Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What No One Will Tell You When You Come to Work at the DOE, Part 3.2: Discipline

Hello again! Gosh, we’ve finally had some nice weather this week, haven’t we? I’ll be honest with y’all: The reason that this post is coming later in the day on Wednesday is because I spent most of yesterday chilling at the beach and catching up on my Netflix queue. This is summer vacation! They will pry it from your cold dead hands! But I have an obligation to all you nice people, especially my newbie friends, and I’m here, more or less on time, to follow up on last week’s entry on Keeping Your Little Darlings in Line. Thanks, by the way, for the nice comments on last week’s entry—management is something I struggled with a lot as a teacher, and though I’ve come a long way, there are always refinements and improvements to be made.

So. Discipline. Ouch. The word itself hurts, doesn’t it? As a newbie teacher, you may be imagining screaming, dragging kids out in the hall, etc. There was a rumor, and I never knew if it was true, at my own high school that a teacher smacked a kid’s head into a locker. Be advised that we are not talking about anything like that and, indeed, if we were, you and I and everyone would be in really big trouble, as well we should be. There is something the DOE/BOE/collection of out-of-touch bureaucrats at 65 Court and Tweed (ooh, I like that one) call “corporal punishment,” and while some of it is a little silly, the rules against most of it are designed to protect your newbie ass from vengeful parents. I’ll explain.

Okay, so, yeah, discipline. I hate talking about this. But let’s be honest: No matter how well-intentioned, positive, and efficient is your classroom management schema, one of your little darlings is going to do something stupid. Or, to put it in more classroom-friendly language, they are going to “make a poor choice about their behavior.” Most of it is pretty predictable: They will talk, or play basketball with a piece of scrap paper, or sneak out their iPod/phone in class, or spend twenty minutes meeting with their buddy from the other class in the bathroom, or swipe their table mate’s pencil case because they think it is funny. There is nothing new under the sun, of course, although I guarantee you that at least one or two truly surprising things in the area of Discipline will come up every year. But, even after just a few years teaching, I’m not surprised by much anymore. It will happen for you, too.

So these seemingly “little” things in the last paragraph? They have to be dealt with. Ignoring is the first level of “dealing with.” “But, Miss Eyre,” you might ask, “isn’t ignoring something NOT dealing with it?” In most cases, yes. But when a kid is trying to get your attention in a negative way that doesn’t really harm anyone else, I have found that ignoring is the best way to go. Complaining, muttering, rolling the eyes, etc. can generally be ignored—if it happens only once in a while. Every kid has a lousy day and they deserve the gift of being allowed to be invisible from time to time. You can tell whether or not ignoring works with a particular child if their tiny little temper tantrum dissipates quickly and recurs never or infrequently. If this is the case, congratulations—you have learned to ignore effectively. This type of ignoring does not say, “I don’t care if you break the rules of my classroom and hurt your classmates,” but it says, “I cannot waste my time with your petty complaints when your classmates need my help and attention so that they can do their work.” Of course, if a kid does this every day, they’re establishing a negative and dangerous pattern that needs to be dealt with in a different way.

The next level of “dealing with” is nonverbal redirection. Nonverbal redirection is great for a few reasons: the other kids can’t see you react to behavior that is mostly designed to annoy you anyway; the offender saves some face with his/her peers precisely for that reason; and the offender sees that he/she cannot ruffle you easily. Nonverbal redirection is a discreet, silent way to remind a kid that he/she is off task or not following rules: a pat on the shoulder, a hand on the desk, a stare (you MUST develop a good “teacher look”—my own is one of appalled dismay, followed quickly by disappointment), a quick “no” shake of the head, or simply moving closer to a kid. Most of the silliness can be dealt with through nonverbal redirection. Especially in the first few weeks, kids are seeing how much they can put over on you and how easily you are freaked out. Swift but measured nonverbal redirection answers those questions: Nothing, and not easily at all. The message that is ultimately sent should be this: “I saw what you did, and I didn’t like it. I’m giving you this one chance to stop doing it and I won’t embarrass you in front of your friends.”

Believe it or not, by being quick on your feet with ignoring and nonverbal redirection and having a good management plan, you have already helped to prevent a great deal of silliness and wasted time in your classroom. Most of the wrong that kids do in school is silliness. They are bored, or feeling a bit punchy or cranky, or they want to test you. That’s all there is to it. Keeping them busy, keeping your classroom well-run, and showing them that you miss nothing and tolerate no nonsense shuts down most of your low-grade mischief. Most kids genuinely want to get along with their teachers and with each other, and such systems really will enable that to happen. You will not be seen as “mean” or “unlikeable” for doing these things—as I said last week, kids will like and trust you more if your classroom is safe, predictable, and well-run.

Okay, so what if those things don’t work? Well, there are three kinds of “not working.” The first is your chronically truculent, disrespectful, disruptive child. Those children are out there, sadly. We can debate until the cows come home why such children are the way they are: learning differences, poor home life, poor nutrition, unchallenged brilliance, whatever. We’re not here to debate why, only to acknowledge that they exist. Some of those kids can be turned around if you can be both very firm in your expectations for their behavior and also challenge them intellectually, but let’s be honest: If they are chronically truculent et al. with you, they have probably been that way for years and are like that for most every other teacher. For such children, you need to be both more creative and more severe. Talk to his/her other teachers and find out if any of them have gotten through to this child. If so, ask them what they have done and see if you can adapt that approach in your classroom. For some kids, adaptations like working alone, or having a certain classroom job, or having an agreement about “cooling off” can help. I taught a young man with out-of-control ADHD who needed to take a walk about twice every period. Well, you can argue and be annoyed and try to make that young man sit down, but nothing good will come of it. Let him or her take the walk, as long as the walk is within the parameters the two of you agree on. And speaking of ADHD, find out if your chronic disrupter has an IEP and/or a behavior management plan. Don’t reinvent the wheel—it will not only give you unnecessary work, but it could get you in trouble if you do not abide by the IEP. And be patient with yourself with these kids: They came to you that way and you are not going fix them all by yourself. But you do have to teach them. Keep trying to reach out to them, but do not allow them to disrespect you or their classmates. That kid may come around. But he or she may not.

