By Mark Heintz
Earlier in my teaching career, I had a rough class. It felt like every kid had something serious in their life. Some were abused, battling drugs, coping with depression, or been in multiple fights. The deans knew almost everyone in my class by name, and they were only freshmen. It seemed the smallest thing would cause the whole class to explode one minute and calm down the next. The smallest thing ignited the entire class only to change the very next day. One time, I put two girls in a group for a short something or other. They blew up. The two couldn’t stand the thought of being next to each other for five minutes. One ran out of the class when she saw her name next to the other girls. She didn’t even talk to me, just ran out of the room. A few minutes later the dean told me the two had a recent incident and shouldn’t be together. The very next day, the two girls were SHARING a sucker. The class drove me crazy. I hate to say it, but I dreaded going. Eventually, I hid behind school policy. I sent some kids to the dean as I tried to maintain control for the other kids. At least, I told myself I was doing it for them. I managed to get through my curriculum, but in the process, I stopped focusing on the kids as learners and stopped caring about ALL of them. I made concessions with myself as I hid behind the policy. I’m still haunted by it years later.
Most of those kids in that class were troublesome to all of their teachers. I checked in on each of them throughout their four years. Unfortunately, two of those kids didn’t make it through high school; both were students of color. Sadly, my experience is not uncommon. For decades, minority students in Illinois and across the country have been disproportionally disciplined with suspensions and expulsions. In an attempt to curb those results, SB 100 passed a few years ago which legally changed what disciplinary actions a school could use. Additionally, the Department of Education under Betsy Devos and the Trump Administration did their own assessment on discipline late in 2018 and might mandate what schools will have to do in regards to student behavior. Despite state or national rulings, there doesn’t seem to be a clear understanding of what discipline in schools means or what it means in the context of learning.
I wrote earlier in the year–and I still agree–that policies don’t instill character traits. Old me believed that, but now I don’t. Just because we have a certain policy, students won’t miraculously become responsible, dedicated, hard-working, etc. Maybe, at best, they become compliant. More often, the more rigid the rule or system is, the more likely that students will be removed from classes. Since I firmly believe that public schools are here for ALL kids, I generally agree with any policy that helps keep students in the classroom and creates conditions that make students feel welcomed. Not all classes are as tough as the one I had. Which almost makes it worse. If it’s only one or two kids in each class, then those kids can more easily be sent out in the name of the other ninety percent. The biggest consequence for any student not being in class is not being in class. It certainly was for my class. They didn’t learn the course material and struggled for most of their high school career. Given the current context of more minority students being removed than their white counterparts points to a flaw in how we enact policies. When schools are here to allow students to learn, all students learn.
I keep kids in the classroom now. I haven’t sent a kid down to the dean for behavior since that class years ago. I know it may make me look soft. But, since backing down on discipline, my scores have risen, attendance is better, I get to know my students, and I focus on learning. When I was tough on discipline, I assigned the consequences to match the “appropriate” behavior. Even though I knew it was wrong, I convinced myself it worked. It was what I was supposed to do. But, when I did, the students were removed, and their learning stopped. Kicking the kids out was the easy part. Focusing on each of them as an individual, learning their story, gaining their respect, learning together- that would have been hard. But, maybe that would have made the difference for them and kept them in school.
If we truly want ALL students to learn then every minute we have with our kids is precious. Every minute they have with us should be precious to them. Let’s not remove them from the classroom in the name of discipline, when we are here for learning. I wish I could go back and teach that class again.