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Engagement for the Ringleaders: Where Discipline and Educational Options Meet

In last week's blog, I talked about the in-class problems caused by misbehaving students who engaged in non-stop talking in class, cursing, refusal to comply with directions, hitting each other, etc. I questioned the wisdom of the ever more relaxed disciplinary codes in the NYC school system, and wondered to what degree students should be held accountable for their behavior--particularly in the teenage years.

As I anticipated, about half the responses I received were to the effect that this is "a teacher problem, not a student problem"--in other words, critiques of my personal classroom management. The assumption is that if I had better pedagogy, and better techniques for focusing the students' attention and gaining their cooperation, I would not have these problems. I respect this critique, and have indeed written before about my difficulties with classroom management; it is something I am constantly working to improve, both by observing teachers who are skilled at it and by familiarizing myself with literature on the subject.

Nevertheless, I reject the notion that my classroom management is the sole issue here. Apart from pointing out that other teachers--presumably, not all of whom are bad classroom managers--are having the same problems I am with the same cohorts, I submit my own varied experiences this year for consideration: While I struggle to manage some classes, other classes of the same grade and skill level run like a dream. Am I a different teacher in these classes? Doubtful, though perhaps I have different "chemistry" with those other groups of kids. In my experience, the functionality of the well-behaved classes is largely determined by the absence of certain key "ringleader" students, who--in making noise, arguing, cursing, or being disrespectful--manage to distract other students, variously drawing them into their malfeasance, and derail the lesson.

Private schools and some charter schools have the luxury of kicking out chronically disruptive or misbehaving students. Public schools do not. (The question of whether or not they should be able to do so is probably a separate discussion.) What I do maintain is that to the extent that teachers are responsible for managing their students' behavior, there must also be some means of instilling discipline--and consequences are necessary for holding students accountable for behavior. It's not an acceptable situation when students say, "Oh, now you can't get in trouble for cursing out a teacher anymore!"--the lax disciplinary regulations of the current code do nothing to ameliorate problematic classroom behaviors, and leave kids unprepared for the realities of the working world, to boot. (I mean, really--as I tell the kids, will cursing out your boss result in anything but getting fired?)

The conversation that most needs to be had--which I want to have, here--is how good behavior and student accountability can be promoted, particularly in the older grades. I believe this can be done with a two-pronged approach: Structure, and engagement. The structure component would involve a much more stringent disciplinary code, wherein bad behavior would be addressed with clear and appropriate consequences that would be consistent district-wide.

Engagement (which is what everyone wants to talk about these days!) is something to work on not only at the classroom level, but also at the national level, by providing a broader menu of educational options to high school students. As several commentators on last week's blog suggested, a one-size-fits-all approach to school only promotes engagement for certain kids. A true push for student engagement would happen not only at the classroom level, but nationwide, in a move to offer more trade school and career-tech options to students alongside the traditional college track. If we engaged all our "ringleaders" in a productive, personalized, and career-focused way, I believe classroom management issues would all but disappear.

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