Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Out of Control

Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Regina Brett asked the question today, "Are our schools out of control?". She relates her conversations with Cleveland teachers since writing a column a few weeks ago about vandalism at Glenville High School.
Her column told the stories of students assaulting teachers in the schools.
Assault is criminal behavior. The fact it happens so often in our schools that each teacher is given a "What-to-do-in-the-event-of-an-assault" card to keep in our wallets at the beginning of the school year, is quite telling. Every day we deal with kids who have many emotional and behavioral issues.
Behavior management is a part of our job.
Situations can become volatile. Assaults happen.

What should disturb us most is not that some teachers get hurt, rather, that the students who commit these assaults remain in the building, often unpunished.
The type of consequence for inappropriate behavior is the biggest factor in determining the atmosphere of a building. When there are no consequences, or if they are inconsistent, the students will run the building.
And in many schools they do.

That this is happening in so many of our schools in Cleveland, should be an eye-opener to the administrators and politicians who sincerely want to see the schools change for the better.
Here are the questions they need to be asking:

What prevents teachers or building administrators from punishing students who behave inappropriately?
This is a question that must be asked of teachers and administrators anonymously, otherwise the answers will be:
"We always give appropriate attention to discipline problems."
Many teachers already told Regina Brett the real answer to that question.
High suspension and expulsion numbers look bad to the folks downtown.
This begs another question; Why?

A report detailing the numbers of students suspended tells the administration at the downtown office nothing about the atmosphere of a particular building.
Low numbers do not mean there are no behavior problems, they simply mean the problems are not being reported or addressed. On the other hand, a building with high numbers of students being suspended would not necessarily mean the building has too many behavior problems. Rather, it says that the principals are busy working to set a no-nonsense tone in that school.
If a person will spend a day in a school, and see students roaming the halls and classrooms out of control, they will know that the school has discipline problems. That is just common sense.
If we are ever to going to fix the schools we have to start dealing with the problems from a common sense point of view. We have to deal with reality.

Top-down problem solving never solves the problem.
The top usually doesn't even know where the real problems lie.
Ask the students what works to control their behavior.
Ask the teachers what support we need.
Each one of us can list the things that will make us more effective. We know what works, but rarely are we asked. When we are asked, our answers are given a cursory nod and filed away. Then outside "experts" are brought in and paid a lot of money to tell us what they think we should do.

This problem is not unique to the Cleveland schools.
The corporate world is just as guilty. How many CEO's will hire a consultant group for millions of dollars to fix a problem?
What the good consultants will do first is go directly to the shop floor, and ask the workers what is needed to do the job more efficiently. They know they can't get the answers from the corporate offices, since what those folks have are reports, doctored up to look good by middle-management. The 'bean-counters' can juggle information to tell any tale they want. The real story is always found on the factory floor, behind the register, or in front of the class full of kids.

The Cleveland schools need new answers to our old problems.
If we want different answers, we have got to start asking different questions..And we have to start asking the right people.
We need to ask the people on the front lines; the students and teachers. They know what the problems are. They know what they need to succeed

The answers are right in the classroom, in front of our faces...Listen.


Valdis said...

If they really wanted the real answers they would know where to go!

They ask those questions from those people that they can handle. What the school system, and the city, needs is someone willing to listen to the real answers. Maybe someone who does not have to worry about re-election can ask those questions and listen to those answers?

Mr. Thackeray said...

Our staff just had this very same conversation yesterday at our small school meeting (we're in the small schools movement funded by Bill Gates). We feel our building is becoming out of control: kids appear comfortable running the hallways during class or don't fear coming in tardy. When asked what to do, most TEACHERS agreed that we needed to add more rules to the codebook and punish kids. However, while I support strong discipline and consistent consequences, and would never support having potentially dangerous students in a school, I voiced the concern that, to me, there's a reason why kids fight the authorities in the building. Many of our students feel disconnected, disrespected, ignored, even discriminated against (racism is a huge issue in our building).

