Sunday, December 10, 2006

this is why we need structure

Second chances are wonderful. Second chances are what so many of our lives are based on. Second chances can also be one of the most damaging and costly things in the world.

I have often complained about the lack of administrative discipline at my school and I still find it frustrating that lack of control from the top of our school equates to more work near the bottom (the teachers like me and some of my co-workers who make endless calls to parents because we refuse to allow children to simply spiral out of control. Now, I am more disheartened than I am generally mad. My principal and I disagree on discipline on some pretty extreme levels, but my frustration is not in our differing views, but in the effect it has on my students.

I haven't been given the whole background story from my principal, but I've gathered that he had a somewhat troubled youth and believes that if he had not been given the second chances he was, he would not be where he is today. I think this is a wonderful sentiment for an educator to have, but due to the effects it has on his management of our school, I think it is the most damaging.

Because he believes so heavily in second chances and has yet to instill anything resembling the long arm of the law at our school, the students generally don't respect him. Since they don't respect him, many of them don't respect us. What happens when the top of the food chain is the least threatening of all? You're not really scared of the middle of the food chain. Students are loud in the hallways, talk back to teachers and have little or no regard for any kind of rules at our school because they have a 50-50 shot of not getting in trouble. We have a man who runs in school suspension who refuses to take more than 4 students at a time. Students who have him for afternoon detentions play on their cell phones. Our assistant principals have so much paper work that the punishment rarely seems to fit the crime.

My problem with running a school based on second chances is that you are ruining a student's opportunity to do well with their first choice. By insisting on not coming down hard on our worst behavior problems, by maintain an employee who does an awful job with discipline and by continuing to allow an ineffective system of punishment to be used, you allow all the students to spiral out of control.

At McReynolds, as in anywhere, there is a behavior bell-curve. There are students who despite all logic, influence or means will simply be good and follow all the rules. These are the students who defy the typical attitude of a dysfunctional school and simply follow the rules for the sake of following the rules. At my school, these are the students who get beat up. The other end of the bell curve are the students who, for a myriad of reasons, are bound and determined to fight every rule you put in front of them. They are the ones the Principal's secretary knows by name. At my school, they are the ones that everyone knows by name.  Everyone left over is in the middle of the bell curve. In middle school, being in the middle of the bell curve means you can go either way. You generally just go the way of the crowd and don't think much of it. In fact, much of the population outside of school is made up of the middle of the bell curve, but that is an entirely different post.

The downfall in my Principal's "second chance" system is that he is allowing the far left of the bell curve set the culture of our school. Where the far left goes, the middle follows. The far right stays well-behaved by default, but they are not given the chance to influence the middle of the curve due to the overtaking by the far left.

I don't think the solution is to kick out everyone falling on the far left, but today I signed two exit slips in a ten minute period. Roy and Nathaniel. Hardly more than general problems in the classroom, these two had been getting into fights and other such problems for about a month. Now, Roy has returned to his old school and Nathaniel has been shipped off to alternative school. These are two shining examples of the middle of the bell curve moving in the wrong direction. These are two students we could have managed had everyone in the building not been too busy chasing around half the student body. Instead, the solution becomes getting rid of them.

This is particularly disheartening for Nathaniel. He was definitely a challenge when he first arrived in my classroom. I often found myself getting frustrated with him when he would sit in class without pen or paper and have to be told more than once to start his work. I soon found that Nathaniel just needed a little bit more coddling than the rest of the group. He could function, but was definitely slower and more distractable than the average student. After placing his notebook in a separate spot in my classroom and incorporating him into all of my examples in class he started improving greatly. Now, he's at an alternative school that I highly doubt will offer him that kind of support. If he's smart, he'll put his head down and stay out of trouble, but Nathaniel (like most 13-year-old boys) isn't always one to operate on a wealth of wisdom.

Nathaniel and Roy worked through a number of chances, none of which would have been necessary if there was more discipline and structure at my school. The thoughts at first seem contradictory. Why do we need more discipline to prevent students from being sent to alternative school? I turn again to the middle of the bell curve. By refusing to offer a strict and consistent discipline plan our school makes the middle of the bell curve move from their first chance to their second, third, fourth and so on. Students who would choose to follow the right are now choosing to follow the left.

The results are an ineffective system of discipline that is costing us, and students like Nathaniel and Roy, much more than we're gaining.

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