The image of a South Carolina high school student being flipped out of her desk and dragged across the floor by a Richland County deputy sheriff has stirred up a national discussion about cell phones, classroom discipline, police action, and race. The video images of the incident are shocking, but do not tell the whole story.
What actions by the student could have prompted this kind of treatment? Surely it did not have to come to this. But perhaps in the rush of public attention, we can gain a little insight. Sometimes, departing from accepted standards can provide an unexpected teachable moment.
When we think of schools, with their crowded classrooms, rigid bell schedules, lines and rules, we tend to forget one important fact of life. Learning is an individual experience. And yet we expect young people to learn in groups, with their behavior highly restricted in a manner that is geared more towards maintaining tranquility in the school building than it is towards actual learning. At times, the need for crowd control constricts the opportunities for the very activity schools were created to encourage – education.
There is an irresolvable tension between competing and equally important values. The nature of schools is to provide guidance, and a structured environment in which progress towards learning can take place with few distractions. But the process of learning – the internal structure of learning, if you will – differs for every student. An environment that is conducive for one student may be disruptive for another. Classroom management is an art, not a science, and teachers must be able to make constant adjustments in their approach to accommodate the needs of the individuals under their care.
That being said, the art of managing behavior in a classroom is not pure improvisation. Rules and clearly understood expectations are a crucial part of the picture. And learning how to cooperate with others in a structured environment is one of the most important lessons one learns in school.
I once spent a large portion of a day observing a kindergarten class. What struck me the most was the enormous amount of time the teacher invested in teaching social behavior: stand in line, wait your turn, no touching, ask permission to speak. It was perhaps 90% education on how to behave in a school setting, 10% instruction on content, with social behavior lessons infused liberally into the lessons on letters and numbers.
As a veteran high school teacher, I was struck, but not really surprised by this ratio. It is completely age-appropriate to devote class time to teaching 5-year-olds proper behavior for the classroom.
But it is completely inappropriate in a high school setting to allow a 15-year-old’s misbehavior to take class time away from other students. In most cases, there is no confusion about rules or expectations; the student just has different ideas about how he or she wants to spend time in class. A wise teacher will deal with behavioral issues quickly and quietly, and if they can’t be resolved that way in the classroom, they must be dealt with elsewhere. As with any matter of classroom behavior, a teacher relies on the support of the school’s administration.
Let’s keep things in perspective here. Most of the times I have had students using cell phones in my class, they were not being disruptive to others. Their “crime” was letting their attention wander from the subject of the lesson. This is not a 21st century problem. Kids have been spacing out in class as long as kids have sat in classrooms. The best solution is to redirect their attention without disrupting the flow of the lesson. The teacher circulates around the room, a quiet word or perhaps even a simple rap on the desktop of a student whose attention has gone out for a walk.
Cell phones are actually easier to deal with than wandering attentions. They are visible. If there is a classroom rule against having cell phones outside of pockets during class, a student who violates the rule is in effect announcing to anyone who notices that he or she is off task.
Rules about cell phones and other behavioral issues must be communicated to students at the beginning of the school year, along with the consequences for infractions. Let’s assume that the penalty for having a phone visible is after-school detention. A teacher can have a supply of printed notices handy. When a cell phone is spotted, the teacher strolls by the student’s desk and places a notice there. The student does not need to have the rule explained, and the consequence is spelled out – time and date – on the notice. If the student wants to plead mitigating circumstances (a parent texted about a family emergency, for instance) that can be done after class. If the student wants to argue and disrupt the class, that’s a different infraction with different consequences.
But making an issue of behavior in a high school classroom is a waste of time. And for a teacher to demand that a student show deference to the teacher’s authority is not only a waste of valuable instructional time, it puts that very authority into question. A teacher should never engage in a power struggle with a student. Ever. A student’s good behavior should never be dependent on the teacher’s ability to force students to behave. It should be a given – the result of learning that goes back to kindergarten. If those lessons were never learned, they can’t be taught here and now. It is not fair to the other students in the class, and it is not fair to the teacher.
What happened in that South Carolina classroom should never have occurred. I don’t know exactly how it developed, but my guess is that it began with a student who was minding her own business instead of paying attention in class. She was called out by her teacher, then the principal, and finally a man in a uniform. Did she respond to all of this attention disrespectfully? Perhaps. But is it even possible that the student’s actions were more disruptive to the class than were the efforts by school officials and ultimately by a law enforcement officer to bring her into line? I doubt it.
I don’t mean to diminish the difficulties, or the stakes. Managing a classroom is not as simple as passing out detention slips. The individuals in that classroom have different abilities, styles, struggles, and methods for coping. Teachers must exercise a great deal of sensitivity and judgment. Sometimes even then, things prove difficult. But a wise teacher knows not to take frustrating situations personally, and understands that confrontation and coercion have no place in a healthy learning environment.