Tough Love

by Christopher Paslay

The following memoir was cut from the final version of The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility.  The book, which is part memoir, part education commentary, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this September.     

I’ve met teachers over the years who don’t believe in an overabundance of structure.  They feel too much emphasis on rules and discipline makes things ridged and stifles learning and creativity.  Personally, I disagree.  It’s been my experience that students crave discipline, especially the ones that have chaos in their lives.  If you put up a fence in the backyard, a kid doesn’t have to think about the boundaries anymore, he can run free within the limits.  Without a fence, a kid might forget himself and get hurt.  Wander off and get lost, fall down a well, get hit by a car.

Growing up, I knew all about fences.  I went to 12 years of Catholic school.  In sixth grade, during the 1983-84 school year, I had a nun for a teacher named Sister Dominica.  She was about 70 years old at the time, which meant she had cultivated her teaching and disciplinary techniques in the 1940’s and 50’s, a time when Catholic school nuns were known for outrageous behavior, like closing a door on a student’s head or slapping him smartly across the face.  I had a run-in with Sister Dominica during the first quarter of the school year.  Apparently, she considered me to be what she called an R.C.I.—a person who was rude, crude and ignorant.  She even had me recite this back to her.  She’d say, Mr. Paslay, what are you?  And I’d have to say, Rude, crude and ignorant, Sister Dominica.  In reality, I was just an 11-year-old boy who was a bit silly and hyperactive. 

I hung around with two other boys who were silly and hyperactive as well.  In class we talked too much and weren’t as respectful as we should have been.  When Sister Dominica told us to jump, we hesitated—and ripped the occasional fart—before we asked how high.  Of course, this didn’t sit well with this old school nun who in her heyday ate elementary school children for dinner. 

So in the beginning of November, when report cards were issued during parent teacher conferences, Sister Dominica met with my mother in her classroom and tore me a new asshole; thankfully I wasn’t there to see it.  Sister Dominica carefully articulated my disrespectful behavior—the fact that I would fart in class and not even say excuse me.  She went into detail about my silliness and tom-foolery, my propensity to distract other students and not always follow directions.  She said this and a half-dozen other things that horrified my mother.  She also noted that I’d received two C’s on my report card—in spelling and grammar, ironically enough.  In 10 minutes Sister Dominica got two months frustration off her big-bosomed chest.     

After the conference was over, my mother left the classroom and to her embarrassment walked out into the hallway where she was greeted by the stares of all the other mothers who’d overheard the entire episode while waiting their turn.   

My mother was fuming. 

I was playing football with some friends on the front lawn of our house when she pulled up in the car after the conference. 

“You’re in big trouble, buster,” she said to me, got out of the car and slammed the door.  My friends snickered over the word buster, but when she gave them a scolding look they took the football and left.  My mom was so angry that she had trouble getting the key in the front door. 

“Get inside,” she said.  “When dad gets home, you’re going to get a beating.”  I asked why, and then she recapped the whole incident—how Sister Dominica said I was misbehaving and screwing around in class, not following directions, acting like a real jackass. 

“And the worst part,” my mother said, “was that you embarrassed me!  All the other mothers were waiting in the hall and overhead everything!”

When my father got home there was a gigantic blowout.  My parents lectured me for a half an hour about respecting the teacher and following the rules, and informed me that I wasn’t allowed out the following weekend. 

“And no television, either,” they said.

As it turned out, this wasn’t enough to get through my thick head.  The next morning, when I was getting ready for school, I started arguing in the kitchen with my mom about school work and about the things we talked about the afternoon before.  This meant only one thing: it was time for a spanking.

My father stormed downstairs, anger in his eyes, wrinkles forming on his forehead.  “Go upstairs.  You’re getting a beating.”

“But dad—”

 “Go upstairs now!” 

I knew the drill.  I went up to my bedroom, removed my pants and underwear, and lay down on my stomach on my bed.  Several minutes later my father came into the room, belt in hand, and proceeded to whip my backside, hard, three times.  He left three welts that would fade within the hour, but it hurt like hell and I cried at the top of my lungs.  Spankings were agonizing and put the fear of God into me, which is why my father only used them as a last resort in very serious situations.        

Afterwards, it was time to go to school.  My father dropped me off like he always did. 

“Chris,” he said to me before I got out of the car, reaching over and putting his hand on my shoulder, “I hope you know that me and mom love you.  We only do this because we care, and want to see you become a good person.  Do you understand this?”

“Yes,” I said to him, and sniffled. 

My father hugged me and I went inside to school.  I went through the normal morning routine in Sister Dominica’s class, diagramming sentences, defining vocabulary words, still shaken from the spanking.  At one point I started quietly crying again, ducking down behind the boy in front of me so no one would notice.  Sister Dominica came over several times to give me some Kleenex, revealing a rare soft spot in her heart, and this simple act changed our relationship profoundly.  She was impressed I was taking my medicine like a man, and looking back it’s clear she was struggling with something close to guilt.  Had she overreacted with my mother? she wondered.  Maybe

But now I was awakeAware.  My head had been officially removed from my ass.  I eventually became Sister Dominica’s favorite student.  She was able to help me channel my energy into my class work, and I finished the sixth grade with straight A’s.  My behavior grade went from a U (unsatisfactory) to an O (outstanding). 

