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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

There was a fight at my school last week, a big, ugly fight in the street just after students were dismissed for the day. Some older relatives of the girl who instigated the fight were involved. Dozens, perhaps even hundreds of students, gathered around to watch.

A teacher tried to break it up and was accidentally punched. It ended with one of the girls being handcuffed and taken away by police. She will be expelled from this school and placed in another Oakland, California, public school. The other girls who fought were suspended for five days.

An Iron Fist Is Not the Answer

Teachers are now demanding that this incident be the impetus for enforcing a stricter discipline policy. Several have suggested that students who watch fights be suspended. Generally, the staff agrees that we should suspend students more often and expel the troublemakers more quickly and that we need more security guards patrolling our campus. This is a middle school of fewer than 400 students. There are two full-time security guards on campus. Seventy-five percent of our students are African American.

At my school, kids are most often suspended for fighting or repeatedly getting into trouble. But last year, one of my eighth-grade girls called the vice principal something unprintable; she was suspended and threatened with expulsion. There is, in general, a feeling of "us versus them," particularly in the hallways, where teachers see student behavior as being out of control. The biggest complaints from some staff are that the kids push and run, use profanity, and don't apologize when they bump into an adult.

I understand that some teachers fear for their physical safety. I understand that the teacher who was hit during the fight is very shaken and discouraged. However, the answer to the hostile, negative atmosphere at my school is not a stricter discipline policy and is definitely not more suspensions.

The Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline

There's a ton of research on the negative affect of suspension, particularly on urban male students. The "America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline Report," prepared by the Children's Defense Fund, argues that suspension has a role in the cradle-to-prison-pipeline phenomenon. Below are a few points made in that report that are resonating with me now:

  • Zero-tolerance discipline policies don't improve school achievement or teach a lesson to the offender; they contribute to the "pipeline to prison" by pushing students out of school.
  • School systems are criminalizing school misbehavior, with police officers stationed at schools, arresting students for behavior that used to be handled in the principal's office.
  • America's deeply ingrained philosophy that just getting tough is the way to stop misbehavior rarely works, especially with children. The political pendulum swings from more to less punishment and back again, but the paradigm itself is worn out, and a new one has not taken its place.
  • Despite the image of superpredators and dangerous hallways, most students suspended from school and most juveniles in detention did not commit violent offenses or put the safety of others at risk.

What Is to Be Done?

I have never seen suspension or expulsion work to effectively change a child's behavior. The longer I work in schools, the more suspicious I become of reward-based or fear-based behavior-management systems. I have been thinking a lot about motivation -- intrinsic versus extrinsic. I'm not interested in making kids walk properly; I'm interested in helping them become respectful, conscientious people.

Force Never Heals Pain

My yoga teacher asked her students to direct our breath to areas of our bodies that hurt. "Direct your attention there," she said, "and then just listen to what your body is saying. Don't talk at it; breathe into it. Be gentle. Our bodies don't respond when we try to force them to do things. Force never heals pain. Attention does. Awareness does. Listening does. But not force."

I know that this observation is true. I know that it's true for my body, for my students, for our schools. But how do we listen to them? How do we support them to change their behavior in the hallways for intrinsically motivated reasons?

When I think about the girls who fought, I think that they must have been feeling some great pain, and fear -- consciously or subconsciously. I want to work in a system that has space for kids to be listened to. Do you know of any such places?

How do you think we can hear our kids? How can we bring better attention to their pain and not just push them along toward an end that may include prison? Please share your thoughts.

Comments (20)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Amity~
I feel your pain. I often ask myself the question, "When is it going to be enough?" I also teach in an area where violence occurs regularly. Students seem immune to it, like nothing ever happened. It is seriously sad to see such young students faced with such adult problems and situations. I cannot imagine growing up in the environment they do.

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

These are great points Anthony - thanks for sharing your opinion. I also feel your frustration. Our school district is also under pressure not to suspend students, however we are greatly under funded and understaffed to deal with the issues we face. It is a frustrating battle that we, as educators, are fighting and I don't know if there is an easy or obvious solution. Sometimes it feels like the issues go so much deeper than the school system, its no wonder we feel this way.

Kenny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I see your points, and I agree that this method worked well for me to get me where I am today. I feel that many of the students today are denied the lessons I learned as I went to school--"I know what is best for you, so do it because I said, and because I know you are able." Choice is good, but not for those who are not mature enough to handle that choice and have not learned about civic responsibility. Yes, there should be room for making mistakes and being given the opportunity to fix your situation, but not to the degree that it depletes the educational environment. Students complain to me that the schools should be stricter, and I agree, because the fruit of previous decades is superior to today's system. Today many educators enable students' poor behavior by giving them limitless chances and not holding them accountable. These low expectations are largely to blame for much of today's poor behavior. Yes, there are contributing society factors, but we need to keep school an "intellectual sanctuary."

