Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Problems with Public Education and Discipline

[Johnathan Clayborn]
In my pursuit studying educational psychology and I have studied the modern public school system at length. There is a lot of focus right now on grievous problems within the academics of the school system itself.  However, there is one area that is consistently overlooked; the area of discipline. Sure, there are the occasional school shootings that occur. And when these events happen they receive widespread media coverage across the nation. Fortunately, these events are rare. However, there is a whole different side to the discipline problem in our schools that is far more rampant and widespread than you might think.
We’ll talk about how deep the rabbit-hole goes in a minute, however, first let’s touch on some of the reasons why the issues exist. First; students are out of control. They feel entitled by today’s society. They, in many cases, have little or no structure at home, and little to no parental involvement. The parents also fail to properly discipline their children (many of whom could use a good spanking and a serious grounding in my opinion). The teachers aren’t blameless either. They are often so fed up with the child’s antics that they just snap. In some cases the teachers are just irresponsible and what starts out as horseplay gets out of hand…but teachers shouldn’t be engaging in horseplay with their students anyway.
So, how serious is this issue? First, at any point that you’re bored pop over to youtube and do a search for “student attacks teacher” or vice versa. There are a plethora of videos. Some these videos involve teachers who are physically wrestling with their students, apparently in fun. Like this one: or this one: or this substitute teacher who is teaching his class self-defense moves: Now, I’m a big proponent of self-defense and I think it’s a vital skill that everyone should know, but there’s a time and place for everything and in the middle of Algebra is not the appropriate time or place for this kind of discussion. There are much more disturbing videos, like this one, where it’s unclear who started the altercation but the teacher and the student have physically gone to blows:
In many cases the children are clearly in the wrong.  In one case reported on by MSNBC’s Today show from 2008 a Baltimore art teacher was assaulted by a student who invaded her “personal space”. The school administration says that ultimately the blame falls on the teacher for telling the student that she would defend herself after the student threatened to hit her. This same school, Lewis High School, was put on probation by Maryland school authorities due to a high number of violent fights. In 2002 Baltimore school officials completely disbanded Northern High School due to its high violence level and created several smaller schools, including this one. Both of the smaller schools have been labeled as persistently dangerous which ultimately rendered the school district’s decision to break the violent school up as ineffective. This is not surprising to me. Simply moving a problem from one school to another doesn’t actually resolve the problem. So now instead of having one school with a violence issue, this district has two. But that’s exactly the type of thinking that’s plaguing our education system at the moment.
In another incident reported on ABC in 2009 in Colorado a teacher at Hinkley High School was beaten up by a student after the teacher took away the student’s cell phone. Apparently the teacher had already told the student to put away the cell phone once. After the student was caught with it a second time the teacher took it away and the student charged the teacher and physically assaulted her.
There was also another article, allegedly originally reported in the Eureka  Reporter (although this website seems to be defunct now).  This issue was reported in May of 2006. In this case a 15 or 16 year old student assaulted his teacher over a pot-leaf necklace. The student was arrested and charged with felony assault. Apparently the teacher confiscated the necklace after telling the student numerous times not to have it visible in the classroom.
Earlier this year a teacher in Plainville High School in Connecticut was assault by a student, according to NBC news.  There was no comment on why the teacher was assaulted by the student, however the article did state that the student was arrested and charged with assault on an elderly person and 2nd degree breach of peace.
And then another story from just a few days ago as reported in the Huffington Post; a 10 year old girl physically assaulted her teacher after the teacher confiscated her Halloween Candy.  This incident occurred in Zellwood Elementary School in Florida. In this case the student was arrested and charged with felony battery. The local news asked the girl’s mother if she thought her daughter should have been arrested and the mother responded with “no, no, no. I was shocked, devastated.” In this particular case, according to the police report, the teacher had confiscated the candy and put in her desk. The student then retrieved the candy without asking and began throwing pieces at other students. The teacher confiscated the bag again, putting it on a shelf behind her desk. She told the student that the candy would be given to her mother at the end of the day. The student then began throwing items from the teacher’s desk, at which point the teacher called for assistance in having the girl removed. While waiting for the help to arrive the teacher tried to blockade access to the candy bag and was hit repeatedly by the student who threatened to kill the teacher and her family.
In another report from CBS out of Chicago this past February a teacher was attacked by a student after the teacher told the student that he could not go to the bathroom. The teacher told the student that they he would have detention if he stood up again. The student then ripped the detention paper out of the teacher’s hands and a scuffle ensued which result in the student pinning the teacher to the floor and punching and kicking him repeatedly. The 14 year old was released to his parents and the school declined to comment, but the police department stated that they would pressing charges of felony battery against the student at a later time.
