First Person

An overlooked part of fixing school discipline policies: reducing fear

Last month, I walked into a public high school in the Bronx and could tell right away that something had happened. I had spent four months working as a behavior management coach at the school, and this time the atmosphere felt unusually charged.

I learned that earlier in the week, fights in the hallway had prompted administrators to call the police. The officers swarmed in and used pepper spray to break up the fights. A few minutes later, the bell rang and several hundred students walked into hallways that still stung of pepper spray and rage.

While the students were angry, they were not surprised to see police officers in their school.  “They treat us like animals,” one student told me. “It just seems like everyone is so afraid of us.”

I’ve heard variations on that line in many schools, where administrators have justified and perpetuated harsh discipline systems by viewing children as hooligans who need to be policed in order to protect the school.

The negative effect of harsh discipline on school climate has been the focus of conversations on a national and local level this year. In January, the Obama administration issued guidelines calling for an end to zero-tolerance policies—which impose uniform and swift punishments for disciplinary infractions—in our nation’s schools, citing the disproportionate suspension of young men of color. Just last week, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she wanted to shift school discipline away from punitive policies and toward restorative justice.

These efforts are long overdue, but they are only one part of what needs to happen to reverse the culture of distrust and criminalization of students that has become the modus operandi of many urban schools. Equally important is the way teachers understand misbehavior and interact with their toughest students.

As a former high school administrator in the Bronx, and now as a behavior management coach with the organization Ramapo for Children, I see that behavior issues don’t happen because kids are hooligans. They happen because students are trying to tell us something. Often students don’t have the skills to express themselves, or they hesitate to speak up because they’re put on the defensive from the moment they walk into the building.

Over time, I’ve come to see misbehavior as a form of communication. Sometimes students are telling us that they are hungry or tired. When kids act out, they are telling us that there is an unmet need or a lagging social or emotional skill that they don’t know how to fix.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenges these behaviors present for teachers and for other students. Sometimes desks are thrown and students fight. Nearly every day, students use disrespectful language and don’t follow directions.

But blaming students for their behavior, and for struggles of the school as a whole, doesn’t help. Nor does suspending them for minor infractions. Helping students means using strategies like giving them breaks to cool down when they are responding to stressful situations, and letting them explain themselves before we react to their behavior. It means building relationships with students by greeting them individually, acknowledging their strengths, and purposefully reinforcing positive behaviors.

We also have to recognize that the students we’re working with are often put on the defensive from the moment they walk in the door.

Many students in New York City public schools begin their mornings in the same way: mobbed up outside of the building, waiting to go through a scanning machine and be wanded by uniformed safety officers. They are scanned for weapons and cell phones as exhausted administrators and safety officials bark at them to remove their belts, keys, boots, bobby pins and MetroCards while they wait in line.

As an administrator, I used to stand outside the building with my students as they were waiting to go inside. There were always a few moments of calm as they waited for scanning to open, but before long I would hear over the radio that a student was upset over having to remove his boots or hand over his cell phone.  I would be informed that this child needed to be removed from the line before he “gets himself arrested.” With that, our day would begin.

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First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.