A Former Philadelphia Teacher-Leader’s Thoughts on School Discipline

by Rick Ryder

As a retired Philly teacher and teacher leader, I have 40 years experience in the evolution of school discipline. Although I was fortunate in that I personally had minimal class control problems, I have coached, trained and supported literally hundreds of teachers, those with years of experience and those just beginning. It is clear to me as I see talented, caring, dedicated, and creative teachers driven from the profession because their students say and do whatever they wish with no actual consequences, that the discipline code must be revised.

Paslay’s final three paragraphs summarize the problem as well as I have ever seen (“Less than ‘zero tolerance,’” Inquirer opinion, 1/27/11). We can either turn schools into social service agencies where diplomas are awarded regardless of attendance or academic achievement, or we can refocus on learning and academics, which requires that the two or three students in most classes who impede instruction be removed until their behavior and/or motivation no longer hinders those who actually wish to learn. Unfortunately, this cannot often be achieved by a three day suspension followed by a reinstatement and return to class disruption.

I believe that the needs of the vast majority of students who wish to learn outweighs the rights of the few who act with impunity. The consequences of the current policies are tragic and ironic.  When students who do no work pass a class because a CSAP form isn’t filled out properly, when an emotionally disturbed special education student is mainstreamed to fulfill an IEP, curses out a teacher and is back in class 20 minutes later, students who would do classwork and behave properly, decide that, in the absence of consequences, they, too, will not do classwork or respect the teacher. Ironically, those educators who think that they are helping students get a second chance are actually taking away any chance of success from the majority.

Mr. Paslay is exactly right when he says we must decide the purpose of our schools. If it is indeed to educate, teachers must be given the tools to deal with disciplinary issues, rather than burdened by useless paperwork which goes nowhere and does nothing other discouraging teachers from taking any disciplinary actions at all. If it is to socialize or teach conflict resolution, we should acknowledge that, and set up a parallel system where true learning can occur and consequences are enforced.

 I am not addressing criminal behavior such as selling drugs, bringing drugs to school or assaulting a teacher. These are being handled properly, or at least, enforced more stringently than in the past. I am writing about the make or break issues of the teacher controlling a classroom and a student who does not do the required classwork passing a class. I loved my career as a teacher, formed strong bonds with many, many students, and hope to see that experience possible for the current generation of teachers.

1 thought on “A Former Philadelphia Teacher-Leader’s Thoughts on School Discipline

  1. I fully agree with Rick Ryder. And, I am a special education teacher.
    INCLUSION law and directives were not intended to have special education students shoved into classrooms when they do not have the social/emotional tolerances nor self discipline to be contributing participants within the classroom instructional interactions. True INCLUSION does NOT simply mean that students with special challenges will be physically present within regular classrooms regardless of how disruptive they are to the instructional process…it means they will PARTICIPATE cooperatively in the process and thus be a part of the social interactions between other students and with the teacher while learning. This means they can partake in the exchange of ideas, express opinions, listen to others and learn to more deeply appreciate themselves and others as vital contributors in the classroom and beyond, into society.
    Having a vast experience working at long term residential treatment facilities for seriously impaired youth, I learned that there are 4 main behavior concerns which keep emotionally challenged and mentally challenged people from being moved into the greater society (half-way houses, assisted living agencies). These behaviors are 1) property destruction, 2) physical aggression, 3) inappropriate sexual behavior and 4) inappropriate verbal outbursts. Individuals chronically displaying of any one/or more of these behaviors rarely can be placed successfully within a community. These behaviors go against societal norms of acceptability and until the ‘Formidable Four’ are eliminated, transition to more “inclusive” environments will not occur.
    That’s life…for regular or special individuals! Why should schools be any different? IEP law is meant to protect the student with special needs from being unfairly penalized and ostracized from mainstream education. And that it does. It was not intended to provide the special needs student with a practice ground for reinforcing inappropriate behavior and disrupting the environment! That will only train the special student to believe it is OK to be disruptive and inappropriate and further strengthen demonstrations of unacceptable behavior. Clearly …any student, special needs or regular, should not be allowed to “disturb the peace” in a classroom or elsewhere. To continually return a student to a situation in which they have repeatedly ‘failed’ to perform academically or socially within age appropriate norms is, in itself, an unacceptable practice by educators. We must assess the student and also assess the environment (regular classroom) and match the two accordingly with our eye on the successful evolution of the student as the goal. No student should ever be expected to be in a classroom in which they are uncomfortable, fearful and frustrated; at least not in America. No student should ever be forced to accept as ‘normal’ what is clearly ‘abnormal’. When we, as educators, allow this to continue to occur, we are very wrong. This is equally true for regular students as well as for the special students.
    That is why the law provides a continuum of ” instructional settings” and levels of restrictiveness. If a student cannot succeed at one instructional setting, they should be moved to a level in which they can be successful…and often times that means alternative placement. We are in the business of training our young and our youth to successfully “fit into” society; we are not training them to cause havoc and chaos. As a Special Educator, I am trained to focus on the individual skills and needs of each special student, yes…but that does not mean I can afford to become oblivious to societal expectations for ‘normality’ and its intolerance for ‘abnormality’. To do so is ignoring the special students need for finding acceptance and personal adjustment. I must constantly guard against forcing the special student into situations, which will only serve to reinforce the occurrence of inappropriate behaviors and thus encourage negative self-esteem and attitudes. We won’t teach a student to swim by heaving him/her into a rapidly moving river. We won’t teach a maladjusted student how to be better adjusted by putting him/her into a situation in which they only practice greater degrees of maladaptive behavior…they are certain to drown…. and in doing so, pull others under too.
    Full INCLUSION does not mean merely physical presence in a classroom. Full INCLUSION in the classroom means the special student is afforded opportunity to be fully involved in normal participating, normal interacting and constructive contributing to the learning situation with peers…only then is full INCLUSION a reality. If this is not happening, even with instructional accommodations, then the regular classroom obviously requires greater tolerances and performance levels than the student is able to maintain. Regular educators teachers work very hard to establish classroom environments and practices which maximize focused learning for the student group called ‘a class’. Each individual member of the ‘class’ group has a responsibility for maintaining the learning environment and climate, not disrupting it, and by maintaining the learning environment; each respects the right of other members to learn. That’s a pretty complicated synergistic understanding, one which some individuals may not grasp full because of their inability to move beyond a preoccupation with “self”. A ‘class’ is sophisticated, balanced “group” which ceases to exist when one “self focused” individual disrupts the group’s purpose. This disruptive individual will either become the new focus of the group or they will be ostracized by the other members in order for them to maintain the original focus of the group, the “class”. We can’t fight this reality…it is a law of human behavior. Yet we as educators do it every time we put extremes of self-focused students into a class of group-oriented peers. All students are not able to appreciate or fit into a singular defined “class” structure. Some fear the group for its selflessness, others, because the dynamics are overwhelming. One-type-fits-all doesn’t work in life and it will never work in education. If any practice will destroy the American classroom, it is the current practice of one-type-of-classroom must fit all students. The swift moving mainstream is not the best fit for all students. Those who can will. Those who can’t need the specialized attention of specialized instruction. So maybe, someday, as they evolve from self-focused to group oriented, they will learn to appreciate and contribute to the greater group called “society”. It’s how America works. Nothing new here.

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