Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Toxic Teaching: The Truth About Discipline

This might be my most controversial post yet, which is why it's taken so long to compose. I have literally been working on this for a month. Here goes nothing... 

Discussing discipline in schools is tricky nowadays. I recognize that zero tolerance policies are not as effective as some may think. As this article by the APA states, many of these policies were developed in the 1980s and required harsh consequences for infractions. 

But, "schools are not any safer or more effective in disciplining children than before these zero tolerance policies were implemented in the mid 1980s. The research also shows that while school violence is a serious issue, violence in schools is "not out-of-control."

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that zero tolerance policies do not increase the consistency of discipline in schools" (Zero Tolerance Policies). 
The APA recommended a number of changes to zero tolerance policies, including the following: 
  • Allow more flexibility with discipline and rely more on teachers' and administrators' expertise within their own school buildings.
  • Have teachers and other professional staff be the first point of contact regarding discipline incidents
  • Attempt to reconnect alienated youth or students who are at-risk for behavior problems or violence. Use threat assessment procedures to identify those at risk

So, as you can see, the pendulum has started to swing in the other direction, as it always does in our society. It feels and seems, to me, like we are swinging from authoritarian to full on permissive sometimes. 

This post is not going to debate the merits of different discipline policies or beliefs. 

I am not claiming to be an expert in classroom management and discipline. I'm also not arrogant enough to think that I didn't have room to grow in this area. I am also not attacking or shaming teachers or administrators. We all do our best, y'all. But I will be speaking from my own experiences, so here goes: 

1) Discipline takes time. It takes time to address it in the moment. It takes time away from learning. It takes time (that frankly I don't always have) during my planning period or before/after school. 

I appreciate that experts, Central Office, administration, and parents want teachers to be the first point of contact for discipline issues. Teachers SHOULD be the first point of contact, for sure! Instead of immediately writing a student a referral to the administrator, teachers should have conversations with kids, come up with a behavior contract, assign a detention of their own, or do whatever other steps they deem appropriate. 

But in order to do that, teachers need TIME. When I taught, I had one 90-minute planning period every other day. I often had meetings before school, during lunch, or after school (or I was a coach and had practice after school). 

I really didn't mind calling parents or writing up behavior contracts or having a kid in my room for detention. But I needed time to do this. A planning period every day would've been so helpful for discipline (and other things, of course). Or teacher workdays that are ACTUALLY teacher workdays (teachers nowadays have so much professional development and few actual workdays, which many who are not in education don't realize). 

And one reason that sometimes my discipline wasn't followed through, on MY part as the teacher, is because I simply did.not.have.time. I guess I could've made time-- at the expense of grading assessments, making copies, tutoring, sponsoring clubs, coaching... 

2) Reducing suspensions and expulsions doesn't mean kids are behaving better. 

This is a statistic people LOVE to point to: "We've reduced suspensions by ___ percent! Go us! Pat us on the back! Aren't we so awesome?"

But I want to emphasize: this does not necessarily mean schools are safer or students are better behaved. It does not necessarily mean teachers are more effectively disciplining students. It might. But it might not. 

It may mean that a) teachers aren't writing referrals and are perhaps being more permissive or b) administrators are assigning other consequences (such as a verbal warning or a lunch detention) instead of a suspension. Please hear me when I say that those two things are not necessarily bad. 

Also, please hear my when I say I'm not saying we need to suspend kids more.

But I am saying that I've sat in community meetings and heard people rejoice over the fact that suspensions are down.

My question is this: is that really the ultimate goal? Is the ultimate goal merely to reduce suspensions? Or is it to teach appropriate behavior and keep kids in class learning? 

One reason people don't like when students are suspended is because it means they're missing instructional time. I agree with that. I can send the work home, but not having me there to teach the student is a huge detriment to them. I do want to clarify, though: just because the kid isn't suspended doesn't necessarily mean that kid is in class learning. The kid might be present at school but skipping. The kid might be present at school in class but sitting on his/her phone the whole time or not doing any work. So, we cannot make the assumption that JUST because a kid isn't suspended means he/she is sitting in class studiously completing assignments. 

So, don't be misled by statistics about expulsions and suspensions being reduced. I'm not saying suspending kids for every little infraction is a positive thing, by any means. But the goal should not be to merely reduce suspensions and expulsions. 

It should be to address the roots of the discipline issues. 
But that takes time. Resources. A cooperative parent/guardian. Oftentimes a counselor, who may or may not be readily available because of his or her own obligations (because I don't know if y'all realize, but school counselors nowadays do SO much more then just help kids pick classes <3). 

Overall, the education system is trying to do a better job of addressing root causes, and for that, I am excited. I received training in trauma informed care and being an inclusive educator, and those trainings were immensely helpful. 

But if we really want to make a difference, it's going to take more than a handful of teachers being trained. It's going to take time, patience, love, parental support, and teamwork. 

3) We are spending 80% of our time on 20% of our students. 

And this is the most frustrating part of discipline issues for me: I literally spent the majority of my time addressing the same handful of students all year long. 

They have a right to an education, but at the expense of all of my other kids? I don't think so.But as a teacher, sometimes my hands are tied. The system is flawed. The disruptive student who is making poor choices gets to stay in class, and no matter what I try or who talks to him or how many behavior plans we go over or how many times I call home, the student's behavior doesn't change, and class is ruined for 25 kids who actually want to learn. 

4) We are not making the student take responsibility for his or her actions. 
I'll end with this one. 
Too much of the responsibility for student behavior is put on everyone except the student. 

We excuse their behaviors. 
We have low expectations for them. 
We, as the adults, are permissive. 
We make empty threats and don't follow through. 

I am guilty of all of the above. So what I'm about to say isn't pointing fingers at any other teacher out there. It is hard to have consistently high expectations every single day. It's exhausting. We just want to teach our content, and instead we spend a good chunk of time managing behavior. 

As the adults, we have allowed the kids to have too much power. I am ALL about respecting our students as people and allowing them choice, autonomy, and an appropriate amount of power. 

But we have given them too much power and not enough responsibility, and it has resulted in some students feeling entitled. 

This is not beneficial for our kids. And after all, didn't we all become educators for the kids' sakes? 

By failing to have high expectations, failing to follow through, failing to hold students accountable, we are failing them in the long run. There are consequences in real life. If we shelter them from all consequences in school, we aren't preparing them for life outside our classroom walls. 

By failing to hold them responsible, we're also saying we don't believe in them. 
We don't believe they can be better. Do better. Act better. Decide better. We're telling them they're incapable of better. And that is not true.

Teenagers are amazing, y'all. Kids are incredible. They are capable of a lot of we push them to be. 

Unfortunately, overall, we have somehow created a system (that goes beyond a specific classroom, school building, or even county) that coddles kids. 

We have to work to change the system so our students will learn to step up and become responsible students and, ultimately, citizens. 


  1. (from Jim Lehman) Thanks for sharing this. I agree with what you said, but as a science teacher I would add that many of my discipline issues were with kids whose behavior in a lab situation was creating a dangerous situation. I needed a place to send them just to get them out of the situation until the lab was over. Sometimes I had an agreement with another teacher in which we served as the "somewhere else" for the other. It usually worked best if we taught different grades so that they wouldn't feel at home there. I did feel the burnout from constantly dealing with the same few students, like you pointed out. Great Post!

    1. That is an excellent point. It’s not okay to create dangerous situations by keeping kids in an environment they can’t handle or behave appropriately in.