The Great Discipline Conundrum
Retiring after 38 years in education, my coworker and friend recently described his school days attending Catholic Grade School in Southwest Louisville, an area then–and still–a working class and comparatively impoverished part of town. If his bangs reached too far, they’d get clipped off on the spot. If his tie wasn’t tight, shirt buttoned to the top–even in sweltering 3rd floor classrooms–then immediate detention. That day. No negotiating the penalty of rewriting the school handbook, no matter how long it took. Paddling was common.
For many “old-school” teachers who attended school in an age of greater conformity and fear-based discipline, the culture of our schools is in dire straits because there is no discipline. No respect. No consequences for students who don’t toe the line.
I can only imagine what he feels seeing students cuss out teachers then returning to class the next day considering, back in the day, similar insubordination at his school would result in expulsion.
While teaching at various Kentucky public schools for nine years, I’ve rarely seen disciplinary action that deters or prevents repeat behavior. And if schools aren’t going to punish students in order to alter or deter behaviors, then what the heck are we doing wasting time on in school suspension, detention, and other completely ineffective actions?
The status quo is to remove disruptive students from class or school. Many principals and other building leaders understand they must honor teachers whose classrooms can’t function in an orderly or safe manner if Johnny or Susie Troublemaker is in the room. The problem is, Johnny and Susie return after a day or two, repeat their behaviors, maybe end up getting sent to an alternative school for a few months. Then they’ll likely return to school, where behavior remains unchanged, or transfer to another school where the cycle of disruption begins again.
School leaders are under pressure to lower suspension numbers, too few schools employ restorative discipline, and far too few students receive proper guidance from their parent(s) or guardians about how to behave, act, and communicate appropriately. To further complicate the issue, there is a debate about whether or not the “discipline gap” in schools is the result of unequal punishments to different groups of students.
In Jefferson County Schools, where I teach, overall suspension numbers are down, but African American students have accounted for 66% of total high school suspensions this year, despite comprising roughly 36% of the student body; these statistics align with a national trend. According to this Huffington Post article, a study by The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA states that 24% of black students and only 7.1% of white students were suspended from school during 2009-2010.
Based on personal observation, I dispute racism as the main cause for this gap–you only need to look at the two-parent household gap to start identifying one factor main for such a stark contrast in disciplinary infractions.
So what is my approach to discipline? Working at a variety of schools, I’ve found that if I focus most of my energy on building relationships with students, crafting engaging lessons, and practicing class procedures, then I’ve usually avoided major class disruptions. I take great pride in trying to connect with students across races and socioeconomic groups.
I don’t buy the argument that it’s the students job to sit there, be quiet, and learn. Sure, there is always a student who is going to pop off no matter what I do. I’ve had students who are bipolar, been rape victims, and are hungry when they enter the classroom, among other conditions I can’t control. All I know if if I sit back and pass out work packets and expect students to comply, I’m putting myself in a tenuous position.
I’ve realized that I’ve got to take a preventative approach to discipline through sound instruction, knowing that if I allow certain behaviors to escalate or reach the administration, it’s unlikely that behavior will be changed based on the consequence. It’s clear that discipline strategies such as in-school and out-of-school suspensions aren’t working, and it’s time for a paradigm shift. We can’t control who comes through our classroom doors, or how many guardians each student has, but we can shift how we deal with transgressions.
What are your thoughts? If you teach, do you find school-level discipline to be effective? What are some of your memories of effective or ineffective discipline you experiences or witnessed as a student? Should parents be held more accountable for disruptive students?