When I went to school, corporal punishment was still a thing; California banned it in 1986. Did we miss it, really? No, we didn’t. Last September, new discipline guidelines for California schools were announced that limited suspensions. Do we miss the old policy, really? No, we don’t.
This week, I decided to look back at what EdSource wrote about the changes six months ago, and I re-read the letters in response. Oh my. They were furiously apocalyptic. I will quote only one mild one: “This is Absolutely Absurd — no discipline, no accountability.” Were these letter writers right? Have we gotten rid of “discipline” or “accountability”? Have things gotten worse in our schools since the policy changed? Not really.
I can only see the view from where I teach in a Los Angeles public high school, but I think things have improved. Sure, there are still some difficult students who would be much better off in a nonpublic school, and there have been a few fights, but the police are gone, and there are barely any suspensions. The mood of the school seems positive. The reforms have worked.
The culture of discipline and punishment we have lived with offers a choice that every school makes, just as cities like Los Angeles have had to decide whether to make sweeping criminal justice reforms. Schools that buck the trend and continue to dole out punishment for minor “infractions” end up producing the very thing they wanted to attack: more bad behavior. The happiest schools are those where they know when to turn a blind eye.
This is why I believe the absolute worst job in education today is being responsible for “discipline.” There are ways to do this job without being overzealous, without resorting to harassing students (or teachers), but this job changes people for the worse. After a time, when every nail they see needs to be hammered, they become consumed by it. I see this in other administrators and teachers too.
What would I prefer to see? I believe that schools need to apply “least restrictive environment” (LRE), a concept important in special education, which I teach, to school discipline. I know many teachers who would be very uncomfortable adopting this approach, but, if least restrictive environment is central to the mental health of special ed students, who are generally our most challenged, why cannot it 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 Sen. Anthony Portantino wants to require mental health training for teachers and staff (Senate Bill 387), he is addressing the problem from the wrong end. It serves no point to drum into teachers that the pandemic has led to student depression and disaffection because teachers know this already. The individualized solution — spotting the distressed student and making referrals to our new wellness specialists and psychiatric social workers — doesn’t address what’s wrong at school. A better goal would be to identify and implement the least restrictive environment approach at a whole-school level and allow students to indulge in their natural urge to laugh and have fun. Lunchtime music and events in the central quad of my school are but 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 need to accept this, not fight against it, nor blame parents. Authoritarian and hierarchical teaching styles and discipline simply don’t work anymore. I am always surprised when conservatives insist that they do. They should visit a classroom. Respect and civility still matter, but teachers and students need to earn it from each other, by working collaboratively on 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 meet academic goals, not the single-minded pursuit of English and math, and we need a different grading system to match. I am always delighted when my wobbly ninth graders discover how much they love music or art or dance or wrestling. It steadies them.
Third, discipline problems arise because certain students don’t think school offers them what they need. The unrelenting drive to send all students to college causes a lot of unwelcome stress. This becomes a discipline problem closely related to absenteeism because many of my students want to leave school right now. They want to work with their families in construction or house cleaning or day care, partly because they can’t afford not to and partly because they do not want to go to college. We should be providing them with classes that will make them effective in their chosen careers, such as via career tech education. Our job is to present alternatives, not 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.
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