The second kind of “not working” is your child who started off the school year seeming to be a very peaceable and reasonable child only to go precipitously off the deep end at some point later on. This will probably alarm you, as well it should. If a kid who seemed perfectly agreeable in September becomes a raging, disrespectful, disruptive kid in January, it’s very likely that something happened in between to make him or her act out in these scary new ways, and it probably wasn’t anything good. Particularly if you are teaching in a difficult neighborhood, very scary things happen to the kids we teach. I’ve known way too many kids with dead parents. Parents and guardians and siblings get sick, go to jail, walk out, etc. Your guidance counselor should be informed immediately if you have a kid with a dramatic, rapid shift in behavior. Your guidance counselor will keep you and your administrator informed and work with you on how to manage this kid’s behavior.

For both of those kinds of “not working,” you need to know your school’s Ladder of Discipline. Your school probably has a building-wide one, but if not, yours should look something like this, as I mentioned in Part 2:

1.) Warning
2.) Student-teacher conference
3.) Phone call/letter/e-mail home
4.) Student-teacher-parent conference
5.) Referral to principal/dean

A “warning” is verbal: “Steven, stop throwing those paper balls right now.” (No saying please. No asking questions. A short, imperative sentence.)
A “student-teacher conference” happens privately, usually after class: “Steven, you know that throwing things is not allowed in this classroom. You know that if you need to throw a paper away, you are allowed to get up and throw it away without even asking me. If you do not stop throwing paper balls, I will need to talk to your parents about your problem with paper balls.”

Then, if Steven keeps throwing paper balls, you call Steven’s parent or guardian and speak to him or her about the problem. (If you cannot contact a parent or guardian after several attempts, and this does happen, skip straight to #5.) If Steven keeps throwing paper balls, call/e-mail/whatever back and request that Steven’s parent or guardian come in for a meeting with you and Steven. I have found this step to be pretty effective, such that, during the last school year, I only had to actually go to step #5 once. In this meeting, you and the parent should present a united front. The parent/guardian should be following up with further discussion/consequences at home. This won’t always happen, but believe me that it is generally worth a try. Some teachers will be a little crafty and make the effort to go straight to the parent/guardian that will be more effective—Gary Rubinstein says that he has seen hardened thugs quiver in the face of a harsh word from Grandma. So, if that’s the case, go for Grandma.

Step #5 is the trickiest. Your administrators are busy people who do not want to be bothered with tales of Steven throwing paper balls. This is why, if Steven keeps throwing paper balls, you must be able to prove that you have exhausted other options. Document, document, document. Document the phone calls, the e-mails, the dates and times of your contacts with Steven’s parents/guardians. I like to inform my admin if I have a parent coming in for a meeting, so that if I do have to go to #5, the admin already has a sense of what I’ve already done. Your admin may or may not do much, but, if yours is like my former principal, a phone call from her will be so unpleasant that Steven’s parent/guardian would rather cut off his or her own arm than ever have to deal with her again. Steven will probably stop throwing paper balls at that point. But, just in case Steven doesn’t, your admin has bigger guns like classroom removal and suspension at his/her fingertips.

So that’s the Ladder of Discipline, which leads me to the third kind of “not working”: The crazy, dangerous, acute onsets of bad behavior. This is everything from a fistfight to arson to theft. Obviously, you are not going to try nonverbal redirection with kids who are throwing punches or setting fires. Some people will say that stuff like this does not happen in a well-managed classroom, but I beg to differ. Adolescent boys in particular have raging hormones, physical strength, and lousy judgment. The toughest, strictest teacher isn’t going to be able to prevent that ugly combination from getting the better of a boy from time to time. If you or other students are in physical danger, you must notify someone immediately. Call security, your dean if your school has one, your administrator, and your guidance counselor in that order. You will generally be able to get at least one of them. Generally, that kind of thing is then out of your hands, but follow up ASAP because you will usually have to give a statement or answer some questions. Don’t be afraid to do this. Kids do stupid things sometimes. An isolated crazy incident will not forever change your colleagues’ opinion of you. They know that these things do happen in school. And, generally, don’t try to break up a fight. You could get hurt yourself or hurt a kid, even unintentionally, if you do.

One more word about discipline: This thing called “corporal punishment.” Corporal punishment is not just hitting or otherwise physically disciplining a child (and of course that is not allowed, as you should know). Corporal punishment is also calling kids names, ridiculing/humiliating them, making them sit in the corner or out in the hall, or otherwise singling them out for punishment in a way that could constitute harassment or humiliation. Now, many of us sat in a corner (including yours truly!) once upon a time and suffered no lasting emotional damage, but don’t try to use that argument in your 3020-a hearing. Don’t do it. Especially as an untenured newbie, scrupulously avoid that which is defined as corporal punishment in the Chancellor’s Regulations. If nothing else, your admin will make that available to you. You can also read all of the Chancellor’s Regulations here.

Well, I’m exhausted now. Back to my Netflix queue and thinking about Assessment for next week. As always, leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments and enjoy the lovely weather.

Miss Eyre
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