School Discipline: The U.S. vs. The Brits

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Quality teaching and student learning cannot occur in a chaotic classroom. Organized chaos, i.e. student-centered stations and activities, is extremely productive. Disruptive behavior, however, is extremely unproductive and problematic, to say the least.  So, it’s rather interesting that while the USDOE is calling for schools to relax its “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies, the Brits are calling for a more stern approach to curbing student misconduct. But, why? Why the divergent paths?

The Elephant in the Classroom, Revisited.

A few months ago, I expressed my view on this issue. In addition, I’ve even stated my response to the USDOE’s Guiding Principles for School Climate and Discipline. As a public school teacher, I get it. I completely understand why we – the professional education community – need to establish a positive school climate and a fair set of disciplinary policies. Trust me, as a middle school teacher within a tough neighborhood public school I absolutely understand why student suspensions are the least favorable option. Students who are often suspended lose instructional time and have a difficult time mastering lessons lost.

With that said, I can’t help but wonder why, in the U.S., “school discipline” discussions, i.e. zero tolerance and suspensions, become cloaked with accusations of racism? As a minority teacher, and in my professional opinion, student suspensions have little to do with racism. Teachers aren’t writing referrals because a student is Black or Latino(a). The day-to-day classroom realities are more nuanced than this simplistic view of school discipline. My school is exclusively African-American (99% of student population) so our suspension numbers will, undoubtedly, contribute to the national data.

Now, as a teacher of color, I’m certainly concerned with the disproportionate percentage of Black or Latino(a) students being suspended. However, as a human being, I take issue with the notion that we – teachers – write referrals based on a student’s skin color. That’s an insulting accusation, to say the least. We – teachers – write referrals, or have students removed from class, for causing major classroom disruptions. This, and not a student’s race, is the real focus. Simply put, disruptive classroom misconduct is a major problem across the country. Hell, even the Brits are battling this issue.

Interestingly enough, while the US is calling for a relaxation in disciplinary policies, the Brits are calling on teachers curb to misconduct using stern approaches. According to this article, a teacher can require a disruptive student to perform some sort of community service, i.e. cleaning the classroom after school. Across the pond, disruptive students aren’t viewed in terms of race or ethnicity; they’re viewed as a student, nothing more and nothing less. The Brits desire to foster a safe classroom environment so students can learn. We should practice this same approach.

Please don’t misunderstand my point. I certainly understand the need to collect and check student disciplinary data, especially if racism is suspected. However, the bird’s-eye view isn’t sophisticated enough to understand the problems occurring within the classroom. Again, in my professional opinion, injecting race or ethnicity into school discipline discussions takes us further away from providing and implementing pragmatic solutions. Yes, suspensions aren’t always effective, but disruptive behaviors are NEVER productive.

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