Several friends on Facebook have asked me to comment on the article entitled Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline — suspensions drop 85%. What the article describes is more or less exactly how I treat my students, and more or less exactly for the reasons given in the article.
Like most American high schools these days, my school has a detailed set of rules including several zero-tolerance policies, and we have perhaps a stricter-than-average set of consequences attached. What my school does well is that the staff are extremely consistent about enforcing the rules and applying the consequences when indicated, and the consequences are not applied in a way that makes them personal. Students understand that this is the case, and we have very few misbehaviors from students testing the limits. That aspect of the system works well, and is not something I would make substantial changes to. From what I gleaned from the article about Lincoln High School in Washington, I don’t think they made any substantial changes to their rules, consequences, or consistency of enforcement either.
The change I would like to see is to treat the students with more compassion during the process. I’m sure this is the change that made such a difference at Lincoln High School. Several teachers and administrators at my school tend to take a confrontational approach when students misbehave. While this reinforces the hierarchy, it often creates the “flight, fight, or freeze” response described in the article. If the students have a meltdown and respond with fight or flight, the consequences escalate.
Some kids, particularly juniors and seniors, recognize when they’ve just had a meltdown, and have the maturity to not blame the staff member for the additional consequences. Other kids, particularly the freshmen and sophomores who have a little less maturity and life experience, tend to build resentment toward the staff and the school. I remember an incident last fall when an administrator had a confrontation with a student in the hallway. An uninvolved student was at her locker nearby. After the vice principal escorted the student to his office, the student slammed her locker door and proclaimed, “I hate this school!” I had not met this student previously—she is a tenth grader, and I teach almost exclusively twelfth graders, so she was just another face in the crowd. But I walked up and asked her why she felt that way. She indicated that the confrontation that had just happened more or less summed up her reasons. I replied that I didn’t like that aspect of the school either, and in fact, I found it just as frustrating as she did. I told her that I dealt with it by reminding myself that I wasn’t going to let anyone who treated people badly determine for me what kind of day I was going to have. I think she learned right there on the spot that she actually had the ability to exercise that kind of meta-level control, in order to distance herself from a situation instead of getting caught up in it. I don’t know how much of an effect that teachable moment may have had on other aspects of her life, but at that moment it completely turned her mood around. Since then, every time she sees me in the hallways of the school, she smiles and says “Hi.”
Whenever possible, I try to be proactive about being compassionate. When I walk around checking homework, I try to notice any students who seem out of sorts. If they are, I take a moment to ask if everything is OK. If I get a negative response, I gently ask what’s wrong, and whether he/she would like to talk with me after class, during lunch, or after school. This might add half a minute to a homework check from time to time, but it makes the student feel like someone genuinely cares about the human being inside. It also sends the message to the rest of the class that I care about them, that I’ll find time for them if they need it, and that I recognize that some things are more important than teaching physics.
There are several payoffs, which match the ones described in the article. My students trust me. They work hard when I ask them to, and they will more or less do anything (reasonable) that I ask of them. I have no behavior/discipline problems in my classes. Both times I’ve been absent this school year, the substitute teacher raved about how easy my classes are to work with and how well-behaved they are. One substitute remarked that my kids were eager to learn, and that it was her most enjoyable day of subbing all year. (In fact, my most recent absence was a planned absence for a personal day. When I told my students that I was going to be absent, quite a few of them were genuinely disappointed.)
All of this may sound obvious to most of the people who read my blog, but there are plenty of people out there who think most of the problems in our schools come from a lack of control, and that the lack of control comes from being too “soft”. These are the people who push for harsher punishments, and for teachers to have less discretion in how we treat students. These are the people who elect (and serve on) school committees. These are the people who are not swayed by data or case studies, because they already “know” what works. These are the people who marvel at how well my students behave and keep on task, and in the same breath tell me that I’m doing everything wrong and that I need to change my entire approach or I’ll never be able to get my students to behave and keep on task. These are the people who say “That’s not the way they did things when I was in school.” and in the same breath say “I want my kids to have a better childhood than I did.”
In fact, I also want my students to have the best childhood they possibly can. In a perfect world, everyone would treat each other with compassion, and my students would never know anything else. The next best, and what I actually hope for them, is that I can help them experience a world that they want to adopt for themselves and give to their children. A generation from now, I want my students to be saying, “That is the way they did things when I was in school.”