Classroom chaos is an issue. How bad is it? Why is it bad? What do we do? (Warning: this ended up being quite a ramble).
Daniel Buck raised a bit of an internet stir with a complaint about school discipline issues, "Don't Spare the Rod," that ends with this rather dark paragraph:
Schools fail when they lose sight of human nature. Children are capable of wickedness and cruelty. There is something rotten in the core of man. When schools deny this, when they fail to punish cruelty, the apple is left putrefying on the teacher’s desk.
Who is Daniel Buck?
We have met Buck before over the years. Buck is a teacher in Wisconsin who writes for the Foundation for Economic Education and The Federalist, among other outlets. Of The Closing of the American Mind he said, "The Bible taught me how to live but that book taught me how to think." He's not a union guy. He's a "senior visiting fellow" at Fordham. He got started in the conservative writing in college, and wrote for the now-defunct "The Lone Conservative" website. From reading his tweets, I learned that he would pay to keep the union rep out of the lounge and once shook Scott Walker's hand and thanked Walker "for all he's doing to improve education in Wisconsin." He dresses up for school, appears to take a serious and conscientious approach to the work. Back in 2019, he helped launch the Chalkboard Review, a right-tilted news and commentary ed site (which seems to have quieted down in the last year or so). And he's got a book in which he explains what's wrong with education.
Buck has been busy, considering he started his teaching career in 2016. For his first four years he was in Green Bay public schools before switching to the Holy Spirit Catholic School, a move he has said was prompted by the lack of student discipline in public schools. He left Holy Spirit at the end of the 22-23 school year, and he now teaches at a private Christian school. I know this because I read the name off a lanyard in one of his pics, and while I usually like to show my work, Buck has chosen not to talk about at what school he teaches, and to publish the name of the school when he hasn't is a level of doxing that I'm not willing to do. But the nature of his current employment is important to our story. I'm just not going to get specific and this time I'll ask you to just take my word for it.
Buck's thesis, developed in multiple articles and social media posts is that education has been infected by a debilitating wokeness, that a combination of things like restorative justice and treating behavior as communication and, of course, that awful social emotional learning are leading to chaos in classrooms.
Now, Buck's rhetorical stock in trade is the straw man, but anyone who knows a teacher knows that, post-pandemic, we've got trouble in classrooms across the country. There is not a day that I don't see some classroom horror story on my screen. So Buck and folks like him are not, I feel certain, making something out of nothing.
How bad is the problem?
Is it worse than ever? Hard to know--we haven't been quantifying this on any kind of national scale for a long time, but as someone who's been in the classroom for ages, I can't remember a time when it wasn't a concern. Not only a concern, but often characterized as "worse than ever." And that "worse than ever" has always been a localized thing. I remember coming back to my small town after teaching my first year in Lorain, Ohio, where fighting and disorder were common, I'd faced physical threats twice in my own room, and students came from environments where guns and knives were not unusual. When I came back home, I tried not to laugh at colleagues who were really, really upset about how out of control gum chewing had become.
Buck has stories of his own. "A kid punched another child and then threw a chair at my colleague yesterday. He’s at school today. No consequence. Nothing," he tweeted just a week ago. And he's at a private Christian school, one that says that their "education helps each child learn his or her Identity in Christ and live out a God-given Purpose in life. We regularly discuss and practice the Actions that grow character based on who we are and what we have been called to do in our lives." Plus emphasis on college prep. (Buck doesn't claim that this is a public school, but he doesn't correct responses that assume so, either.)
Are things worse these days? My gut says yes, and the most obvious cause to point at is the pandemic disruption of education that brought chaos into students' lives even as it gave them ample opportunity to lose the habits of "doing school." A year is a really long time if you're a child. I'm betting that every school building in the country could use one more counselor, at least.
Why is it so bad?
Can we also point at restorative justice and SEL and other such fuzzy-headed touchy-feely stuff. Surely that's part of the problem; even if these are solid programs, I would bet dollars to donuts that across the country, a decent number of schools are implementing them poorly. I will also point at the political climate, the rise of brutal, crude scorched earth, and even physical attacks on "enemies," which becomes even more of a factor when the "enemy" is the school. In some communities, students hear plenty of that language.
