iscipline, Part 5 — Effects of Disruptive Behavior

PASS Parents and Friends —

Some of you have been following our ongoing discussions about discipline. A few days ago, we received the insights of one former SCPS teacher, Curt Hoover. We would like to provide you with one more teacher perspective. Ken Sheck was a teacher for 20 years, and spent 15 of them in SCPS.

PASS Community —

Students misbehave in schools all over the world, and school discipline policies dominate discussions wherever teachers come together to discuss education, whether in online forums or at conferences. I haven’t talked to a teacher – and I’ve had discussions, online and face-to-face, with educators from all over the world – who isn’t aware that the most intractable discipline issues are caused by students who come from homes suffering with all manner of dysfunction.

For most teachers, the question isn’t, why do students misbehave? But rather, what can we do about classroom disruptions, given the limitations of the very imperfect systems we work in?

Here’s the elephant in the classroom that I haven’t seen addressed at any length yet: according to at least one study, schools lose up to thirty-eight days of instruction over the course of a school year due to disruptive behavior. Thirty-eight days. That’s more than 20 percent of the year. Because so many schools have inadequate school-wide discipline practices, one in five teachers admit they ignore poor classroom behavior.

How can this be acceptable?

While every student suffers from this loss of instructional time, sadly it’s the poorest-performing students who suffer the most. They’re the ones who most need the educational experiences school is supposed to provide in order to catch up academically with their peers.

Now, I don’t know of anyone who argues that excluding students from the classroom or suspending them is really meant to benefit the students so excluded – although there are students who find being isolated from their friends aversive enough to change their behavior.

But let’s face it: exclusions and suspensions are done to benefit the students who remain in the classroom. Those students deserve classroom environments that are free from disruptive, or worse, behavior. At some point, we have to realize that one or a few students’ unmet needs shouldn’t result in lost instructional time for the majority. And not just by-the-way: when New York City instituted discipline reform that resulted in an almost 50% reduction in suspensions over a five-year period, that same period of time resulted in school climates that “deteriorated dramatically,” as reported by both teachers and students.
In the imperfect world we live in, we need to find some kind of balance between helping students who are struggling and protecting valuable instructional time.

Look, young people are going to learn, no matter what. The real question is, are they learning what they need to learn in order to be productive, fulfilled members of our society? Or are they learning how to avoid the hard work of learning?

More than one former student has admitted to me that they used the excuse of needing to go to talk to the counselor just to get out of class.

I spent the first two weeks of this month substitute teaching in an affluent school district just outside of Burlington, Vermont. Before classes had even started, I introduced myself to one young man who I knew would be in one of my classes. His first words to me, before he told me his name, were, “I’m a trouble-maker.” Turns out, he wasn’t lying.

When I had the chance to talk with him privately after our first class together, I told him it made me sad that he seemed prouder of getting in trouble than of his learning.
“Oh, I don’t get in trouble,” he said, “I can talk my way out of anything.”

I’d heard a similar sentiment a number of times in my last few years of teaching in Shenandoah County. I can’t help but wonder if discipline policies that rely on little more than staff-student relationships aren’t reinforcing some students’ implicit beliefs about how to function in the world. For some, being sent back into the classroom after a discussion with an administrator or counselor just strengthens their belief that they can manipulate anyone into getting what they want.

And when that student returns to the classroom after just a short absence, it sends the message to every student that disruptive behavior is tolerated.

Perhaps it’s just that this information is more readily available now, but in my last few years as a teacher I saw too many of former students’ names in the Court News section of the NV Daily or in the Sheriff’s office Facebook posts. The reasons: drugs, violence, theft.

And I will admit, seeing those names played a part in why I left teaching. I felt like I was a part of a system – I don’t mean just SCPS – that could, and should, have been doing more to help those young people. When a student acted out in in my classroom, behaving in a way that betrayed how little they valued academic achievement, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d be seeing that student’s name in the paper or in a Sheriff’s department Facebook post.

I know school didn’t create the conditions that lead to these students making such bad choices. But I still have to wonder if the way we deal with poor behavior in school didn’t reinforce at least some of their notions that they’ll never really get in trouble – that they can talk their way out of anything.

Maybe someday we’ll live in a society that does more than pay lip service to a reverence for the family. If that day ever comes, school discipline won’t be much of an issue. Right now, however, it’s a huge problem, and it’s having a detrimental effect on all our students.

Ken Sheck

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