Did I believe in fences?  Boundaries?  Rules?  Most definitely.  As long as they were reasonable and anchored in love.

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.

Dom Giordano’s lost touch with teaching

by Christopher Paslay


After reading Dom Giordano’s “Education’s 5 Big Lies” in the Daily News last week, it’s hard for me to believe that Giordano was ever a teacher to begin with.  In particular, his belief that class size has no impact on learning is quite puzzling. 


Giordano states in his article:  This lie says that class size is paramount in determining a child’s ability to learn.


The National Education Association, the teachers’ union, has often floated the notion that 15 students in a class is the highest effective number and having 30 is an impossible situation.


The Rand Corp. did one of the biggest studies of class size, analyzing the effects of California‘s spending $1 billion in the late ’90s to cut class size in elementary schools. They found no link between the smaller classes and improvement in test scores.


The major flaw in Giordano’s reasoning is that isolated standardized test scores are the sole means in which to measure a child’s progress in school.  There is a lot more to learning—especially at the elementary level—than reading and math scores. 


Learning is also about socialization, citizenship, conflict resolution, organizational skills, critical thinking skills, and all the other academic and behavioral competencies children need to grow into successful adults. 


To see if class size has an impact on learning, one needs only to ask two fundamental questions: 


1.  Does classroom management have an effect on learning?  It most certainly does.  Any legitimate educator who’s spent time in a classroom will tell you that you can’t teach a class that you can’t control.


2.  Does class size have an effect on classroom management?  Without a doubt.  You can manage 15 students much more effectively than 30.  There are less behavioral issues; there is a stronger teacher-to-student ratio; there is less time needed to produce and grade materials, so there is more time to plan for instruction; when it comes to resources, such as computers and money for field trips, you can accommodate 15 much easier than 30; and the list goes on and on.  These factors not only impact learning, but also the teacher-student relationship, and the closeness of the classroom environment. 


The Rand Corp. study Giordano refers to might show class size has no impact on test scores, but then again, theoretical physics can prove that an elephant can hang from a cliff with his tail tied to a daisy. 


Any educator with common sense knows that class size has an effect on learning.  Giordano’s claim otherwise is either an attempt at sensationalism or proof he’s lost touch with his former profession. 


Improving education starts with improving classroom management


by Christopher Paslay


When it comes to education reform in America, we know what’s in fashion: The need for a comprehensive data system to track student achievement; the need to adopt international benchmark standards to improve assessments; the need to implement performance pay for teachers to raise their overall quality.


We’ve also heard about the importance of good instructional strategies and “rigorous” curriculum. 


However, little has been said about classroom management.  Without an orderly classroom, instructional strategies and curriculum don’t make much difference; you have to crawl before you can walk. 


Recently I was perusing the September 2003 issue of Educational Leadership and found an interesting article on Classroom management.     


Titled “The Key to Classroom Management,” the article was organized around several research studies, all of which support the importance of classroom management and show that it is perhaps the biggest factor in student achievement.  The article was also about the dynamics of classroom management, and shed light on why some teachers have highly organized classrooms while others struggle to keep order and control. 


The article broke classroom management into three categories.  The first was setting Appropriate Levels of Dominance.   “In contrast to the more negative connotation of the term dominance as forceful control or command over others,” the authors stated, “dominance is defined as the teacher’s ability to provide clear purpose and strong guidance regarding both academics and student behavior.” 


In order to bring about this appropriate dominance, teachers must establish clear expectations and consequences, which can be done by reinforcing acceptable behavior and providing consequences for unacceptable behavior.  Teachers must also establish clear learning goals, which can be achieved through the use of rubrics and charts that state lesson objectives.  Finally, teachers must exhibit assertive behavior—they must use firm body language and tone of voice, and persist until students respond with acceptable behavior. 


Next, the article talked about Appropriate Levels of Cooperation.  The authors defined cooperation as “a concern for the needs and opinions of others”.  Teachers can achieve this by providing flexible learning goals (allowing students to help set learning objectives), by taking a personal interest in their students (talking informally with students before or after class about their interests), and by using equitable and positive classroom behaviors (making eye contact and calling all students by name).      


Finally, the idea of establishing an Awareness of High-Needs Students was mentioned.  According to the authors, 12-22 percent of all students in school suffer from mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders, and relatively few receive mental health services.  So teachers need to be aware of the special needs of their students, so they can interact with them appropriately. 


In closing, the article provided the following advice: Don’t leave relationships to chance.  The relationship between a teacher and his or her students is essential in providing a solid foundation for classroom management.  Because studies prove that classroom management is important to student achievement, student-teacher relationships should not be left to chance; they should not be dictated by the personalities of those involved. 


Improving education starts with improving classroom management.  It was refreshing to come across this article in Educational Leadership—to read about practical strategies that can have a significant impact on student achievement.