Conservatives like Buck also point to mission creep, the degree to which schools have been tasked with so much beyond simply "teaching the basics." Two problems with that (well, at least two). One is that it's really hard to get kids who are hungry or tired struggling with other issues at home to care about prepositions and times tables, or, even if they care, to have the mental bandwidth to engage productively. The other is that mission creep is constant and from all sides; right now even conservatives are saying that we need to spend more time on civics and history education and. Also, let's add more time on math and reading to get those test scores up. More time, more time, more time (but not more resources).
Nor is mission creep a public school issue alone. Buck last week tweeted, "Overheard a teacher saying 'I’m not here to teach academics so much as life lessons' Ok… but can you also teach the academics?" Buck is teaching at a school that promises, "In Partnership with the Character Formation Project, we offer a Biblically-based journey that equips and trains children to live Christ-centered, fulfilling lives for Greater Purpose." Their mission statement lists as goals "Growth in wisdom, character, faith, relationship, service, leadership and discernment take significant time, experiences and diligence." It's not a bad list, but the Three R's it is not.
Yeah, I'm still waiting for an answer to "why"
The roots of the issue are both deeply philosophical and simply practical.
The philosophical part is hinted at in Buck's paragraph and the responses to it. Are human beings fundamentally good or fundamentally bad. Is there "something rotten in the core of man" that must be harnessed, tamed, restrained? Or are humans destined to grow into something bright and beautiful if we just give them what they need to do that and shelter them from forces that will twist and stunt them? Or are humans some kind of blank-ish slate upon which family and experience write any number of possible answers? Are we all doomed sinners, or do we each carry a piece of divine spirit that can be nurtured? Or do humans carry the potential for good and bad, developed and enhanced by the circumstances and people they encounter through life?
It's a complex question, complicated by the fact that everyone has an opinion, even if they don't take it out and look at it often. There's a tradition that says folks on the left are in the fundamentally bad camp, hence their desire to put powers in place to rein in human tendencies toward naughtiness, while the right favors a free field that trusts people to do mostly the right thing, but that's a gross oversimplification. Also, if conservatives think we should trust grownups, why do they think we can't trust children? At what point is that magical transition supposed to occur?
It's not an issue that I'll sort out in a blog post, which is fine, because it could all be true or none of it could be true, and the answers for school discipline would be the same.
So what is the best way forward?
In fact, the answers to school discipline requires us to set aside "either or" and pick up "and." Many things can be true at once. Behavior is communication, AND behavior needs to have consequences. Social emotional learning is a critical unremovable part of what teachers do (iow, I don't care what you do, you can't NOT teach SEL), AND some formal SEL programs are junk. Schools have to be conscious of biases and prejudices that may adversely affect disciplinary processes AND disciplinary processes need to exist. Students need the class to be a safe space to learn, which includes both being free of disruptions by fellow students AND not worrying that some small step on their part might bring the hammer down on their own head.
We don't have to argue philosophy when we can talk practicalities. Maybe you pine for the days when students were raised to automatically fear and respect the authority of the school and its personnel. Maybe you wish we had classrooms in which all those different groups just pretended to blend in with the presumed mainstream. Too bad. Those days are gone, and you aren't going to bring them back. Maybe you still believe that a key part of school discipline is breaking the spirit of a disobedient child. Morally, I think you're dead wrong, but at the same time, I encourage you to stop trying because it just doesn't get you the results you think it will. Worse, it gets you to a place where your desire to be the boss has become a higher priority than meeting the needs of the child. And speaking of your own needs, if you are letting everything go because you want to never ruffle student feathers or make anyone sad, that is also putting your need for comfort ahead of their needs.
Much of your classroom order comes down to you and how you leverage your particular style and resources. Know your material. Be firm and fair and consistent. Build relationships, but don't break your own rules to do it. Don't take what they do personally.
