Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Keeping The Classroom Safe

Every teacher has stories. 

In my first year, two students were already sitting front to try and improved their focus, but one day they got on each other's last nerves. They came up out of their desks to square off, and before I even thought about it, I stepped forward so that I was between these two very large seniors. My only though at that moment was, "Oh shit. I've made a huge mistake." I got through the moment only because a third student got up and restrained one of the two combatants and I could safely turn my attention to the other. 

Decades later, I still had classes in which one or two volatile students could singlehandedly threaten the safe function of the class. These were students I could talk to one-on-one and build a decent rapport, but teenagers are not always masters of their own situations or their responses to them.

I taught for decades in a small rural-ish school, and the volatility in the building varied from year to year (we knew, for instance, that we were in for a rough ride the year that teachers had to break up a fist fight at freshman orientation--between two mothers of incoming students).

Violence in school comes from a variety of sources, often coming as the result of other pressures and problems that spill over into the classrooms or halls of the school. It virtually never occurs because of some "bad kids," but that doesn't mean you can best secure the safety of the learning environment for the other students by just shaking your head and saying, "Well, he's not really a bad kid."

After a year or more of anecdotal accounts spreading here and there, the research is starting to come in on school violence over the past year, and it confirms what almost everyone seemed to be saying for months--this was a bad year for student fights and physical attacks in schools.

The headline for the Chalkbeat piece (Pandemic effect: More fights and class disruptions, new data show) suggests that the pandemic is to blame, and certainly there are plenty of teachers who talked this year about students who had forgotten how to do school, how to coexist peacefully with other students. 

There are plenty of other places to point as well. It's hard to imagine that watching parents turn up on line and on the news for screaming at school boards or declaring that teachers are evil, indoctrinating groomers would not trickle down for an erosion of respect among students. 

Some folks will continue to point at "squishy" programs like school versions of restorative justice, some of which are undoubtedly terribly implemented. When students know that there will be no real consequences for their actions, that does not help maintain a safe school environment for everyone else.

School discipline (like school most everything) requires a tricky balance-- and a different tricky balance for each student. An authoritarian regime in which administrators insist on browbeating and crushing students is disastrous. A fuzzy administrative approach that involves nothing more than a friendly chat in the office is ineffective. Students who are "acting out" in dangerous and hurtful ways are still human beings, and their actions are probably indicative of issues that are weighing on them. At the same time, the other students need to know that their classroom, their school, is a safe place to be. Neither crushing spirits into compliance nor refusing to demand certain social behaviors from students works for the school as a whole.

Part of the solution is staffing. When a student needs to be out of your class, he has to go somewhere. Sitting in an office with a secretary isn't terribly effective. I'm not going to argue in favor of hiring a school resource officer to handle every bit of student misbehavior as if it were a police matter, either. 

There's a piece of old teacher wisdom about classroom management that says you should focus on what you want the students to do rather than what you don't want them to do. Don't say "stop that," but say "start this." I'd argue that a similar idea writ large works for a school; don't focus on what kind of behaviors and students you want to stamp out, but focus instead on what culture and behavior you want to promote.

This has to be teamed up with a culture that treats students like human beings. Positive reinforcement is fine, but getting a silly trinket doesn't motivate you in a professional development session, and it won't motivate your students, either. Nobody wants to be a problem; nobody (okay, almost nobody) sets out to be that bad guy. Sometimes folks need some help getting there--but "help getting there" doesn't mean "free pass for stomping all over people on the way."

There may be one other factor that connects the violence uptick with the pandemic. The pandemic robbed many institutions of their inertia and places where compliance had become a habit--well, that habit was lost.

And what that may mean is that, as with other aspects of school, folks have a chance to build a new set of habits from scratch. Schools have a chance to approach discipline more mindfully, with more deliberate thinking about what kind of culture they'd like to build (hint--a culture of forced compliance is not your best choice). I'm not super-hopeful that schools struggling to get righted will take full advantage of that opportunity, but we should at least wave at it as it floats by.

I have another story from my first year.

I was teaching--handing back papers, actually--when a student from an earlier class came into my room and began to threaten me. Like, standing a few inches away and threatening to grab me by the tie and throw me across the room. I kept doing what I was doing because I didn't know anything else to do. The students in the class just sat there (later they said, "Half of us thought you were petrified and half of us thought you are some kind of martial artist and you didn't want to kill him"). 

And then he left. And I got through the rest of the day in which I had no breaks left, no chance to contact the office (1980, so pretty low tech). And then, after the last class dismissed and school was out, he came back, and sat down, and we talked for like an hour. He was angry and frustrated over something. He had a history of ragey stuff (I looked up his record and found it included throwing a desk at the teacher in 4th grade). 

"Why me," I asked one of my colleagues later. "I thought we had a pretty good working relationship." 

"Well, that's it," my colleague replied. "He trusts you." And he took his suspension for the incident without complaint and we finished the year just fine. I often wonder what became of him, even as I wonder about the many ways the whole thing could have gone sideways. If he had not had a place to rage, would he have become violent? Brought in a gun? How did my students in that class process the event? Could I have handled the whole thing better? Could the school system have handled that kid better? I can tell you one thing I did for all of us--I never left my door unlocked again, not for thirty-some years. 

How does a school, or a teacher, handle these things, keep an even keel when the seas are wracked by violence. How do you measure out a response to a "student fight" when it can be anything from a silly goof ("Let's make a fight video!") to an inchoate eruption of existential rage and fear and hurt? What do you even calculate. The following year, the year after I left, a middle school student brought a weapon to school and held her English class hostage. What do you even do with that.

I really only have two principles that ever guided me through the issue:

1) Students are actual human beings and deserve to be treated as such.

2) Students deserve to not have their own educations continually interrupted by other peoples' disruptive behavior, nor should they spend time in school being worried about their own physical or psychological safety.

School violence is one of those education issues that defies any sort of easy answer. Consequently, I don't trust anyone who says "This Thing is the cause" or "This Thing is the answer." I don't trust anyone who has a clear, concise, neat bow with which to wrap up the whole issue. We can't sort it out effectively for adults; why would we expect to do any better for young humans

1 comment:

  1. By the end of my career I had classroom discipline distilled down to one simple rule in my 8th grade science room:
    Maintain "lab decorum".

    After explaining the meaning of decorum and linking this idea to a world full of lab students, just like them it worked like magic.

    All I needed was a very short *bullet list posted in the room to help them understand behaviors that were not only appropriate but universal. They bought into this with surprising enthusiasm, I think, because the expectations were reasonable, concrete, and easy to comply with. After that, management involved some minor corrections and some gentle reminders.

    *Lab Decorum:

    Now I was able to combine this with a kinder, gentler, and progressive demerit system that only punished the vert small number of chronically disruptive students, after multiple opportunities to self-correct were ignored.