Education Opinion

The Pebble in the Pond

By Hanne Denney — October 24, 2007 3 min read
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The first quarter is almost over. The teachers now know which students are “problems” or “challenges” or “high-flyers” -- the ones who will need a lot of teacher time to handle attitude issues. One of our school administrators said to me (with a very loud sigh), “I guess the honeymoon’s over”. She was referring to discipline. The teachers use positive reinforcement techniques, with praise for a job well done, and reward slips given out generously. But the teachers also use progressive dscipline, meaning that there is a tier of response to behavior. First we try talking to the student privately about their behavior, to remind them of the rules and give them opportunity to change. After three in-class behavior interventions (verbal warnings, calls home, detention) the misbehvior becomes an out-of-classroom problem.

So teachers write referrals to the office, and the student is sent out. That means the administrator has to deal with the student. So now the detentions become lunch-time visits with administration, the phone calls home become conferences, and the verbal warnings become written reports. A few minutes talking with the teacher in the hall becomes a suspension.

If the student receivs special education services, a suspension begats a manifestation meeting.

Students don’t realize that their patterns of behavior are like the pebble in the pond. One tiny splash, no harm done. But the effect of that splash is a movement of water out in a widening circle. What was an issue between one child and one adult grows to involve two, then three, then seven or eight adults in a meeting.

Manifestation meetings are frustrating to me as Special Education Department Chair, because there is actually little I can do to help the misbehaving student. If their behavior was a manifestation of their disability, I can state that and explain the issue to the teachers so they understand. For example, a child on the autism spectrum perhaps can’t stop themselves from calling out answers in class. In that case I can develop techniques for teachers and student to use to monitor and guide appropriate responses. But if the student’s behavior had nothing to do with their disability, e.g. the learning disabled child who wants to throw erasers in class, it is not my issue to deal with directly. But I always want to try to do something.

I am one of those teachers who is drawn to misbehaving students. I always want to know WHY a student is not following rules or directions. Middle school students are different than high school students. Misbehavior in middle school is all about getting attention. In high school, misbehavior is an expression of students’ anger, or pain, boredom, or frustration. Middle school - behavior is directed towards others. High school - behavior is directed out from the self. I know I’m making a broad statement here, but I’m trying to figure it out.

I teach one class with a general educator; we, too are struggling with some minor behavioral issues. I think the students who are talking, or drawing, or falling asleep are just not engaged in what we’re doing. Perhaps we’re spending too much time talking to students, instead of engaging them in the learning process. I don’t think the students look forward to our class and I want to change that.

Sure, the honeymoon’s over. Disciplinary actions are increasing, and it takes more work to get the students engaged. But like any good marriage, the relationship between teachers and students (or administrators and students) takes a lot of work. It takes commitment to make it through the hard talks and disagreements. Sometimes it takes compromise, and trying something new. Since I just came into this class a few weeks ago, perhaps the students don’t yet trust that I will be there for the long-term. Like spouses who come to the end of the honeymoon, but decide to build a marriage, I have to accept the “high-flyer” who needs a lot of my attention and work with him or her. Honeymoon’s over, but here comes the good part.

The opinions expressed in In the Middle are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.