16 May 2010

When Duct Tape Won't Do

I heard a principal talk once about the repeat offenders she would find in her office. As the school year wore on, the referral slips came not only with increasing frequency, but included ever more petty offenses. The student might have first been sent to the office earlier in the year after the teacher had exhausted all options: called parents, had meetings with student and family, sent to counselor, place in time out, etc. The student was insubordinate and defiant. By the end of the year, this was usually still true, only the referrals had things written on them like "didn't bring a pencil to class." They were things the teacher would never have turned out a student for earlier in the year; but by this point, the teacher was looking for any reason to not have the student present. (If you've taught, you can likely think of at least one student like this.)

The principal's reflection on all of this was interesting. She said that teachers didn't really want her to punish these students (although they may have thought they did). What they wanted was for her to fix the kids. And the simple fact was, she couldn't. As easy as kids are to break, they are certainly not easy to repair. I think some of our frustration as educators is that on some level, we know this---and yet the feds want us to fix every kid and send them on their merry way to college. (If you missed TeachMoore's post about this a couple of weeks ago, I highly recommend reading her call to Get Real about Parent Accountability.)

All of this makes me think about how we interact as adults. Sure enough, as I consider the ways some teachers complain about peers or parents...or how one secretary will rage on to her boss about having to work with another...or any of the myriad of times I asked my principal to "do something," I wonder what we expect to happen. I'm not sure what I expected. I think I just wanted him or her to make any interpersonal issues just disappear. I think I assumed that the other person was the one who needed to be set right. You know, that probably wasn't so smart on my part.

I have found myself thinking about this a lot recently. I'm not asked to fix kids. I rarely deal with irate parents. I am occasionally called upon to navigate interpersonal waters. Diplomacy? Frequently. (My favourite moment from last week was telling someone that their work had been a great model for me. I didn't tell them that it was a great model of what not to do.) But most of the requests I get are for me to fix the system. I wish I could. I wish I could tell teachers that I will replace red tape with duct tape...but I can't. (At least some supes and school boards in the state aren't being shy in saying that the RttT Emperor has no clothes and are not going to participate in a Race to the Trough.) Sometimes, I really can make something happen to solve a particular problem. Most of the time, I can only listen and see if there is some sort of temporary solution to be had.

Many years ago when I got divorced, the court papers contained a statement that the marriage was "irretrievably broken." I wonder if the same term might apply to certain people or situations. But more importantly, I wonder what should happen next when it does.


Unknown said...

I think about irretrievably broken and ridiculousness surrounding referrals all of the time.

(This is also fallingfromprams btw)

Anonymous said...

Whenever I sub I read through the referrals the teacher has at the desk. I've seen tons that are essentially no more than not bringing supplies or wearing a hat sleeping in class.

I don't get it. If the kid doesn't bring supplies then they can't do the work. Isn't the 0 enough of a punishment? Isn't losing the hat until the end of the year or whenever your mommy can come pick it up sufficient?

The sleeping really gets me though. You've got a kid who isn't causing a problem at all. They're going to miss out on learning things. They won't have as much time to work. That should be enough. But for some reason these teachers thought it was a good idea to write the referral. And at all the schools I sub in, every referral makes you lose more privileges.

For example, one of the middle schools doesn't make you pay to get into school dances and sports games and stuff if you have high enough grades and no discipline problems. Is making a kid lose that worth it if all they did was fall asleep?

TeachMoore said...

Thanks for the plug for my blog post. And thanks for this thoughtful piece of yours. It is truly human nature, especially at the end of a long school year, to wish other people (students, colleagues, administrators) could be "fixed" to be more like us. But the truth is none of us is all that perfect, and we have to learn to acknowledge our own imperfections as well as learning to be more tolerant of others'.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Good grief. Somewhere around here I posted about my referral policy...

LSS (Long Story Short), teachers need student management skills. If those skills aren't inborn, try to teach them. If the teacher is unteachable...well, adios.

What follows is no brag, just fact: Given that some teachers in my (old) middle school might write 1,000+ referrals per year, you might think that half that number would be acceptable. Baloney!

In the last three years I taught, prior to retirement in 2003, my worst year saw me issue five referrals. I was so ashamed. But there was nothing I could do, because they were all the results of fights in the hall where I was on duty.

I dealt with classroom issues respectfully, between me, the student, and the parent. I never had the need to drag the VP into my arena, and I hoped that I was leaving him/her time to do some constructive instructional work instead of cleaning up teacher messes.

Shannon J. Holden said...

Hugh, I wish that you worked in my building! I am an AP at a MS, and I'm up to my neck in referrals by teachers who have had enough of a particular student (or four)...I have a website that helps teachers survive in the classroom, it can be found at:
If you are bored, curious (or both), surf around on it and tell me what you think!

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Shannon, I will do that for sure.

Just the idea that you would put yourself out there online to help newbies is heartening.

And thanks, SG, for an idea for a long overdue post on "The Thoughtful Teacher." It's been too quiet in Hillsboro.

Dr Pezz said...

Sometimes I think teachers feel helpless in these situations. They may be just looking for anything or anyone to help. Obviously, it doesn't work.

http://dkzody.wordpress.com said...

I have always, in 21 years of teaching, handled my students in my classroom myself. Rarely did I send a referral and rarely did I call for a Campus Assistant to pick up a student. For many years when either thing occurred, I got IMMEDIATE action because I was one of those teachers who only did this as the LAST resort.

This year I did similarly with a student. I called home many times but then found mom only spoke Spanish and the brother to whom I had been speaking was not passing the info along. So I finally, in desperation, wrote conduct referral. I wanted the student removed from my class.

"Well, since this is your first referral, we should work out some consequences," said the new VP, "before removing him from class." sheesh

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Re dkzody: That's an administrator who hadn't bothered to get some context.

I'd have some frost on my pumpkin too, and then I'd give the new VP some context.

I'm reminded of the cartoon that shows the white-collar guy with a giant wood screw through the chest with a caption that reads, "Do a good job and you'll get your reward."

But we have to be above cynicism to survive in education, don't we? :)

Congrats on finding a new mission, BTW. Follow your heart.