The Zero Tolerance Challenge
21st century teachers are doubly challenged: Responsible for rerouting misbehaviors that could land students in what has been named the School-to-Prison Pipeline and responsible for preparing ALL students to compete, to succeed on new Common Core and international assessments. Should students be suspended from class if they, in any manner, disrupt teachers’ lesson plans? After all, teachers’ career longevity and compensation are at-risk. Some reformers – never having walked a mile in teachers’ shoes – focused only on the test scores American students need to be competitive globally with other developed nations see a need for a Zero Tolerance Behavior Policy. A hostile policy, it calls for punishing any infraction of a rule, regardless of accidental mistake or extenuating circumstances – generally through suspension from class or from school. American education travels in an uncharted wilderness.
Along with a more complex curriculum and new assessments, the Zero Tolerance Model also serves as a gatekeeper – a tool – determining who gains access to educational and employment opportunities – determining who gets integrated into the social and economic fabric of America and who does not. Sadly, a Zero Tolerance Behavior Policy (suspension) is not in concert, not compatible with preparing students to participate in a technologically-based, globally competitive world. Continuing down this policy path means that American students will be ill-equipped to survive and to thrive in the global economy. Questioning authority or the status quo, marching to a different drummer, risk taking, curiosity, and irreverence are the hallmarks of innovation and entrepreneurship – not passivity and obedience. Teachers are tasked with helping to birth the adult workers the 21st century economy requires – just as they helped shape the workforce needed to prosper during the industrial economy. If we are to succeed with the new schoolhouse mission, every misbehavior cannot be a nail with zero tolerance (suspension) –the hammer.
First Weeks, Months of School
Effective teachers have always understood how to reroute misconduct without overly resorting to suspension. They understand that the power to control the learning environment resides with them and keeping that power starts at the beginning of the school year. School is a major arena for tests, not only for students but for teachers too. However, the success of everyone’s school year depends on how well teachers perform on the tests given by students, by a small band of attention-seeking, power grabbing disruptors who occupy a few seats in most American classrooms and who seek to discover teachers’ Achilles heel in order to throw them off their game. How teachers reroute misbehavior, mischief, misconduct determines who controls the classroom community, who controls the time-on-task needed to prepare students for complex assessments. If teachers are to reroute the school-to-prison pipeline, they too must pass some tests along the way.
A September test I remember occurred years ago, one muggy Friday morning when a parent appeared at my door and motioned that she needed to speak to me privately. Though I stood in the doorway with my back to the students, I could still keep a pulse on my class. The principal had drilled in the staff that an effective teacher has to have eyes in the back of her head (withitness) because middle school students are scanoscopes, constantly seeking opportunities for disruption, for misbehavior.
How the parent made it past the office I don’t know, but with a friendly tone I explained that I was in the middle of teaching a lesson and that she needed to make an appointment. She perspired distress, so I allotted her a few minutes of the precious instructional period. While my eyes were on the parent as we talked, I sensed that a couple of male students, though quiet, were out of their seats and near my desk – sharpening their pencils. Quickly, I finished the conversation, called the office to inform them that there was a parent wandering about, and then returned to teaching the lesson. The two males immediately took their seats. However, my inner radar informed me that something was amiss.
Ten minutes later one of the males raised his hand to ask for index cards which everyone knew I kept in my desk drawer. And there it was in living color, my first TEST of the new school year. Photographs of naked adults, each with two sexual organs (hermaphrodites) were scattered inside my desk drawer.
The deafening silence of over thirty sets of eyes watching and waiting for my reaction quickened my heartbeat. This TEST would, in part, determine whether I would begin to gain or to lose the confidence and support of the non-disrupting students who form a majority and who attend school each day with the goal of learning. They are the students who lose faith in teachers who cannot handle their own discipline challenges.
Would I maintain my status as CEO of the learning experience or would the power-seeking, attention-grabbing disruptors begin their take over? Could I stand up under the heat or would I wilt under the pressure? Would my power base begin to erode?
What should I do?
A. Yell and banish the suspected students to a corner of the room for a time out?
B. Lecture them and the class about the evils of pornography?
C. Suspend the two suspected students from class to allow the office/principal to determine their punishment?
D. Convene a parent-conference to determine the source of the photos?
Framing Misbehavior: Normal Developmental or Deviant?
What would you do? Is this a suspension worthy, deviant behavior or is it part of the responsibility, a toxic mix, of educating children?
Bullying? Digital Cheating? Defiance? Disruption? Fighting? Intimidation? Insubordination? Pornography? Profanity? Truancy? Violence?
They are all actors in classrooms and schoolhouses across America. Some misbehaviors are intertwined, inextricably linked with the learning process. And some behaviors warrant outside of the classroom intervention (suspension) – Zero Tolerance! Which misbehaviors can be rerouted and which cannot? How do you know?
Sadly, the response is too often subjective because it depends on how schools/teachers choose to frame the encounter (misbehavior) in front of them.
An Oakland Unified School District Initiative found that African-American males are consistently and disproportionately suspended from classrooms and from school. The top three suspension offenses for African-American males in the California district:
1 Disruption-defiance of authority,
2 Causing-attempting -threatening injury
3 Obscenity- profanity-vulgarity
Black students are more likely to receive disciplinary referrals for subjective offenses such as defiance, disrespect, threat, or excessive noise compared to White students who are referred for more objective offenses such as smoking, vandalism, or leaving grounds without permission.
