When I went to school, corporal punishment was still a thing; California banned it in 1986. Did we miss it, really? No, we didn’t. Last September, new disciplinary guidelines for California schools were announced to limit suspensions. Are we missing the old politics, really? No, we don’t.
This week, I decided to come back to what Ed Source wrote changes six months ago, and I re-read the letters in response. Oh my. They were furiously apocalyptic. I will quote just one sweet one:This is absolutely absurd – no discipline, no accountability.Were these writers of letters right? Are we rid of “discipline” or “responsibility”? Have things gotten worse in our schools since the policy changed? Not really.
I can only see the view from where I teach at a public high school in Los Angeles, but I think things have improved. Of course, there are still difficult students who would be much better off in a non-public school, and there have been a few fights, but the police are gone and there are hardly any suspensions. The atmosphere in the school seems positive. The reforms worked.
The culture of discipline and punishment we have lived with provides a choice that every school makes, just as cities like Los Angeles have had to decide whether or not to make sweeping criminal justice reforms. Schools that buck the trend and continue to punish minor “infractions” end up producing exactly what they intended to attack: more bad behavior. The happiest schools are those where you know how to close your eyes.
That’s why I believe the absolute worst job in education today is being responsible for ‘discipline’. There are ways to do this work without being overzealous, without resorting to harassment from students (or teachers), but this work changes people for the worse. After a while, when every nail they see has to be hammered, they are consumed by it. I also see it in other administrators and teachers.
What would I rather see? I believe that schools should apply the “least restrictive environment” (LRE), an important concept in special education, which I teach, to school discipline. I know many teachers who would be very uncomfortable taking this approach, but if the least restrictive environment is central to the mental health of special education students, who are usually our toughest, why can’t it be applied to all students? This approach should be formalized in state law and discussed at district-sponsored workshops and professional development sessions.
When Senator Anthony Portantino wants to demand mental health training for teachers and staff (Senate Bill 387), he approaches the problem from the wrong end. There is no point in impressing on teachers that the pandemic has led to student depression and disaffection, because teachers already know that. The individualized solution – identifying the student in distress and referring them to our new welfare specialists and psychiatric social workers – does not address what is wrong with the school. A better goal would be to identify and implement the least restrictive environmental approach at a school-wide level and allow students to indulge their natural urge to laugh and have fun. The lunchtime music and events in my school’s central quad is just one example.
Otherwise, why would we do this? First, the relationship between teachers and students has changed over the years, just as society has changed, and we need to accept that, not fight it, or blame parents. Authoritarian, hierarchical teaching styles and discipline simply don’t work anymore. I am always surprised when the Conservatives insist that they do. They should visit a classroom. Respect and courtesy still matter, but teachers and students must earn them from each other by working collaboratively toward common goals. This minimizes conflict and the need for discipline.
Secondly, if we want to build on this collaboration, then project-based learning and various elective courses and sports are the best way to achieve academic goals, not the stubborn pursuit of English and math, and we need a different scoring system to match. . I’m always thrilled when my flickering ninand students discover how much they love music, art, dance or wrestling. It stabilizes them.
Third, discipline problems arise because some students feel that the school is not providing them with what they need. The relentless drive to send all students to college causes a lot of unwanted stress. It becomes a discipline issue closely related to truancy because many of my students want to leave school right now. They want to work with their family in construction, cleaning, or child care, partly because they can’t afford not to and partly because they don’t want to go to college. We should provide them with courses that will make them effective in the careers they have chosen, for example through vocational technological education. Our job is to present alternatives, not to impose our choice on theirs.
Martin Blyth teaches English for Special Education at Canoga Park High School in Los Angeles and is a member of EdSource’s Teacher Advisory Group.
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