Current/Recent Reading List

19 May 2007

Reason #1: It's The Behavior, Stupid.

Teacher turnover is certainly not unusual, and I don't want to give the impression that my move is some earth-shattering event. The education system is set up for the free-flow of teachers and administrators, and each year brings more change than any company, big or small, would want to deal with at once. In one way this speaks ill of the profession; to all-emcompassing bureaucracies, after all, the individual matters little, and is easily replaced by other "professionals" who also matter little. I'll save further commentary on this quandary for another day, but will point out that as an English teacher I relish the unique opportunity I get to strike at the bureaucratic mindset that created the system I work for (Hector and Achilles were both irreplaceable, and how could anyone but Lizzy have been right for Darcy, or anyone but Darcy have been right for Lizzy?).

To return to the stated topic, though, I want to explore some of my reasons for switching schools, aside from the obvious ones of proximity and pay increase. The first, maybe most alluring one for me, involves student behavior.

If you were to stand in the hallways of my school between classes, and were not used to being around hundreds of teenagers at once, my guess is that you would quickly display symptoms of a panic attack. The noise is deafening, the laughter is out of control, the language crude, and the attitude extremely nonchalant. It's a "I might make it to class on time, or I might not, but I will be loud regardless" kind of approach. This extends into the classroom, where it takes many kids ten minutes to calm down and get their things out, and there will be at least five in even a small class without proper materials. Yes, we could write all this up every day, but both we and the kids know we won't. It would take a good fifteen minutes to do five, or ten, write-ups, and time is a precious commodity. Plus the principals would literally not have time to do anything but handle discipline, and would probably start to give us cross stares. Most of us, for better or worse, save our referrals for the big-time stuff, and try to handle the rest ourselves. On top of all this, we have a consistently high minority of students whose personal dramas, and the special accompaniments of said dramas (notes read and written in class, constant harping to "go to the bathroom" or "get water", crying or heads down in depression, lack of sleep), completely affect everyone and everything around them.

Now, when I spoke with one of the assistant principals at my new school who used to work at my current school, and was an assistant principal at another school in the same county, one of the first things she told me was that she no longer spends much time at all on discipline. At the previous school she worked at, though, all she did all day was deal with discipline problems. She told me it was night and day. On the day of my interview I was at the school for over two hours, which was enough time for me to notice the lack of noise or chaos I am so used to, and I popped my head in to a couple of classes where I saw nothing resembling out of control behavior.

To be sure, there will be disciplinary challenges for me in the new position; I know these kids will be nowhere near perfect. But relatively speaking, based on what I saw and have heard from others, life will be much easier on that front. Still, what accounts for the apparent disparity?

I don't pretend to an expert, so I will lean on two recent opinions I heard that I think partially explain why the behavior at my current school is so bad. First, as one of my colleagues pointed out, a sizeable number of our students come from homes with single parents who are still in their thirties, or they live with grandma and (maybe) grandpa, or there is no parent present at all (I know of a few cases where the kid lives alone or only with older siblings). What you get from such a toxic social mix is poison, my friends, pure and simple. Try hiring one of these kids some day and you'll see.

A thoughtful senior student of mine pointed something else out to me the other day, though, that should also be factored in. Because our school serves a small town/community, and so many of the kids and teachers know each other so well already, she believes the kids feel no sense of discomfort when they enter the school building. It is no different than home for them, and they hold it in contempt because of that. This is an excellent point, and I can refer to the number of kids who love to kick their feet up on desks and chairs while I'm trying to instruct them as anecdotal evidence as such.

One question, though. The school served a small, probably tighter community fifty years ago, and for succeeding decades we all know the discipline was not a major issue. Why not, when the same level of familiarity existed then? Without writing for days on this question, I would sum up my answer by saying welcome to the world of Informalmania, where we question authority and raise consciousness and watch aging baby boomers pretend they are still 16. However, those of us who are more ambitious and on surer footing will make sure our kids don't take this to an extreme so that it detracts from their ability to make good grades and excel in other ways. We understand that formality at times is essential. It's the rest of those kids, the ones with the aformentioned home lives, that don't understand we are all just playing around. Unlucky chumps.

There are more of those kids at my current school, it is fair to say, than will be at my new school. That is the crux of the behavioral difference. And that leads me, logically, to reason #2 in the next installment.

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