A Michigan ACLU study dittos these findings. According to their study, Black students were more likely to be referred for disrespect, excessive noise, threats and loitering. African-American males are referred to the office for infractions that are more subjective in interpretation.
Some of the referrals might result from cultural ignorance and misunderstanding. Culturally rooted gestures, language and posture that may be considered normal behavior by some black youth may be perceived as threatening, disrespectful or boisterous by some white teachers who are unaccustomed to such behavior, and who instinctively respond with office referrals and suspension.
This is startling information given 82% of America’s 3.2 million teachers are Caucasian according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2011).
As a former urban classroom teacher, I was sometimes confronted with African-American males attempting to assert their masculinity through intimidating postures and belligerent tones. My philosophy was that the classroom is an intricate mosaic – not only of learning styles – but of behaviors, emotions, and personalities. Keep it moving!
I am troubled by reports that Charter Schools send a message through suspension – thrive or transfer – counseling out students who they deem disrespectful or disruptive. Initially, charters were to be laboratories of new teaching techniques that would provide models for public schools. However, when that mission did not work out, they were created as alternatives to failing public schools to provide a haven for at-risk students. However, the at-risk population they are charged with serving is suspended when it is deemed they don’t fit in with the charter school “culture” – Zero Tolerance. Perhaps it is time charters return to their original mission and provide the public schools with models for demonstrating how to successfully educate ALL at-risk students without relying on suspension. Zero Tolerance/suspension in too many charters has become a fungus growing out of control.
How do we balance healthy respect for authority without resorting to killing the spirit through ongoing suspensions? And how many schools/teachers engage wittingly or unwittingly in “cultural reproduction” which suggests the role of school, especially for the poor and children of color, is to preserve the social classes that already exist in the larger society? Are we preparing some populations to become DOCILE, keyboard pushing wage slaves – smart enough to work for the corporate masters but not prepared with the hidden curriculum needed to become one? And are we preparing some populations to be sucked into the prison pipeline economy?
The Zero Challenge – Can These Behaviors Be Rerouted?
Because the prosperous industrial economy has died and along with it a comfortable way of life, fewer students of ANY color are willing to comply with submerging their voices and power to teachers and other authority figures. Too often they see their parents jobless, underemployed, emotionally unavailable. With no audience for their own emotional turmoil, and sensing a dark destiny ahead of them, some males (Black, Hispanic, and White) hold NO VISION in their hearts or spirits of what a future life can be like since the old loyalty/social contracts have evaporated. Feeling emotionally homeless, invisible, and impotent more African-American males frequently respond in unacceptable ways. And schools respond with Zero Tolerance which results in African-American males being suspended at a higher rate than Caucasian students and ultimately trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Can the situations below be handled within the confines of the classroom community or do they require outside intervention (suspension)? Can the behaviors be rerouted? How would YOU frame the challenge? Are they examples of a cultural divide?
1. After the teacher reprimands a student for being unprepared for class, in a matter of fact manner, he asks, “What kind of a car do you drive? Where did you say you park your car? ”
What, if anything, should you do or say? Why?
2. After the teacher returns test papers to students, one male is upset with his grade and utters some words of profanity.
What, if anything, should you do or say? Why?
3. After the teacher scolds a student for repeatedly disturbing a classmate, he inquires, “Do you know judo or karate?”
What, if anything, should you do or say? Why?
Effective Teachers: #Sayno2zero #Reroutethepipeline
Like tightrope walkers, effective teachers are engaged in high-wire balancing acts. And, it is not work for the faint of heart, insecure, timid, or unsure. #Reroutethepipeline teaching requires more than idealism and scholarship. Sorry Teach for America but effective teaching is more than turning smart people loose in a school. #Sayno2zero teaching requires extraordinary emotional competence and resilience in order to make the scores of decisions that ensure learning takes place. An effective educator needs to know how to meet challenges and confrontations without fear, tears, or uncertainty.
Daily, hourly a #reroutethepipeline teacher must be prepared to:
1. Deescalate a situation.
2. Be a relentless, resourceful problem solver.
3. Stay comfortable amid an uncomfortable environment.
4. Identify and to be able to make use of teachable moments.
5. Find inventive ways to SAY NO to inappropriate behaviors, often without parental support or administrative backup.
My Test Results
Opening my desk drawer I could see at a glance the naked photos; Choosing not to acknowledge them, taking a deep breath, and not missing a beat, I reached for the index cards – keeping my head and eyes forward. I handed the index cards to the student and kept on with the lesson. Not even a power-grabber is bold enough to claim pornography.
The real goal or test was to disrupt my equilibrium so I would cause a commotion over the naked photos. The word would spread about the photos and classes for all eighth graders for the remainder of the day would be interrupted. The attention-seeking, power-grabber would win control of the learning experience for that day which would begin to loosen my power to control time-on-task.
Effective teachers perspire: “I am wiser, braver, and stronger than any student here. Whatever you throw at me, I can handle.”
On Monday, my lesson was an open discussion/classroom meeting on who buys pornography and why with all of my classes.
Test Score: Teacher A and Power-grabber F.
PS. Several students offered to provide me with the name of the owner of the pornography. I declined the offer.
Coming Soon: Strategies for Rerouting the Pipeline