There are literally dozens and dozens of similar stories, but for the sake I time I will omit summarizing all of them. But then there are the fights on the other side of the coin as well. Incidents where a teacher marked students down a test for saying “bless you” to a classmate who sneezed because it violated his no-talking rule. To me it seems a little harsh to punish students for extending a common courtesy. It’s not as though a simple “bless you” is going to catastrophically disrupt the concentration of the students, nor is it going to empower the students with the correct answers to the test questions.  
There are also these teachers who, rather than taking the student’s cell phones, destroy them completely: and . This is potential legal issue for the school. Just because a student is in your classroom does not give you the right to destroy their belongings. There’s a word for that; vandalism. Or destruction of private property works too.
But, apparently violence by teachers against students is not just a problem in America as evidenced by this video of this teacher in Japan: and this one in China: and even this one from India: Some of the violence is senseless and is almost something that you would see in a cartoon:  And there are even the attempts at humor by students:
Some students deliberately antagonize the teachers: but other cases the teacher’s actions are inexplicable.  The most disturbing report by far comes out of Fox Houston where a private school teacher assaults and beats a 6th grade elementary school student. Apparently a mentally challenged student in the class was dancing and this student and several others thought it was funny. This touched a nerve with the teacher who beat the kid so hard that he had bruises for more than a week. The teacher was fired and taken into custody by the local sheriff’s office.
This situation, in my mind at least, plays no small role in why it is that teachers are rapidly leaving the education field. When I’ve had these discussions with others in the past some people have callously said that “teachers need to just suck it up and deal with it” or when I tried to argue that they weren’t getting paid enough to deal with these issues they said “if teachers aren’t teaching simply for the love of teaching children they need to find somewhere else to work”. To me this is an incredulous point of view. Sure, every teacher undoubtedly has a strong desire to teach children, but let’s be pragmatic about it for a moment. Teachers have lives and bills just the same as the rest of us. What if customers at your job were walking up and hitting you? Would you want a raise? Would you want to continue working there? I seriously doubt that there are many who would. I, for one, don’t blame the teachers for wanting to leave.
If you look into the epidemic of teachers leaving the field the statistics are alarming. 10% of all new teachers quit within the first year of employment. By the second year this number jumps to 40%. Within the first five years on the job half of all new teachers quit.  No other job that I am aware of has such a high turnover rate; save maybe people who work in a telemarketing call center. But I digress, something is seriously wrong the system if those are the types of turnover rates that we are experiencing. Everyone is resolutely focused on bringing about academic reform, which I agree is a much-needed thing, however, none of the plans that I’ve seen yet have any elements incorporated into them addressing this issue.
In looking at the data here are some of the reasons why teachers quit. According to the National Center for School Statistics new teachers who worked with a mentor or teachers who made a starting salary of $40,000 annually were less likely to quit. This seems logical to me. With a mentor there is someone to guide you and show you the ropes, and with higher pay you’re more inclined to put with more headaches. (As a comparison, the average starting salary for a teacher in the Phoenix Metro area is $32,000).
Another study by the General Teaching Council was part of an effort to bring disillusioned teachers back into the profession. In their study the teachers cited unruly students, bureaucratic red tape, heavy work-loads and lack of family time as their main reasons for leaving.  Almost 20% of these teachers cited both unruly pupils and lack of family time as their primary motivators for leaving the field. At to this a baby-boom in recent times and the education system is facing a crisis. Some education think-tanks estimate that schools need to recruit another 18,000 teachers over the next five years just to stem the tide. In my particular case I make more money with no degree training in the corporate world than I would as a teacher with a four year degree. That seems a little backwards to me.
A different study by the National Education Association cites the same reasons; low salary and poor working conditions. Today’s modern teachers are more educated than at any point in history. Almost 50% of all teachers now hold a Master’s Degree as compared to 23% of teachers in 1960. The teachers are citing that they are not receiving enough pay to pay back student loans and make a living as part of their reasons for leaving.
There are a number of people that feel that these are invalid reasons for people to quit, such as this blog here: . However, I’m with the teachers on this debate. Next time that guy wants to quit his job because his hours suck or his pay sucks or his customers are a jerk I’m tempted to tell him that he’s not allowed to feel that way and that those are not “valid” reasons for quitting. I don’t see where this guy gets off on passing judgment onto teachers in the first place, but I digress.  While I disagree with the sentiment of his particular article, I do have to admit that he may have some valid points, which I’ll cover in a moment.
And there are certainly those who agree with the teachers as evidenced by these very similar political cartoons:

Whatever their reasons are, and whether we agree with their choices or not, the evidence is clear; teachers are leaving faster than ever before. The result of this behavior is adversely affecting our schools in the worst way. People are always talking about how much more funding the schools need. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education teachers quitting the field were costing the education system $4.9 billion each year in 2005. And the problem has only gotten worse since then. Instead of new money going to improving the system, it’s going to attrition costs.
The problem is clear enough, the question becomes; how do we go about fixing it? Paying teachers more money is one answer that has been proposed. In my opinion this solution will only be somewhat effective. I do think that teachers deserve more money however, providing a higher salary in and of itself is not going to magically resolve these issues.
Another suggested solution is to create alternate methods for teachers to become certified that do not require a bachelor’s degree and the associated cost. Again, this may help in some situations, but I do not think that this in and of itself will solve the issue. For those of you with good memory you may have noticed that my post started with classroom violence, and now we’re discussing teachers quitting. I believe these are interconnected problems and that the only real way to deal with these problems is to provide teachers with training courses. I can tell you first-hand how this will help. Until 2 months ago I was enrolled in the Secondary Education program at my college. There were a lot of requirements and a lot of practicum hours involved in getting the certification, including one full semester as a student teacher. However, there was little to no pragmatic training built into the program. And it’s not just my school it’s every program that I’ve looked at. There are no classes for teachers on how to avoid burnout (whereas in the behavioral health field that I currently work there are seminars each quarter).  There are no classes on how to organize your classroom, manage your workload, or deal with unruly students. It’s very much a sink or swim attitude, and more and more teachers are sinking because they lack the skills and the training to resolve these conflicts.
Remember the blogger whom I disagreed with? This is the only point that he made that I concur with him on. Teachers, he suggests, are using the “too much workload” as simply another way of saying that they don’t have an effective system to handle the workload they’re expected to perform. To a point, I agree with this. However, when you factor in the impending teacher crisis, we’re facing a situation that is auto-catalytic; teachers are leaving because they have too much to do, which means that the remaining teachers have to do more, which causes them to leave, etc. New teachers who enter this cycle are not prepared and are shocked by the system. Even when working as the student intern you usually aren’t doing everything on your own, there is another experienced teacher helping you. But once you have your degree and your certification you’re just expected to magically know the missing pieces of information.
I stoutly believe that one thing that can benefit teachers greatly is a pragmatic conflict resolution training. Explain to teachers what they should and should not do. For example; putting tape over a student’s mouth is not an effective way of curbing the behavior of talking out of turn (which was another article I read about). Any basic psychology student can tell you that. And this proposed training goes for everyone who works in the school setting; nurses, school counselors, and even the police who visit the campus. I read an article about a 5-year old boy who was zip-tied and arrested, charged with felonious assault. The officer put his hands on the boy (a boy who had been diagnosed with mental disorders) and the boy responded by slapping the officer’s hand away. The officer then arrested him for assault. You don’t need to put your hands on the students to get them to cooperate.
My suggestion would be to increase the teacher’s pay, but also to stop giving them the summer off. They should use those summer months when school is out of session for implementing teacher skills development courses. Bring in business consultants who can teach the teachers who to streamline their processes and decrease their work load. Bring in counselors and psychologists who can teach them appropriate conflict resolution skills. Bring in legal professionals who can cover the ins and outs of the law, especially in dealing with harassment and abuse. The most ridiculous case I have heard of regarding this is a 5-year  old kindergarten student who was expelled for “sexual harassment”. Excuse me?  The child in this case pinched a fellow student on the butt, one time. Even in the corporate world a single act such as this hardly meets the definition of sexual harassment. And, in my opinion, you have to have some concept of what sex is in order for it to be considered sexual harassment. Granted, I’m not saying the boy should be allowed to go around pinching butts. However, this seems excessive on the part of the school. After all, isn’t our job as educators to teach students? Imagine if you were immediately arrested anythime you did something wrong, whether you knew it was wrong or not. You’d be scared to leave your house. This knee-jerk reaction in our schools has got to stop. It needs to be replaced with a level-headed system of handling these issues.
Now, keep in mind that I’m not advocating that teachers become fully trained behaviorists either. That would be absurd to expect them to do two full time jobs. And a “behavior manual” is also a ridiculous idea. As anyone who works in the behavioral field will tell you, while the behavior that a person is doing may be identical to that of another person, their reason for initiating that behavior may not be. For example; you have a student who’s talking in class. Great. You can’t use a cookie-cutter approach to dealing with this behavior. Maybe he’s talking because he’s bored and he’s under-stimulated. Maybe he’s talking because he’s overly kind and helping the student beside him. Maybe he’s talking because he doesn’t understand what’s going on but is too afraid to ask. Or, maybe he’s talking because he simply wants attention. There are numerous ways to curb this behavior, but if you took a blanket “one size fits all” approach to this then you would almost certainly make some situations better and other situations far worse. The teachers need to be able to leverage outside resources, such a school counselors or trained behavioral professionals who can observe the class either in person or via web-cam offsite and provide the teachers with specific techniques tailored to each child.
Whatever educational reforms lay ahead for the American Education System it seems clear that without provisions to include teacher training and skill development this problem will continue to get worse.