I read a while ago that right after the Columbine shootings, the administration in Littleton gathered the student body in the football stadium and announced, among other things, that violence just would not be tolerated and that a new zero tolerance policy would be initiated. After much cheering and approval, the students went to file back into the school only to find swastikas spray painted on the doors. The message was "We're still here". You see, even after a terrible tragedy, the isolation, hatred, and disconnection that many students were feeling never went away. A strictly rule-based system, even removing kids, only puts a band-aid on the problem and never gets to the root of WHY the behavior occurs in the first place. I feel most schools operate from a bureaucratic, rule-based system that punishes rather than equips kids with the tools they need to coexist in an educational setting. I feel for teachers who are assaulted, and it's wrong and truly saddens me. But I come from a place where I believe teachers are the only ones that can BEGIN the change necessary for kids to see our schools as valuable places to be. Last year I visited a school in New York that was once home to the worst kids in the city. Gangs, graffiti, violence. For one year, they shipped the kids off to other schools then brought them back under a new, improved system of schools-within-a-school. My visit there was truly amazing. Students just like the faces I teach were talking, discussing, experimenting in ways I once thought unimaginable for inner city youth. The change? Committed teachers willing to think hard about other ways to meet their students' needs.

It can be done

Thank you for your thought-provoking words.

marybeth said...

Mr. Thackery,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I will keep trying to provoke your comments.

Too often educators don't take the time to listen. We are always so busy pumping our students full of new skills and information.
After all, we need to get those test scores up.
At some point, proficiency preparation took precedence over wholistic teaching, leaving many kids to feel disenfranchised.
You are right, many of our kids feel disconnected, disrespected, ignored,and discriminated against when we don't take the time to reach out to them.

SSZ said...

---Just a student reading up on a few comments made in class.

I'm sure pumping kids with information will work, right? What if the pump is broken because the kids are "lazy"? What then? I don't know...

I wonder... what's the percent of teachers that actually teach in the CMSD? Can students get fair learning environments for basic-all-around subjects like English and Math?

Are the students going to allow themselves to change, or are they to be discarded? I observed that many students tend to be followers in some form or fashion can this be played on? Can their peers and not-really-their-peers peers fool students into following a different image than the one that’s projected into their brains? (Ya know, the bad stuff like throwing desks at people and punching a teacher in the face)

I'm not sure. There are so many things to think about, but so few to do the thinking.

I hope change comes, even if it is slow.

It'll be healthy for many people, even the Adults who are afraid of the K-5 students.


marybeth said...

You asked some very good questions, SZ.

My experience is this: Each student comes to school with very different needs, and hauling various amounts of baggage. Some are motivated, some are lazy. Because most of Cleveland's students come from a background of poverty, they, in particular, carry with them a whole lot of emotional and psychological issues. Teachers need to be sensitive to their problems, and help those kids deal with them before effective learning can take place. That is not an easy fact it is often overwhelming. We have been trained as educators, not psychologists or social workers. Before the district's budget was decimated, there were social workers and psychologists, nurses, supprt staff, and security guards in our buildings. Those positions have been cut to nearly non-existant.
We now have to deal with a whole lot of problems with fewer and fewer resources.

Now I am going to say something that may be very unpopular amongst some of my peers.
The ranks of educators in Cleveland DO contain those who do not belong in urban education. Those who have victim-personalities have no business teaching. Those who are on power-trips shouldn't be in the schools either. If you don't like kids...what the hell are you doing in this business? And lastly, a school administrator without leadership skills needs to be someplace where they cannot damage lives.

As educators, we are well versed in our academic feilds...that is a first and foremost priority. But if you are going to teach in the city's public school system you have to be so much more.

Linda said...

I agree with the suspension numbers problem - too often, adminstrators think that schools with "good" numbers are the best schools.


The only real way to tell is to make an unannounced visit (or send in an undercover observer). Do it during and after lunch - that's when the problems show up.

I thought so much of what you said, I linked to it in my blog Right As Usual