Students started this school year in New York City under a new disciplinary regime. The Department of Education revised its discipline codes so that things like lateness and talking back to teachers no longer warrant suspension. The American Civil Liberties Union apparently had been pushing to revise the discipline code for years.
As a long-time dean who has worked in some very tough schools, the new discipline codes seem to codify a state of affairs that has existed de facto for a while. Frankly, I have never seen a student suspended for lateness or back-talk. With Bloomberg’s school report card system, schools are incentivized to not suspend students even for infractions far more severe than what the new discipline codes address.
Therefore, it is tough to see how the changes will have any meaningful impacts on school environment.
Furthermore, with Bloomberg’s erosion of tenure over the past ten years, teachers are scared to death to discipline their students or report any wrongdoing they see in their classrooms or hallways. It is all too common to see teachers who try to discipline students incur the wrath of administrators, not to mention parents. These revisions to the discipline code merely affirm this state of affairs.
Most of my years as a dean were during the beginning of my career, when I was still struggling with how to teach properly. I am thankful for that experience because it taught me valuable tools of classroom discipline. Deans, who played a much larger role in school discipline when I was on the job than they do now, were frequently called to classrooms to remove disruptive students. We found that it was the same teachers kicking kids out day after day. Meanwhile, there were other teachers who taught the same students who were being kicked out of classes who never once called us for help. I would pass by their classrooms and the students were all working, respectful and quiet.
Needless to say, we in the dean’s office had our opinions on who were the bad teachers as opposed to the good teachers. The bad teachers were the ones who called us. The good ones never bothered us at all. I was able to learn from the good ones and implement their mannerisms into my class. It meant dealing with classroom management issues on my own. Eventually, I learned that the best strategy for classroom management was a well-prepared, well-crafted lesson faithfully executed. It took many years to get this down, since this basically represents the nuts and bolts of the teacher’s craft. Even today I still rewrite lessons and devise new activities based upon what I have learned as a teacher.
Therefore, I am thankful for my time as a dean since it basically taught me the lesson that it was my job to deal with my class. I could not reject students for minor infractions. On the other hand, the erosion of student discipline along with teacher tenure poses a problem for new teachers trying to learn their craft.
Not everyone will learn the same way I learned. I was fortunate enough to start my career with a principal who invested time and resources into me. He was a veteran educator in NYC himself, someone who had been in the classroom for 20 years. Under his tutelage, I made many missteps for which another principal could have disciplined me. Yet, he labeled me a “natural” in the classroom, did what he could to inspire me and gave me room to learn from my mistakes. He believed that I, along with many of the young teachers on his staff, would be assets to the school system for many years to come. He shepherded us towards tenure and did all he could to keep us in the school system and in his school.
Unfortunately, the environment in NYC schools has changed. Most new teachers are given no guidance aside from the usual professional developments, which are worse than useless. Many of the new generation of principals are not educators and cannot recognize a potentially great teacher to save their lives. The Leadership Academy, the fast track to a principal position in today’s DOE, trains its alumni in carrots and sticks business management, not school leadership. It is no secret that Leadership Academy principals have reputations for being putative and petty. In this type of environment, it is impossible for a new teacher to learn their craft. Most importantly, the statistics show that principals are denying tenure to probationary teachers at an alarming clip. Many teachers who could be naturals are being pushed out of the system by the third or fourth year.
Add to this mix the new lax student discipline codes and you have a bad mix for New York City schools. With no support from administration and no disciplinary recourse, what tools are available to the struggling first-year teacher who faces an unruly class? What tools are available to the new teacher who has those one or two students who, if they were to be removed, would make a positive difference for the learning of the other students in the class? The answer before the new discipline codes was: nothing. The answer with the new student discipline codes is: less than nothing. We are essentially throwing thousands of new teachers into the classroom with no guidance or training and putting it all on them. This has been the state of affairs for many years in NYC. These new discipline policies take another step towards making this state of affairs permanent.
While the public schools’ ability to discipline students is continually being handcuffed, the charter schools with whom our public schools are “competing” get a blank check on student discipline. Not only can they cherry pick students through the sham lottery system, but they can suspend, expel and “counsel out” students even after they have been cherry picked. And where do those “problem students” from charters end up? Right back in the public schools. Not only do public schools not have the right to cherry pick their students, nor expel or counsel them out, they now do not even have the right to suspend students for many types of infractions. While charters are empowered to discipline students, the public schools have no such power. In this case, it makes no sense to claim that charters “compete” with public schools. When admissions, funding and discipline procedures are so different between the two types of schools, it can only be apples and oranges.
I guess it is extraordinary then that charters still fail to outperform public schools. Despite all the advantages that charters have and all the things that allow charters to fudge their statistics, public schools still do a better job of educating students, especially students that charters would never admit in a million years. Why do you think that is? What gives public schools the edge?
In my mind, it is the fact that public schools have more experienced teachers. Rather than expelling students when they become inconvenient, veteran teachers in NYC have learned to expand the right of education to all children, including the ones who do not want to be educated. Public school teachers, despite the fact that they are continuously vilified and their careers are under attack, still educate the neediest students with the scarcest resources. Despite the fact that the charter school on the top floor has smaller class sizes, more funding and more motivated students, public school teachers are winning the competition that the education reformers believed would run public education into the ground.
For veterans of NYC’s public school system, the new discipline codes will most likely make no difference at all. For the newer teachers, it will probably hamper their ability to learn their craft. Regardless, public school teachers in NYC are continuously being asked to do more with less and are rising to the occasion despite the massive campaign to destroy them.