  1. I really like your suggestions about teacher training and continued learning in the summer months or time away from school. This is valuable time ecucators can futher their understanding of education in general and the needs of their students. I dont think we are utilizing opportunities such as these currently, maybe due to the lack of motivation to continue growing as educators, but as you mention something needs to change. Do we go toward a system where teachers are rewarded/payed on their performance? And even then how do we document teacher performance? Love the ideas, keep em coming!

  2. Thanks, Alexander. I've long held the opinion that teaching is part science and part art. There are some aspects to education that are difficulat to measure with a standardized test. The biggest problem that I see with marrying teacher pay to classroom performance is that teachers will begin teaching to the test. Memorization is not learning. No cognition is taking place and, ultimately, it is the student who suffers from that. In my opinion moving into a system that continues to use this type of philosophy will undermine education further. The IT industry is plagued with this right now. Their staple certification is the A+ cert. You can pay a few hundred dollars and go to an "A+ bootcamp" where they will "teach you everything you need to know to pass the test". the problem is that while you can pass the test, you dont actually understand why the answer is what it is. Imparting the ability to reason onto the students, in my mind, is more important than teaching them memorized facts. Maybe I'll write an article about that topic in the next few days. :)

  3. Teachers have been teaching the test for quite some time now. With the advent of AIMS and No child left behind, the focus was placed on metrics instead of individual performance of the students. More and more schools are switching to the mindset that all students are created equally. Big mistake. As the mother of a gifted child (grown now) I experienced a frustration level with mainstream education due to the refusal to be willing to teach gifted students on a different path. Because so many students that are either struggling or of average ability, the gifted students are expected to slow their pace and learn in the same manner as the other students.
    Behavioral issues are a larger problem than curriculum based roadblocks to learning. You also mentioned parents failing to spank their children early on in your blog. Many parents would LOVE to spank or discipline their offspring, but state law oversteps their rights as parents in an overcorrect to stem abuse. Kids are cognizant of the lawful limits of their parents' rights and use them to full advantage. One of my friends actually had her son tell her to go ahead and take his video games because he would bruise himself and blame her and then she would lose all three of her children and go to jail. Nice, eh?
    I do believe that teachers should be rewarded for their success and if they are working in a dangerous environment, there should be a zero tolerance for violence as well as a stipend for counseling for faculty. Students that perpetrate violence should be immediately removed from the educational setting permanently, in order to achieve safety for other students as well as faculty members.

  4. @Cheri, I completely agree. Students are not created equally, nor should they be treated that way. Coming from me that's an interesting statement as anyone who knows me will vouch that I'm all about equality. But, I also beleive that certain people have skills that they are adept at, and other skills that they are not adept at. Treating all people the same in the world of education doesnt do anyone justice. I often goofed off in class because I was on a different level intellectually than my classmates.
    And yes, I can see your point there. While state laws don't prohibit parents from spanking their children, there is a very clear distinction between a spank and abuse. And it sounds like that kid needs some therapy...
    I think that you nailed part of the problem on the head too. The students are not held accountable for their actions, so they persist. In the case of the kid who assaulted the teacher over the halloween candy, the teacher said that there had been a fight earlier that week and the student was in school the next day and when the paramedics were taking the teacher to the hospital the student who attacked her was just standing around as if nothing happened.

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These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.