Kenny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I see your points, and I agree that this method worked well for me to get me where I am today. I feel that many of the students today are denied the lessons I learned as I went to school--"I know what is best for you, so do it because I said, and because I know you are able." Choice is good, but not for those who are not mature enough to handle that choice and have not learned about civic responsibility. Yes, there should be room for making mistakes and being given the opportunity to fix your situation, but not to the degree that it depletes the educational environment. Students complain to me that the schools should be stricter, and I agree, because the fruit of previous decades is superior to today's system. Today many educators enable students' poor behavior by giving them limitless chances and not holding them accountable. These low expectations are largely to blame for much of today's poor behavior. Yes, there are contributing society factors, but we need to keep school an "intellectual sanctuary."

quba's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

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Derek Tomasino's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elena, I agree with a lot of what was said, especially about the "cradle to the prison pipeline". I teach in a urban high school were 96% of the students are african american and poverty and violence is extremely high. I agree that explusion is not the answer, but I do believe a lot of times it is necessary. When it comes to violence, schools should have a very strict enforcement policy. Although a community can be violent and dangerous, our schools should not. Children should feel safe coming to school and it should be a place of comfort. A lot of my students do not feel this way. What are we telling them when we are not coming down hard on violence in schools. I understand that expelling a student will not solve him or her's problems, but if it allows the school to run more smoothly and allows other students to feel safe and set an example, well then I believe it is necessary.

Dr. Tony Salvatore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that increasing punishments and suspensions or expulsions is not the answer to help your students or school. This "punishment" model is based upon the time-honored belief in the S-R (stimulus-response) theory embraced by our society in the twentieth century. I have found a new paradigm that fits every situation I have encountered in my thirty years in education as a teacher and administrator in elementary through college with students and adults. Dr. William Glasser's CHOICE THEORY is based upon the understanding that every human being seeks to meet his/her basic human psychological needs through behavior. We all share the same basic human needs of love/belonging, power/competence, freedom/choice and fun. These are in addition to the physiological survival needs of water, food, safety and shelter. Behavior is a language that tells us what we and others needs. Choice theory can help students and adults learn how to understand what they need, if their behavior is getting them what they need and what can they do differently to get what they need. All I know is that it works! Our school and district is based upon choice theory in developing curriculum, addressing behavior, developing policy and improving classroom instruction and student learning.
Glasser is even referenced in the seminal work of Dan Olweus from Norway on bullying.
If your school reads and implements Glasser's Choice Theory with fidelity, you will change your culture into a positive one! You can find more information on his web site:
http://www.wglasser.com/

Ross Martin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in England in arguably one of the roughtest schools in Warwickshire and certainly the largest at 1,700 students aged 11-18. I was shocked that your school needed ANY security guards let alone two! We have none. That's not to brag just to say how worrying it is to think that a small school can be so dangerous and potentially violent. We have the odd scuffle occasionally and had a "big" incident when a lad brought a knife into school but that was it. I suppose the point of this comment post is to say how have children in your and many parts of the world evolved to the state where such behaviour is acceptable?

I admire your commitment to teaching despite or indeed in spite of such momentous challenges.

Ross

Gail's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have returned after 4 years of teaching overseas to find the school district I am in in a discipline shambles. Like others, I have seen many uncontrolable students along with a great deal of fear in student and teachers eyes. I don't have an answer other than looking at our society as a whole. We have become a violence centered culture. Just look at what is immortalized in our movies and pop culture.

Parents are no longer involved and responsible for their children. That is foisted off onto the schools and community. There is something wrong when teachers are afraid to walk in the school hallways. There is no good reason to excuse abusive behavior in a school, which is still a public place. Students, no matter what their social and economic position DO KNOW BETTER. We as a community are reaping what we sow. Yes, family support is needed but what is also needed is a stronger more supported effort on the part of parents and communities to help the schools. Why not have some of those citizens who are supported by the citizenry spend time helping in the schools. I don't know of any teacher who would not welcome extra adult help in their classroom. What about volunteering in the schools?

Judy Johnson's picture

I also teach at an inner city school with 98% African-American population. I believe zero tolerance is the answer. However, I believe students should not be allowed to roam the streets when suspended. I think it would be a great idea to have a suspension school or class. Many of my students are proud to have been arrested and spent time in juvie. I do feel safer having a SRO on campus. However, it is not enough. What ideas do you have?

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