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Crime and No Punishment: Discipline in High School Classrooms

Before I became a high school teacher nearly a decade ago, I envisioned my job would look like this: I'd sit in warm, carpeted room, sun streaming through the windows, surrounded by 15-20 desks, in which well-prepared students (who had all done the reading the night before!) would eagerly raise their hands, vying for floor-time in which to offer their interpretations of passages from Hamlet or Macbeth. I'd call on them one by one, moderating discussions in which the students would respond to each other in an orderly fashion. Then, I'd perhaps put out a question or idea that would advance the discussion further; I'd also pass back essays on which I'd written reams of comments, which the students would eagerly dissect and come see me during my lunch period to discuss.

If you're laughing now, then you probably also teach in a public high school, and you'll note that nowhere in my fantasy did I envision myself a disciplinarian. Part of the reason I initially was drawn to high school teaching, besides the appeal of focusing exclusively on English, was the idea that I would not have to spend as much time disciplining 15-16 year olds as I would in the lower grades. I realize now that I was mistaken about many things in this rose-colored vision, not the least of which the amount of time I'd spend on "classroom management," an all-encompassing term that involves maintaining control over the classroom--not only in focusing students' attention and keeping them busy, but also correcting and addressing problematic classroom behaviors.

This is not to say we don't have great discussions; we often do, and for the most part I truly enjoy being with the students. But the amount of time I spend trying to get them to stop having side-conversations, stop hitting each other, stop cursing, stop walking around the classroom for no reason, etc., is frankly absurd. And that's not in itself such a problem, except that they talk back--whenever you ask them to stop talking, they'll say, "I wasn't talking!" or "He was talking more than I was and you didn't say anything to him!" The day-to-day efforts of managing their classroom behavior--getting everyone quiet, focused, back on task every time someone starts talking--takes up an inordinate amount time that should go to instruction.

And the thing is, I don't think it should have to be that way. There will definitely be those who think I'm insensitive for saying this, but these kids are 16, not six. At some point, no matter how difficult their upbringing, how uninvolved their parents, or how dry the material is on a given day (because, let's face it, even one's favorite subject isn't riveting 100% of the time), high school students have to be held accountable for their own behavior. Though teachers are responsible for keeping the kids in line (by implication, if their pedagogy were on point, these problems would disappear), the reality of the situation is that many times the kids can't be engaged by even the most fascinating lesson--and, with virtually no consequences for non-violent infractions, teachers' hands are tied. (This is especially true in light of recent legislation, which loosened the discipline code.) Calling kids' homes generally yields only temporary results, if any; many schools, like ours, do not have money to pay for supervised detention; suspension--while it gets the kids out of class for a bit--penalizes the school, because students are being deprived of their education, and is often treated as a vacation by the kids.

Kids who come to our classrooms from places like Jamaica and Ghana are often appalled at the behaviors of American-born kids, stating that they take education for granted. One kid told me that in Jamaica you had to pay for school--there was no such thing as free education. He believed that the fact that public school is free here is why the kids are so willing to mess around. I see his point. Without any requirement of a real investment from the kids, or conversely, meaningful consequences such as hard detention (Catholic school variety, where you have to do cleaning around the school, should work), suspension, or even the threat of expulsion for the toughest repeat offenders, the kids consistently get one message: Even in their teenage years, they are not responsible for their own behavior. And that's an extremely detrimental message to send them, undermining both their educational goals in the present, and their employment prospects a few years down the line.

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The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher's Perspective are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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