responding to spring valley: thoughts on classroom management…

I often tell people I became an educator by accident.

I have no teacher training.  No pedagogical background.  Nothing.

I took my first educational gig because I was just looking for music-directing opportunities.  The local children’s theatre organization called, and I answered.

If you had asked me about my approach to this thing called “classroom management” at the time, I would have given you the blankest of all blank stares.  I just figured I’d show up, teach the kids how to sing the music, and call it a day.  How clueless I was…

So I learned the hard way.  A lot of trial, and more than my share of error. Absent any formal training, I was thrown to the lions… ahem, children… with little more than memories of how my own childhood teachers had behaved.  What tricks of theirs worked?  What didn’t?  How did they enforce rules?  How did they maintain control without going completely crazy?

And, of course, I’m still learning.  I’m constantly examining my own teaching behavior, gauging its effect on my students.  I watch my colleagues and make mental notes of what gets the job done and what doesn’t.

But though I continue learning with each class I teach, I have certainly come to some pretty solid conclusions on what it means to teach young people, and how to deal with the unique challenges they bring into the room.

*****

Though the more sensational press coverage has subsided, there is still much to discuss regarding the #AssaultAtSpringValley last week — the incident in which a student, a black girl, reportedly refused to put away her cell-phone in class, and was ultimately thrown from her desk, tossed across the classroom, and arrested by one of the school’s Student Resource Officers.

Public reactions have gravitated to the usual poles.  Social justice activists decry the use of violence, the police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline of which this incident is but one piece of evidence.  Conservative types shake their heads about how kids just aren’t taught “respect” anymore, and maintain that the girl’s behavior justified removing her from the classroom by any means necessary.

Suffice it to say, I have little patience for the latter.

But as I’ve tried to engage the issue — on Facebook, on comment pages, in actual human conversation — the response to my criticism of the officer’s actions tends towards, “Well, what should have have done?  She was being disrespectful!”  I try to point out that the road from being “disrespectful” to being forcibly removed was hardly the only path available.  I’m told that I’m being “naive”, that the use of force was more than appropriate.  I’m challenged for referring to the victim as  a “child” by people who are comfortable regarding a fifteen-year-old girl as a fully mature adult, and that by accepting her immaturity as a fact of childhood development I’m really just setting the bar “too low” and excusing her “criminal behavior”.

*****

I have, on many occasions, said to my students — “I know you are adolescents.  But one of the purposes of this time in your life is to learn when it is, and is not, appropriate to behave like one.”

I say it because I know that disruptive, disrespectful, rebellious, resentful, obstinate, obnoxious behavior is inevitable in an environment dominated by young bodies surging with hormones they can’t control, who are struggling every day to discover their role in a world that is suddenly much larger than they possibly could have imagined.

And I say it because I want my kids to know that I know.

I say it so they will understand that while I do not judge them for their outbursts of teenaged turmoil, I will without hesitation inform them when they’ve gone too far.

I say it because, when my time in their life is up, I want to have left them more capable of understanding themselves and the reasons for their behavior than they were before we met.

That’s what my best teachers did for me.

*****

Sometimes, a teacher’s reaction is just wrong.  The stakes are raised unrealistically high.  The response becomes disproportionate to the infraction.

When it comes to what happened in that Spring Valley classroom, I have serious doubts about the wisdom of that teacher’s actions.

And please understand, I don’t criticize teachers lightly.  I was raised by a public school-teacher.  The vast majority of my own teachers were exceptional (a privilege, I realize, yes).  Many of my high-school and college peers are now professional educators.  And I am hyper-aware of the outlandish expectations being placed on teachers, especially given high-stakes testing and so-called teacher “accountability” imposed by policy-makers who have no clue how classrooms work.

Nevertheless, the teacher in this Spring Valley classroom decided it was worth it to continue asserting his, and the school’s, authority in the face of a moody teenager on her cell-phone who wasn’t interested in cooperatively leaving the classroom as instructed.

That teacher decided it was worth pushing the issue to the furthest point, regardless of whatever alternatives were available.

That teacher’s decision has now resulted in an officer’s dismissal from the police force, a child with multiple injuries (not to mention psychological trauma), as well as a classroom full of students who are left wondering if they will be the next brutalized victim of their teacher’s inability to reasonably assert his own authority.

People have called me naive, but I have a hard time believing that, by having her cellphone out in class, the threat this student posed was so great, the stakes in this situation so high, the teacher’s position so precarious, that he had no choice but to call in law enforcement. And it honestly pains me to see so many people so willing to accept that the choices made by the authority figures in this school were a justifiable response to what, at the end of the day, was typical teenage stubbornness.

*****

My own students have not been angels.  I’ve faced my share of attitude, of resistance, of outright disobedience.

And every time it happens, every time my authority is challenged, I have a choice to make — “How far am I willing to take this?”

Do I make an example of this child, of their behavior?  Or do I let it slide?

If  I let it slide, am I encouraging other students to do the same?

If I correct the student’s behavior, can I do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the student’s willingness to engage in the educational process?

Can I correct the student’s behavior in a way that serves as a “teaching moment” for everyone in the class?

Can I do so in a way that conveys the gravity of the offense, but still keeps the atmosphere fluid enough that we can continue learning with minimal disruption?

Can I correct the student’s behavior without completely derailing the educational process for everyone involved?

That last one is especially important.  Because I have found — and continue to find — that every now and then, when a student’s behavior is disruptive, my approach to correcting the behavior ends up far more disruptive than the student was ever capable of being.

And let’s be honest — what compels that is ego.

As a teacher, when I sense my authority being defied, and I choose to engage — even escalate — the situation, it’s because I cannot stand the insult to my ego that has been flung by my student’s behavior.

So I lecture.  I scream.  I  dig in my heels and bring the entire operation to halt.  All to “prove” that I have control of the situation, that I will brook no dissension or disrespect.

And in doing so, not only do I cause the greater disruption, I thoroughly destroy every bit of credibility I might have spent an entire semester constructing.  I dissolve whatever legitimate authority I had in their eyes.

Then I become someone not worth respecting.  Feared, maybe.  But not respected.  And these are not the same.