We would gasp, look at one another wild-eyed and stare as our classmate trudged out of the classroom as if walking the plank. Being sent to the office was the worst of the worst when I was in elementary school. Nobody came back from there the same! We had a healthy respect for the authority that emanated from that place. Only in retrospect is it clear how my teachers and principals provided a safe and secure environment in which to learn. As a student, I never experienced a room clear. Nor did I repeatedly witness my teachers being verbally or physically torn apart by misbehaving classmates. Because no one came back from the office the same…
And this was true throughout most of my teaching career, as well. Then a shift began to occur. The schoolhouse began to shake with disruptions. Kids were sent to the office, but came back the same. No students trudged out, they strutted out with sly grins on their faces. I knew from faculty room talk and conversations with teachers in other districts and states that this was a widespread phenomenon. Learning was interrupted, teachers endured disrespect, and power shifted to the unruly, defiant students. They’ve wrapped adults around their fingers. “If you act up, they’ll give you a prize,” one allegedly said.
It was true. Beat someone up, but still make your point card goal for the day? Prize. Scream at your teacher and throw a chair? Get out of math free. Stab your teacher with a pencil and then cry really hard? Receive a pencil as a reward for calming down. Throw a tantrum in the middle of the hallway? Garner all the adults’ attention. Teachers, as you can imagine, are frustrated and beleaguered.
Teachers love their students. We all know that building a rapport and relationship with them is vitally important to all that takes place in a classroom. Most disciplinary issues can be managed within the classroom with engaging lessons, efficient routines, expectation of kindness and plenty of love from the teacher. A healthy respect for the authority in the office, and all school adults, also keeps the environment healthy and safe. There are a few students with behaviors that require a team effort. These days, however, teachers can’t seem to field a team.
I wanted to know why, because I’d reached rock-bottom in belief in my disciplinary capabilities. I felt chewed up and spit out. The common sense notion that a child who day in and day out harasses classmates at recess should miss several days of recess was scoffed at. Writing a letter of apology to the teacher you back talked instead of having recess? Also questioned. Missing a field trip because you cannot be trusted to stay in view of supervision? How silly. Intuition told me something was afoot, and I wanted to exonerate myself and my hard-working colleagues. We were getting crushed, and I was heartbroken for students going without the secure boundaries they so desperately needed.
Holding a healthy disciplinary line when challenged by a student is stressful enough, but pushing back against administration that’s looking upon your actions disapprovingly will break your confidence. I was hurt and demoralized, more deeply than I realized. And that’s why I cried the day I discovered the ideologies and policies stacked against teachers everywhere:
1. The Dear Colleague Letter of January 8, 2014*. By page 4 myself and all the nation’s teachers had been accused of racism.
2. The NEA Policy Statement on Discipline, 2016**. This sites an article saying teachers are culturally incompetent, which causes them to use punitive discipline measures, (p.10) which is found under the heading, “Educators’ Actions Feed the School-to-Prison Pipeline” (p.8)
3. “A Tale of Two Schools”***, developed by the Schott Foundation for use by the NEA, makes teachers in “zero-tolerance” schools out to be heartless and uncaring.
The deck is stacked against me and all my fellow teachers. A huge finger of blame is jammed in our chests – You teachers are racist, culturally incompetent, and cruel over minor infractions! You and your administrators cannot be trusted with discretionary discipline! (p.8-9**) So, “they” are going to tell us how and when to discipline our students. To “remove bias”. To control.
Sometimes, I learn my students’ shoe sizes. I know the names of all the pets they have at home. When a new sibling arrives, we celebrate with them and show off pictures. I know their parents, and sometimes have had their siblings in class, too. I can tell you who has a good sense of humor, and whose has not developed yet. I’ve cried beside them as they weather a divorce. I know their favorite colors. I see their strengths in music, art, athletics or debate. I treasure the notes they write me, pictures they draw, and school pictures they share. I’ve retied ribbons on backs of dresses, fixed a loose braid, teased about pulling out their loose teeth. They laughed when I slipped while “it” in our game of tag. We’ve had so many laughs and learned so much.
And yet. . .I’m pummeled and accused and labeled incompetent; unable to make disciplinary decisions in the best interest of the students I know. So, yeah. . .brave teachers cry sometimes.