None of that is new. What's also not new is the root of most school chaos issues--
The front office.
Long before SEL or culturally responsive teaching or restorative justice, there were administrators who didn't back up their classroom teachers. Every teacher who has worked more than a decade has met them. The principal who has a friendly chat with the kid who you threw out of class and then send the kid back five minutes later, a big smile on their face. The principal who requires you to complete the 147-item checklist before they'll get involved. The principal who always takes the student's word over the teacher's. The principal who folds the minute a parent makes contact. The principal you avoid involving in any situation because you know he'll back the student into a corner and escalate the situation. The principal you avoid involving because you know that certain students can expect poor treatment in the office. The principal who is somehow never around when you need them. The principal who doesn't observe (or maybe understand) district policy. The principal who will do anything to avoid having to answer a phone and hear an angry voice on the other end. The principal who is too overloaded with stuff to do so they don't have enough time to deal with your student's issues (again--at least one more counselor in every building in the country).
I do not want for a second to minimize the importance of the individual teacher taking care of her business in her classroom. It's hard for an administrator to back up a teacher who is making bad choices in her own room. But one fundamental part of classroom management is for the teacher to know that the front office has her back. An ineffective teacher can make a mess out of one room; an ineffective principal can make a mess out of an entire building.
None of these principals (or their brethren and sistern) needed any particular policies or program to implement their approach, but you can bet they embraced them when they appeared, because it's a big help, if you don't want to do your job, to have a policy or program to point at for the blame.
And again--this entire issue is not simply public school. Buck's piece focuses on a bullying incident and the administrative non-response at his current school. He also mentions students smoking weed in the restroom, "roaming the hall in gangs of three or four," and a slack policy toward attendance. This is a K-6 private Christian school.
There's another level of irony here. You may think "spare the rod and spoil the child" is Biblical. It isn't, exactly. The Bible gives us
Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. (Proverbs 13:24).
If you punish (children) with the rod, they will not die (Proverbs 23:13b).
A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom (Proverbs 29:15a).*
The familiar variant comes from Hudibras, a mock-heroic poem by Samuel Butler (1613–1680) that brings up the notion as part of the satire of outmoded and Puritanical ideas.
I swear I'm just about at the end of this post
We kind of forget what "spare the rod" means-- it means that if you don't beat a child, they're liable to grow up bad. It's an idea that never goes away (witness the earlier versions of No Excuse charters like KIPP) despite the fact that it has never worked particularly well, and it plays with bonus oddity in Buck's piece, which lands somewhere in the neighborhood of "If we don't bully these children, they will continue to bully each other."
There's a whole other side trip we could take about bullying itself, but this has already rambled on long enough. My short answer is that if we want students to live respectful lives, it would be helpful to model respect for them, and starting with the assumption that they're rotten inside probably doesn't fit that model well. Nor would I argue that we show respect by sparing them any negative consequences for bad choices. It's a complicated balancing act between two extreme poles, neither of which is the whole answer by itself. Kind of like every other complex issue in education.
One of my first superintendents used to start the school year with a story about a horse trainer asking rookies what the first step of training was; the punch line was "First, you have to love the horse." The student-to-horse comparison was questionable, but his point was solid enough-- it helps to care about the students you are supposed to teach. Some folks imagine a kind of false dichotomy, that either A) one is a hard-nailed taskmaster who focuses strictly on the three R's or B) one is focused only on warm fuzzy socio-emotional stuff and never does anything that might seem "mean." As it is unkind and ineffective to demand complete depersonalized compliance, it is also unkind and ineffective not to teach the students to read and write and all the rest.
My idea of the purpose of education is pretty simple-- to help students better understand the world, to help become their best selves, and to grasp what it means to be fully human in the world. It can't happen in an atmosphere of chaos and Do As You Please, and it can't happen in an environment in which rod-enforced compliance is valued above all else. And I hope that my children's teachers don't start from any assumption that A) they are perfect angels or B) they are rotten inside.
*For the record, Proverb 29 also includes verse 7: The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.