Dear New, Probably White, Most-Likely Overwhelmed Teacher,
I hope your year is going well. I hope you have kept the joy and passion that got you into this job in the first place. I hope the kids have some funny nickname for you.
I hope you’ve taken the opportunity to watch this video, now called the “Assault at Spring Valley High”. We don’t get much good training in management. Here’s what I’ve learned about discipline, management, and any other euphemism for running your classroom in a way where people can learn:
What went wrong at Spring Valley High?
#1 – The teacher confused defiance and disrespect
He Rookie, Did you ever disrespect a teacher? When a student does so, as I did and maybe you did, they don’t hide it. Why would they hide it? That’s the point of disrespect.
No, the young lady in the video should not have been on her phone. But her motive wasn’t disrespect. “I’ll show this teacher, I’ll text quietly! That’ll really grind his gears.” That’s not how teenagers work.
Why was she on her phone? As we learned later, the young lady was going through an unspeakable period of grieving. But let’s put that aside: The reason students are on their phone in your class has nothing to do with you. It’s the same reason people sit on their phone in a car or a faculty meeting. Phones are wonderful, terrible, and utterly addictive.
When a 3rd grader is fidgeting in one of those tiny “desk-into-chairs”, we don’t think it’s disrespect. The same is true with an 8th grader on Snapchat. For many of our kids, the 16 hours they are out of school is 16 hours of staying connected. Of course they push back – not against us, but rules that seem both arbitrary and alien.
#2 – The teacher wanted to show he was “no nonsense”
Quick tip: If a teacher regularly says something like “They never mess around in my classroom. They know Old ____ (insert name nobody calls them) would bury them so fast they’d never see the sun again!”, you should not listen to them about classroom management, or anything else. The students mess around in that class, probably more than they mess around in your class.
Maybe this teacher was told to be tough. Not to take any sh-t. Set an example on the first day. And maybe this teacher didn’t realize that the same rhetoric is applied to prison. I’ve been there. What I learned is that if you want to earn the kids respect, it’s not getting a police officer to remove them from a class. It’s posting their A+ essay that they spent all night redoing with 4 sources and a bibliography in the front of the room. It’s teaching that kid, not incarcerating them.
Want a disciplined classroom? Be disciplined. Show them how an adult handles disrespectful and rude people. Be the model for how your kids should speak to authority and protect the defenseless. You’re training future managers, bosses, and CEOs, right? If you are a no-nonsense tyrant, you will teach your students far more about power than algebra.
#3 – The teacher went straight to punishment
By all accounts, the teacher followed some discipline checklist. The teacher was clear in his warnings. But, as far as we know, he never asked the question “Are you OK?”
I cannot overemphasize the power in that question. It is caring and humanizing, and, though this might not be in your code of conduct, students like people who care about them and treat them as human beings. Here’s a little ditty to try next time so-and-so is acting up:
Teacher: “Hey, are you alright?”
Student: “Huh?” (they are primed for rebuke and punishment)
Teacher: “Are you OK? Is something wrong?”
Student: “Noooo…” (they think they are being Punked)
Teacher: “You don’t seem like yourself today. Is everything OK?”
Student: “Yeah.” (Totally dumbfounded, possibly worried about your sanity)
Teacher: “Yeah, you just don’t seem like yourself today. I remember when ______ (insert some great student work). I’m not seeing that today and I’m worried.”
Student: “Um…yeah I’m distracted”
This is not a silver bullet. School does not make time for these conversations; this is a hard job and you, like the rest of us, will have bad days. But once you convince a child you care about them, everything else is easier.
The teacher in the video may have cared, but he didn’t show it. He probably thought that caring meant treating a misbehaving student like an Amazon shipping order, going through the checklist until the destination is reached. That’s not why you got into this job.((And if it is, good news – today is a great day to hand in your resignation))
#4 – The teacher got the police involved.
In my formative teaching years, I worked with a School Police Officer who was a true force of nature. If called to your room, one could expect the following:
- A brutal, verbal assault on the student
- An equally brutal rebuke of the teacher if he felt the situation did not warrant the police.
- A take-no-prisoners, full-auto tirade against any other bystanders, including administrators.
- A deafening screaming match between any and all parties listed above.
The Officer was effective in one way: I was scared to call him. And, as I got to know him as a thoughtful, caring man, I began to treasure him. He taught me a lesson I hope to impart to you, probably-white-probably-middle-class teacher.
If you call the Police on a student, assume a student is going to jail.
That’s what Police do. The badge, the gun, the swagger is directly linked to the authority of the State to erase a person’s freedom. If you teach in a school with African American and Hispanic children, more likely than not they’re linked to some sort of trauma or abuse. Look, the officer in the video clearly has their own issues, but even the presence of any officer will escalate everything. Teenagers make awful decisions when they are hyped up and your job, greater than any subject content, is to keep kids from making awful decisions.
Write a referral. Call a parent. Schedule a meeting. Give a detention. Take care of the misbehavior! But if you call the police, there’s a chance someone goes to jail. Is that risk worth a cell phone? A naughty word?
#5 – The teacher forgot he was human
Teaching is hard. School is hard. Challenging things require reflection and humility. Without that, we act like this teacher acted, we take the student’s defiance as an assault on our professional credibility. We take it personally. We act swiftly and ruthlessly and without any regard to the point of a school, which is the well being of a child.
We also ignore our biases. We forget that dark-skinned children are much more likely to be punished than their white counterparts, that we are set to see certain human beings as scarier than others. We can’t say for certain that this teacher, who is white, was racist. We do know that girls who resemble the victim are regularly punished for crimes that, for their white counterparts, are simply misunderstandings.
To the New, Probably White, Most-Likely Overwhelmed Teacher, you’re going to have those days. 10 years later, I still have those days. It happens – to us and the kids. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job, or that you’re not tough enough, or that your lesson was awful. It means you’re human, and this stuff is hard. This teacher forgot that. I pray you do not.