Middle School Hero

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 01 2013

A new approach to discipline

I can’t begin to describe the energy I’ve wasted this year arguing with students about their behavior.

“Yoceline, this is your third warning. You got one when you walked into the room screaming and another when you sharpened your pencil while I was talking and this one right now.”

“Paola, I can see your phone out. I watched you try to hide to hide it. Now give it to me.”

How many arguments have I gotten into over the fairness of a consequence? How many classes have started poorly because I was busy lecturing one or two miscreants from the previous class? How much sleep have I lost because a handful of students take up all my time? How often am I a disciplinarian as opposed to a teacher?

This semester, I went in with a noble goal. I didn’t want to give out any referrals this semester. I decided that I would instead use those misbehaviors as opportunities to model compassion, empathy, and fairness. And you know what? In many ways it was a rousing success. I felt the flexibility to meet kids where they are and I developed some positive relationships because I really listened to them and gave them the chance to cool off and explain themselves after the fact.

That being said, I also had many students completely take advantage of the situation. They smelled the blood in the water and went for it. I understand that the 12 year olds that I teach are not fully developed humans (not that I am) and that they deal with many mitigating influences that 7th graders shouldn’t have to deal with, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are 25 weeks into the school year and no new policies or rules have gone into effect since January 4th, the the new semester started. At some point, the mischievousness can no longer be attributed to unclear boundaries or low expectations. There comes a time when the student is directly responsible for how he or she chooses to act.

I got tired of sacrificing the education of 20 kids because 5 wanted to play around. So I swung the pendulum back the other way.

I won’t go into too much detail (mainly because I did earlier and I lost a 1,000 word post to the rabbit hole of technology) but on Tuesday in my first hour class, I wrote two office referrals in the first ten minutes of class. Don’t worry, behavior management gurus: I informed the students the day before and morning of Tuesday that the expectations would be much more rigorous and warned the students beforehand of the unaccecptable nature of their behavior.

I had two students who did not start on their bellwork when I asked. They gave me an attitude and I sent them packing.

Did those two students learn anything that day? No.

Did my most challenging class have its best day in weeks as a result? Yes.

Is this fair? I honestly have no idea.

TFA will tell you that we must strive to reach every student. We must seek out and work for the students that the system has left behind. Every student has the potential to learn and so it would be a travesty and an injustice to deprive them  from this.

On the other hand, the administrators at my school (who, it should be noted, are in the process of cleaning house because this is their first year here) insist that if a student chooses to not act in a way befitting a student, they should be removed in order to provide the rest of class with an environment conducive to learning.

Every day, I swing back and forth on this pendulum. I want to make a difference for every single child and I have a heart for every person that I work with but I don’t know how. I don’t know how to give every child, including the challenging ones, all that they deserve. Obviously, my approach as a first year teacher is going to be different than if I was a veteran. I know that I don’t have the time and experience to deal with some of these things in the same way that I will in the future.

To anyone reading this: what do you think? At what point is it neccessary to eliminate a distraction, even if that distraction has hopes and dreams and fears? How long do you let two or three problems take away from the future of their peers?

I honestly don’t know.

4 Responses

  1. meghanelizabethdewey

    WHEW, Goodier, this is the exact topic I’ve been thinking about today.

    Where do I come down on it? The students who are disrupting the class atmosphere need to feel the consequences of that action — which may mean being kicked out of class. Eventually, they need to make the decision that they want to be there, and the harder we push them to be there, the less able they are to make that choice for themselves. As a high school teacher, I can see some of my kids who are sick of getting kicked out & are changing their actions as a result. They’re making a choice to learn — which is so much more powerful than if I had protected them from the natural consequences of their actions by keeping them in class past the point where they’re being productive.

    I’m not good at this — I keep kids in the classroom who are distracting. But I’m trying to change, because I actively see students who want to learn shutting down because of their peers’ disruptions. That’s absolutely unacceptable to me.

  2. The problem lies in the structure of “traditional” schools and classrooms, which by design demand a high degree of conformity.

  3. mches

    It’s my third year of teaching and I still don’t have a good answer to this.

  4. gdwest999

    I can really relate to this post. My whole mindset is to try to keep them in class somehow. Some of our career colleagues will give a kid a referral for slipping up and saying a cuss word or wearing a “hoodie” in class. A student has to really push it to the limit to get kicked out of my class. It’s more important to me to keep them there so they’ll get something out of it. The good part about my approach is that the principals like it. They know I don’t send them bogus referrals. If they get one from me, they know the kid really crossed the line.

    We have so many problems with truancy, half the battle is just getting the kids to show up. Some of them see getting suspended as a legal way to stay home. There’s no chance for them if they’re not in class.

    If we’re going to deal with education reform realistically, we’re going to have to come up with real options for kids who are so rebellious that they can’t possibly succeed in a regular class. I don’t know if that looks like a bootcamp or an “Outward Bound” type thing, but teachers and administrators need some other options that have positive possibilities other than suspending kids.

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