Saturday, January 28, 2012

A parent asks a question (part three)

When I emailed our school’s principal to ask how much disciplinary measures had increased this year, I found her initial responses (here and here) unrevealing. So I emailed again:
Thanks. I wasn’t really asking whether there was an increase in misbehavior – I wasn’t thinking there’d be any reason for that to change significantly from one year to the next. But if the level of misbehavior is basically the same, I don’t understand why there’d be a lot more discipline going on, which seems to be the case.

I understand that you consider a lot of the discipline to be “processing” rather than punishment, but I don’t think the kids are experiencing it that way. I wouldn’t either, if I were them – if, for example, the principal of the school sent a report home about my behavior, which my parents then had to sign and return. I certainly wouldn’t experience suspension as anything but a punishment.

My concern is that the kids are increasingly seeing the adults at the school (especially the non-classroom-teachers) as their adversaries. I don’t want my kids to fear and distrust the adults at their school. Even if everyone’s a little better behaved, it’s not worth it.

It doesn’t seem like you’re taking into account the way the kids are experiencing the increase in discipline, or the negative atmosphere it’s creating at the school. Do you at least agree that there are downsides to this intensified focus on behavior and discipline?
The principal’s reply:
Mr. Liebig -
By no means is my objective to scare or cause mistrust from the students I talk with. As I said, the behaviors (I believe) are the same- some of these behaviors, however, are behaviors that should have been worked through in the past and never were. That puts me in the position of having to work through the appropriate expectations when such behaviors do occur - so that the students, as a whole, are safe and respected by others. As I mentioned before, some of the students I have talked with, in the office or outside their classroom door, have never interacted with the principal before and, yes, If this is their first interaction, I do think that can cause some stress and fear (even if my tone is calm and non-threatening). This does not mean, however, that I should not address these concerns with these students. When I walk the hallways at Hoover or work in classrooms or with small groups of students, I do not have the feeling Hoover has a negative atmosphere - nor do the teachers and many of the parents I do see volunteering at school.
This response, like the previous one, seems to be responding to something I did not say. No one is suggesting that the school should not address misbehavior when it occurs. It doesn’t follow, though, that a draconian law-enforcement approach to discipline is the answer. There is more than one way to address misbehavior. Some ways are needlessly punitive, and some punishments don’t fit the crime. The school has a choice about how to handle discipline, and I’d like to discuss why it’s making the choice that it’s making, whether that choice has been needlessly extreme, and how that choice is affecting the kids and their experience of school. As a first step, I’d like to find out just how different this year’s approach is from last year’s.

Of course the principal herself doesn’t think the atmosphere is negative, just as other principals in our district didn’t see anything wrong with having kids rush through their lunches while bundled up in parkas and snow pants to preserve precious “instructional minutes.” Unsurprisingly, school administrators tend to overestimate people’s satisfaction with their policies. (The Synesi audit, for example, found that only 8% of our administrators think that the district is unresponsive to the needs of the community, while 44% of parents do.)

To be continued.


Julie said...

Responses like this should make parents wonder if the administrators can read. My school district seems to work essentially the same as yours. I'm in Iowa too, in the largest 3A district in the state. It's almost not worth it to waste the time trying to get a direct answer to a direct question.

FedUpMom said...

Oh these people make me crazy! This reminds me so much of the conversation I had with my daughter's math teacher during her last year in public school. He had kept her out of recess to do extra math problems. When I told him I never wanted him to keep her out of recess again, he said, "Well, I told her it wasn't meant as a punishment." I don't care how the teacher meant it -- I care what the experience was like for my daughter. There's not a kid in the world who wouldn't feel punished in that situation. Give me a break!

It's just like the principal saying, "By no means is my objective to scare or cause mistrust from the students I talk with." Who cares what her objective is? The point is, what does it feel like to the students?

Chris said...

Julie -- Thanks for commenting! Yes, it almost doesn't matter what the answer ends up being, if they make the process of asking a question so arduous that virtually no one wants to attempt it.

FedUpMom -- Our school routinely holds kids in from recess as a punishment. I know one boy, who doesn't even stand out behaviorally, who's kept in from recess about twice a week, often because he has to "finish his work."

It makes me wonder what the school thinks recess is for. Do they think that physical activity and social interaction are important to kids' development? If so, using recess as a punishment makes as little sense as depriving kids of lunch. Or do they just see recess as a shiny prize that they can use to manipulate the kids' behavior?

The school has also punished at least one kid by not allowing him to go to art class. Sometimes I think that when a kid starts enjoying some aspect of school, the school's first reaction is: oh good, now there's something we can threaten him with!

KD said...

Chris..I completely agree that it is very difficult to get a question answered, or have a concern addressed.

Julie VanDyke said...

Trying to get simple answers from the district is how my "adventure" started. I certainly couldn’t have made up a story this bizarre. Several administrators and board members are still trying to pretend the district’s various collections of inconsistent data have any integrity at all. Administrators "correct" reported data without explanation or clarification in writing or to the wider public (let alone documentation of the corrections). All of this is a result of the lack of adequate infrastructure, simple documentation, and organized consistent processes. Until they build a reliable base of data for apples to apples comparison, they really can't answer very many questions with numbers which, for them, feels very vulnerable. That has to be the root of their aggressively defensive answers to so many simple questions. Instead of getting defensive and wrapping themselves in denial, they should just come out and say WE DON’T KNOW. Then follow with here’s what we think and why. If they’d respond to concerned parents and stakeholders honestly and candidly they would do SO MUCH towards building our trust and confidence in their work.