When I went to school, corporal punishment was still a thing; California banned it in 1986. Did we really miss it? No, we didn’t. Last September, new discipline guidelines for schools in California were announced that limited suspensions. Are we really missing the old policy? No, we don’t.
This week I decided to look back at what EdSource wrote: about the changes six months ago, and I reread the letters in response. oh my. They were furiously apocalyptic. I’ll quote just one mild:This is absolutely absurd – no discipline, no responsibility.Were these letter writers right? Are we rid of “discipline” or “responsibility”? Have things gotten worse in our schools since the policy was changed? Not really.
I can only see the view from where I teach at a public high school in Los Angeles, but I think things have improved. Sure, there are still some difficult students who would be much better off in a private school, and there have been a few fights, but the police are gone and there are hardly any suspensions. The atmosphere at school seems positive. The reforms have worked.
The culture of discipline and punishment we’ve lived with presents a choice every school makes, just as cities like Los Angeles have had to decide whether to implement sweeping criminal justice reforms. Schools that go against the grain and continue to hand out penalties for minor “violations” end up producing exactly what they wanted to attack: more bad behavior. The happiest schools are the ones where they know when to turn a blind eye.
This is why I believe the absolute worst job in education today is responsible for ‘discipline’. There are ways to do this work without being overzealous, without resorting to harassing students (or teachers), but this work changes people for the worse. After a while, when every nail they see has to be hammered, they are consumed by it. I also see this with other administrators and teachers.
What would I most like to see? I believe that schools should apply the “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE), a concept important in the special education I teach, to school discipline. I know many teachers who would be very uncomfortable taking this approach, but if the least restrictive environment is central to the mental health of special education students, who are generally our biggest challenge, why can’t it be? be applied to all students? This approach should be formalized in state law and discussed in district-sponsored workshops and professional development sessions.
When state Senator Anthony Portantino wants to demand mental health training for teachers and staff (Senate Bill 387), he tackles the problem from the wrong side. It makes no sense to insist on teachers that the pandemic has led to student depression and discontent, because teachers already know this. The individualized solution – locating the distressed student and referring them to our new welfare specialists and psychiatric social workers – does not solve what is wrong in school. A better goal would be to identify and implement the least restrictive approach to the environment at the school level and allow students to indulge in their natural urge to laugh and have fun. Lunchtime music and events in my school’s central quad are just one example.
Why else would we do this? First, the relationship between teachers and students has changed over the years, just as society has changed, and we must accept this, not fight it, nor blame the parents. Authoritarian and hierarchical learning styles and discipline just don’t work anymore. I’m always amazed when conservatives insist that they do. They should visit a classroom. Respect and courtesy are still important, but teachers and students have to earn it from each other by working together towards shared goals. This minimizes conflict and the need for discipline.
Second, if we want to build on this collaboration, then project-based learning and diverse electives and sports are the best way to achieve academic goals, not the deliberate pursuit of English and math, and we need a different grading system to match. I’m always happy when my wobbly nine students discover how much they love music or art or dance or wrestling. It keeps them in balance.
Third, discipline problems arise because certain students think that school does not provide them with what they need. The relentless urge to send all students to university causes a lot of unwanted stress. This is becoming a discipline problem closely related to absenteeism as many of my students now want to drop out of school. They want to work with their families in construction, cleaning or childcare, partly because they can’t afford it and partly because they don’t want to go to university. We should give them lessons that will make them effective in their chosen careers, such as through career engineering education. Our job is to present alternatives, not to enforce our choice over theirs.
Martin Blythe teaches special education English at Canoga Park High School in Los Angeles and is a member of EdSource’s Teachers Advisory Group.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to comment, please review our guidelines and contact us.
To receive more such reports, click here to sign up for EdSource’s free daily email on the latest developments in education.