Sunday, June 14, 2020

Keeping Order in the Classroom is highest priority - Teachers Are Police Without Guns - But Not Always

I've been thinking about the role police and teachers play - and there are some similarities. But I'm also thinking of how differently teachers and police are expected to react to disorder. Teaching required being a creative policeman. Which sometimes bothers teachers who hear stories of cops losing control in the face of recalcitrance and provocation. Cops are given a pass on reacting while teachers are put in the rubber room.
One of the first things I was told as a new teacher was that I must keep order in the classroom to survive. (They weren't wrong). That teaching and learning can't take place in disorder. And that the administration doesn't care what you do - teach effectively or not as long as you keep the kids under control - and don't bother the admin.

But that led some to view - and even enjoy the policing actions more than teaching. One of my colleagues hated the classroom but had perfect control through fear and manipulation - and when a full time dean disciplinarian position came up he grabbed it - and never went back to the class - be became a lawyer. I got his final class the year after and had a lot of ground to make up.

Good teachers were viewed as those who kept kids under control. Order in the classroom. After all, that was the external thing everyone in an elementary school saw -- teachers had to march their kids through the halls and staircases multiple times a day and it was embarrassing if they weren't orderly. When I was a kid in the 50s, our teachers in the upper grades weren't required to lead us around and we came up and down on our own - but by the late 60s things had tightened up quite a bit and the shifting racial balance in NYC schools probably had something to do with that - poorer kids with greater needs and not enough increases in services to handle those needs but that certainly led to some schools being a semi police state. In one JHS where we fed our students into they had an ex-cop running a discipline room where he would show the kids his gun as a threat. And kids being smacked was not unheard of.

Most children have their first experience with policing with their first teachers in crowded classrooms, more often in inner cities but not so much in suburban schools with smaller class sizes. Does race play a factor? And does the fact that the teachers ares more likely to be white also play some role? We hear a lot of the school to prison pipeline and the often harsher discipline in schools in inner cities gets kids used to more severe restriction.

Today's racial discussions bring this to mind. It is not only some cops who have racial attitudes. I heard a number of racial insensitivities if not outright racism expressed by teachers and that certainly affected students. I was not exempt from some racial attitudes especially in my earliest years and had to self examine to try to overcome them. I didn't go through racial sensitivity training. My kids were my trainers and some of the students I became closest to were black students.

(Years later I attended a few weddings where my wife and I were among the few white people. I also became close with a former student's all black high school basketball team a few years after he left my class and over 4 years had some wonderful times with these teenagers and that broke a lot of wariness of black male teens.)

I think of calls for teachers to be armed in case of school invasions. As we see in current demos, the more arms the more chance for violence. Can you imagine a teacher with a gun losing their shit? There are so many police forces in Europe where they don't carry guns and there are few people who end up dying. Yet there is no massive disorder or higher levels of crimes and the prison populations are vastly lower than ours.

Teachers vary in their approaches and how they deal with management issues often depends on their skills and personalities. And experience.

In my first year I had no control but luckily I had maneuvered myself into an ATR like job as a permanent sub in the same school so every day I had another chance with a new class. I had a friend who had started a year earlier in an elementary school - a milquetoast kind of guy and he was destroyed early on and getting the class back was very tough though I heard they calmed down at one point -- I guess running all over the guy got boring and he was a nice guy and they probably came to see that. But that story scared the hell out of me and learning how to control - police - a class was my highest priority. And once I did in the spring (69) of my second year - soon after the fall 1968 strike - I still consider that ability as one of the greatest things I learned in life.

A black guidance counselor -Joe Purviance - who was a mentor - in my first school told me t find something to like even in the worst kid - find it and focus on it and let the kid know. It on the whole worked. Having had 17 or 18 different classes I can think of maybe 5 kids at most over this time that I couldn't find something to like. (They seemed like sociopaths.) And I taught in a tough area surrounded by projects and tenements in then very poor Williamsburg. One of those very difficult kids at the time - it took me a month to realize how funny he was and he became a pal - in fact he IM'd me this morning wishing me a happy Sunday - he's about 50 now.

Teaching required being a creative policeman. Which sometimes bothers teachers who hear stories of cops losing control in the face of recalcitrance and provocation. Cops are given a pass on reacting while teachers are put in the rubber room. [See sidenote below].

Go to any school and you will see all sorts of provocation and recalcitrance. In the old days some teachers used some from of physical force and fear.
There were so many stories. One of the teachers considered one of the best in my school - an elderly tiny woman - was known for wrapping knuckles with a ruler or twisting ears - and not just for misbehavior but for not getting an answer correct. She was lauded by the administration for her control.

I learned to use sense of humor and my personality but also had to do some yelling.  And of course it all depended on the difficulity of the class in terms of behavior problems.

One thing I decided on early -- I would  try not to call an administrator for help as that would be sending them a message that I was not capable -- and also a message to the kids that I needed help. After my 2nd year when I did need an admin at times to firm up my control - I rarely called for an admin again.

Which brings me to my point. I understand how dangerous it can be dealing with adult criminals for cops but there are also so many cases of minor incidents escalating - Sandra Bland for instance - where a cop things his manhood is being challenged -- while teachers who also may face verbal and even physical assaults must show enormous restraint.

Are teachers trained to show restraint? No. I think it comes naturally to most in the context of the situation - they are still dealing mostly with kids and of course teachers now know that even saying something could be a career-ender. Now police are facing a similar situation.

A friend who taught for less than 3 years in his mid 50s as a second career in a school with an awful principal told me the story of how in a weak moment he called a kid a punk and that almost led to his being brought up on charges.

One of my colleagues grabbed a girl who kept running out of the room - I was trained to physically restrain a kid who tried to run to stop them from possibly running in the street and getting hit by a car -- and sat her down and in so doing the corner of her finer nail left a slight scratch on her cheek - actually in a photo taken by the vicious principal you couldn't even see the scratch - the teacher was black and the principal was Dominican and black teachers viewed her as a racist. The principal got the parent to call the cops and 5 showed up and took the teacher away in handcuffs. The end result was 3 years in the rubber room and a year suspension without pay - I attended some of the 3020 hearings.

Peter Bronson addition:
Good article, but I would add something like this to the last  paragraph.
There’s one thing missing from this article. The police are armed to the hilt, given $$$ to pay for the latest hardware, protection against retaliation while the schools which should be the place were we teach young people what  it means to be a “person” in a democracy are segregated, under resourced and staffed by poorly trained teachers who’s marching orders are: “the kids are dumb, but they’re docile.”*

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