacher was punched, that's just routine. I took two punches to the head before I clocked in on the first day in my regular school. I had long experience with felons, but to the asst. principal I was just a rookie so he let them go. (the outnumbered gang kids appreciated it that I took the punches directed towards them.)

The worst AVOIDABLE problem is the way our lack of professional self-respect means that we conform to the dirtiest of the "dirty little secret." We are socialized to believe that good teachers don't write referrals. During last summer's professional developement, an honors teacher explained how she had been cussed out and threatened. Said had wanted to cry, but waited until alone. She had wanted to write a referral but didn't. That statement prompted a round of applause by the workshop people and 1/2 of the teachers, while the rest rolled their eyes and mummered. I was most frustrated by one teacher who was praised for not writing referrals because I would write them every time I went into his classroom to break up a fistfight.

But I don't want to blame educators or parents. I want an honest discussion like we're having.

I keep remembering a riot-like disturbance where I was alone dealing with the situation (the big fights were in the gym) when the cops showed up. I'm 240 pounds but they all dwarfed me, and they took one look and pulled out tasers. I still don't know the answer of whether they have the crazier view of the world. Or we whether we who see this as normal are the ones who are out of touch.

I notice the debate back and forth about is the system flawed is the disrespect based on gender or area, I don't agree fully with any one concept. Students differ in schools a mile apart or state to state. I teach only girls at my campus and some act great for me and for other teachers they are the worst. Then there are the few that do not respond in a positive way to any person. Choose your battles with those types of students and order stays fairly regulated. Other that those few words, most of my students will respect you if you treat them like you would an adult.

As I observe in classrooms, I do notice that many young students have no respect at all when it comes to authority figures. But whats most shocking is that I see an increasingly number of adults who lack that same respect when it comes to the students.

As far as discipline not being as big a factor in other countries: I believe that its due to the differences in curriculum, media, and overall culture.

College professors would not put up with the behavior we allow in the k-12 classrooms.

That's an interesting comment. I usually teach nights at a college, and I'm amazed at listening to the complaints of my colleagues about our shared students. I think, because college is voluntary and paid for, that the sort of person who can't sit in a chair rarely opts to go.

However, on the occasions when such students defy the odds and show up, I'm able to deal with them much more easily and effectively than the full-time college teachers, who have little experience with this sort of thing.

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