The year was nineteen seventy eight, I think. The place, Fremont Elementary School, in Long Beach, California. I sat in the front row of my class with my right hand atop my head, slowly rubbing my hair in a circular motion. I was a fourth grader.
My teacher, Ms. B, might have found this a bit curious but of no consequence, so she continued her instruction, which I remember being of very high quality. She was a good teacher, and I liked her.
You could characterize the rest of the class into two basic groups – the group who knew what I was about to do, and the group who didn’t. The group who did shifted their focus from the teacher to me, in gleeful anticipation. Of course, this caused much curiosity among the second group, so they too became equally distracted and slowly diverted their attention from the teacher to me.
I should probably back up for a moment to discuss my hair. It was (and still is) wildly thick and chaotically wavy. You wouldn’t say that my hair had a mind of its own; you would say that each strand of hair had its own mind and that each one of those minds were decidedly non-conformist. Anyway, by this time, I had learned a really neat trick that I could do with this hair, and for some reason, I decided that this lecture, on this day, at this time, with this teacher was the perfect opportunity.
I’d like to believe that I was super clever in picking the perfect timing – that I had eyes on the back of my head, sensing the optimum moment of maximized audience attention. Or maybe that I had waited for specific words in the lecture, so the stunt would appear, on-cue or perfectly random. I doubt it. Actually, I think I was legitimately listening to the teacher during this whole time and waiting for the feeling under my hand of my hair being tightly coiled into a powerful spring.
Either way, my timing was perfect. When I released my hand from my head, laughter erupted uproariously throughout the room. Of course I couldn’t see myself, but I knew what it looked like from multiple trials in the mirror. The best way to describe it would be like a cartoon picture of electrocution. My hair sprung up from my head about six inches like charged, kinky wires.
What happened next is a bit of a blur. While the whole class rolled in the aisles, Ms. B turned red and stormed me in a turbulent fury, yelling my name as if it were a cuss word. The next thing I remember, I was in the hallway on the way to the principal’s office. Her hand gripped tightly under my armpit and lifted my shoulder so high that my feet dangled in the air barely touching the ground. I remember being very surprised that she was so strong, and also pretty surprised that a teacher or any adult was allowed to do this. Not even my parents would move me in a way like this.
This was one of my proudest moments of elementary school. Not only had I achieved a spectacular disruption that the whole class enjoyed, I also made a teacher madder than I had ever seen an adult in my life. It was thrilling.
Fast forward forty five years, and now I’m a “Ms. B,” so to speak. Not that I’d ever grab a student like she did. Turns out adults really can’t do that. I can certainly see why she got so mad at me, though. Even though I was a pretty good kid (most of the time), classroom disruptions are super annoying, and over time, they can really get under your skin.
Actually, they can be worse than annoying – downright demoralizing to teachers. Administrators too. Behavior problems can consume a school and completely dismantle its instructional programs. I’ve seen it happen. It really is the elephant in the room when it comes to school reform.
And yet, discipline rarely makes its way into discussions on school reform. I think policy makers consider it our fault and our problem. The truth of the matter is that it’s not our fault, and it’s everybody’s problem. I think teacher-led reform could change the conversation on this.
We as teachers are trained to teach our curriculum. Yes, we should be prepared to manage discipline within reasonable parameters. Yes, schools should have effective systems for preventing bad behaviors and equally effective systems for responding to them. But even with good systems in place, we will never eliminate these behaviors because the forces that motivate them are too complicated for us to understand and too intoxicating for many students to resist (which was the point of my opening story, though I now realize it was a pretty indulgent way to get there).
So, while we continue to refine and improve our systems, it’s time for policy makers to take a look at theirs. First, they need to examine their school accountability system. Does it punish schools for having more incidents? Does it punish them for addressing issues and reporting honestly? Perhaps they should look at the fact that some schools are more impacted with discipline problems than others and consider ways to balance the load.
Or maybe there needs to be some changes to the law. Yes, all students have a right to have an education. But should one student have the right to disrupt another child’s learning over and over again? Maybe the law could clarify that being in a classroom is not a right as long as the services could be delivered outside of it. Do we really have to go through tedious and burdensome expulsion proceedings in order to simply shift a child into online learning? And whatever happens, moving forward our legislators need to fund mental health and safety initiatives permanently, unlike the grant projects that they have previously passed. When grant funds go away, so do the amazing social worker and counselor positions tied to that funding.
I don’t know. What do you think? If teachers led the charge on school reform, what would the conversation on discipline sound like?What do you think?