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School Discipline: American as Apple Pie

So, it wasn't my intention to talk about discipline for a third week in a row. Then I read a letter to the school board of Louisiana's Lafayette Parish written by teacher Abby Breaux, and so much of what she said resonated with me and with other teachers I know that I wanted to mention it in this blog. Ms. Breaux is a 25-year veteran teacher who is leaving the system due to manifold frustrations, including emphasis on standardized testing, de-emphasis on creative teaching, newfangled education "plans" that are pushed on teachers and then done away with in short amounts of time (one of my fellow teachers sometimes calls these plans "magic beans"), and of course, the consistent loosening of disciplinary standards system-wide.

Ms. Breaux calls attention to a problem of students who are not held accountable for their behavior. Rather than blaming teachers for their decision to act out, disrupt class, and make poor choices, Ms. Breaux states that consequences for violating rules must be made known to students and enforced consistently, from grades K-12. She points out that the same students who--in their younger years--constantly got away with "little infractions" are now the ones featured in the news under "local arrests." Furthermore, when administrators do not back teachers up on disciplinary issues with students, it sends a clear message: Students do not have to respect teachers, and are not held responsible for your own actions.

In my past two posts on this blog, much has been made (by me, and by readers) of the connection between a teacher's classroom management and students' behavior. I acknowledged that my classroom management could improve, while at the same time, asserted that loosening the disciplinary code (as NYCDOE has done) would only have detrimental effects--and that there had to be some means of holding students accountable. Ms. Breaux's letter underlies the point that (1) the issues of increased student misbehavior and diminished behavioral expectations are problems all across the country, not just in New York, and (2) that good classroom management and a consistent code of conduct are inextricably linked, such that they cannot exist separately.

Teachers must have the disciplinary resources to enforce a certain standard of conduct. All the good instruction in the world becomes null when there are no consequences for poor behaviors; students require structure, clear guidelines, and consistent expectations, the enforcement of which becomes the basis of strong classroom management. And when students REALLY step out of line--cursing out teachers, for instance--there must be immediate repercussions that are followed through, in order to make sure that the student knows this is unacceptable behavior. Currently, there are few such repercussions in NYCDOE regulations; no differentiation is made between cursing out a teacher and cursing in general, such that students now believe it is acceptable to verbally attack teachers (since it no longer merits a suspension.) This is a situation that I know too many teachers in the NYCDOE have experienced, and one that I find particularly unacceptable in terms of the disrespect it fosters for teachers, for their classmates, and for the learning process as a whole.

One assertion that has regularly been made on the blog is that disruptive, disrespectful behavior in class is somehow "American," as in, "American teens have been behaving this way for 50 years." I don't know who finds this explanation satisfying! Does viewing this behavior as akin to apple pie and baseball somehow improve it? Does saying it's "American" speak to its intractability? Does it somehow excuse the unfortunate cultural norm in which the value of education is consistently diminished? Does it absolve us of our responsibility to do something about this? Comments like that one frustrate me, as I'm sure they do Ms. Breaux.

I also think that the many students I have who are well-behaved, focused on their studies, ambitious, and completely obsessed with monster-romance novels (I have to mention this because I think it's so funny and cute) would be offended at the presumption that they would behave terribly simply because they're American teens. They are lovely students, who daily endure a small percentage of peers who are permitted to annoy the heck out of them in every single class, due to a total lack of consequences from the top down. And when the kids themselves are saying, "Miss, why doesn't anyone get suspended around here? They should be punished--they'd learn a lesson! Why are New York City schools like this? My high school in Ghana/Jamaica/Ivory Coast/Philippines wasn't like this!"--then you KNOW discipline is a problem.

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