Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 05 2011

Lesson Learned

My new school has extraordinarily tight discipline expectations and great follow-through. I knew that consistent expectations and structure are good for kids, but I didn’t really know it until I saw how many kids with awful prior behavior records tried to push the limits, got shut down, and turned into little angels. They know we’ll follow through, so they don’t even bother trying.

If I had any shadow of doubt left about not going easy on kids, it vanished this week with one student. She recently moved to the US and speaks barely a word of English. Pretty quickly, she started breaking rules, but we never knew how to handle it. Did she know that was a rule? Did we think to translate when that was explained? Was that our fault or hers? So we’d take her aside, explain things, and give her a second chance.

And then she’d do something slightly different, and we’d doubt ourselves again and give her another chance.

And then another chance.

And another chance.

When we finally got exasperated, it was probably too late. I sat down with her and her mother to go over all our expectations and make sure everything was clear. She bowed her head and apologized profusely for messing up, and promised me she’d never do it again.

And then she got detention for gum in class, and another detention for gum in the same class the very next day. And then she was caught talking during a test. And then she came to school without uniform. And then she got caught sticking out her tongue and making faces at the teacher whenever he turned his back. (Um, who does that?) Are you getting the picture? She got so many detentions she ended up getting a day of in-school suspension. She’s the ONLY kid at school who has reached that point. (Remember the kid who beat up an adult and locked him in a closet last year? His discipline record this year is nothing compared to hers.)

So, lesson learned. Set rules and stick to them. No matter what. Don’t make excuses for kids. If we’d just treated her like we treat everyone else, I have to imagine she’d be fine now. Instead, we have an uphill battle to get her back under control, and it’s probably our fault for letting her get away with everything in the first place. What a waste.

6 Responses

  1. Magdalena

    “Shutting down” children so that they act like “angels” should not be the goal of a school or a classroom. Creating a culture of learning that is so urgent, so important, and so engaging that children expect each other to be quiet when necessary and on task when in class should be the goal. I hope that you begin to see your students as capable of acting in a way that allows them to be be coaches, judges, teachers, writers, artists. All of those roles come with different personalities, often noisy or clumsy. The coach might be a bit bossy, the teacher a bit loud, the artists might look out the window, and the writer might be bad at walking in a straight line. Generosity of spirit. Children are shut down by society- every where they go they are told to keep their hands to themselves, to be quiet, or to stand still. Don’t make school yet another place like that for them. Give them the opportunity to respect you and their classroom so much that grow into respectful and engaged adults, instead of resentful ones. I hope that you find a way to discipline kids in a rigorous, “follow through” manner without shutting them down.

  2. Beaver

    Unfortunately, as Ms. Mathinaz has already pointed out, some of her students are already resentful and have already taken advantage of traditional schools’ discipline systems. One of her students has already physically assaulted a teacher and locked him/her in a closet. This new student is lying to authority figures (parents, teachers, administrators) and exhibiting behavior that is clearly inappropriate. I don’t think having reasonable clear rules and punishment system is a bad thing for children. Asking children not to fidget or to be quiet in certain settings is not shutting them down, it is teaching them how to behave. There is a time and place for children to fidget, skip around, shout, stare out the window, etc, but learning time is not one them. I don’t see anything in the post where she wants to crush the individual personalities or spirits of her students to the point where they are regimented to sit as stone blocks, dully answering questions by rote. I see a teacher who is imparting important life skills that will help their students learn and be successful in life. It’s a nice thought that all the kids will be so respectful of one another that they will sit quietly and listen to each other’s views, but in reality children thrive on consistency and structure, not respectful feelings. I think what this post is trying to convey is that all of her other students have responded well to and are thriving in the environment the school has created, but when the rules are bent and broken things take a sharp downturn.

  3. William

    You’ve just described a lesson that needs to be learned by many of this country’s urban school districts. Sadly, many district superintendents and administrators lack the will to actually require that be done.

    I taught in Kansas City through TFA, and I’ve never seen such an unstructured, chaotic, violent, and dysfunctional environment. Middle school students who physically assaulted teachers and staff were literally sent back to class minutes after it happened (our principal wanted behavior problems dealt with in the classroom, even though we had no authority to actually do anything). When there is no structure enforced by school leaders, then the school just becomes a mess.

    As for Magdelena, I’d like to see you create a “culture of learning” in some of the environments in which I’ve taught. If you’re one of the TFA people who had a few inspiring years with a relatively easy group of students, realize that while it’s easy to judge others when you’ve had a relatively privileged teaching experience (with the occasional “today I realized I teach in the ghetto” experience), but for many of us your advice sounds like the sort of rubbish that’s fed to schools by countless education consultants. When your students are assaulting staff members, throwing chairs, breaking into classrooms on the weekend, threatening to kill teachers and classmates, refusing to come to class and instead running the halls all day, and causing the police to be called on a regular basis, you just don’t have a lot of patience for people who insist that you just need to create a “culture of learning”. In fact, sometimes the only way to create a culture of learning is to first create one of strict rules, expectations, and consequences.

  4. Andrew


    What kind of discipline is used that works? What doesn’t work?


  5. There was a research study recently that showed that classrooms with strict rules helped students learn more. They felt safe because there were clear expectations.

    I don’t agree that new teachers should believe that they can’t discipline students. If the classroom is a disaster then nothing can be learned. And mathematics as taught traditionally and tested traditionally is often BORING. It’s hard for a new teacher to reconstruct an entire method of teaching math that is interesting when most likely they have never been exposed to mathematics like this. Magdalena’s approach would be great, but it’s just not going to happen for new teachers in environments where discipline is a major issue.

    • Andrew


      Do you have a reference to the study?


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