Students Rule the Classroom

I had already decided to write today’s N&R column on the subject of school discipline (more accurately, the lack thereof) when this story hit the news last week.  I drew from my 2005 post on the matter, which was based on a disturbing but eye-opening essay entitled “Who Killed School Discipline” by Kay Hymowitz.

Being the son of two public school educators, I know first hand of the frustrations teachers can encounter when dealing with little minds of mush for eight or more hours a day.  But I’m sure my parents will agree that their experiences with school discipline were a cakewalk compared to what many teachers have to endure in today’s classroom.

Anyway… here ya go…

CORRECTION: I mispelled Dr. Fair’s name in the editorial and it sailed past my editors.  My apologies.  I have corrected the mistake herein.


Recent incidents of some Guilford County teachers lashing out both verbally and physically at their students are certainly disturbing, but not all that surprising.  After all, despite what some students might think, teachers are humans, too.

As I listened to the cell phone recording (WGHP) of Smith High School piano instructor Dr. Evelyn Flair Fair, the rage in her voice revealed to me a human who had reached her limit.  The other thing revealed in that recording was the probable reason for Dr. Flair’s full-tilt barrage of inappropriate obscenities and had-it-up-to-here dressing down of her charges: students were talking among themselves throughout the outburst and some even laughed at her as she raged.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I was in school, if a teacher became as enraged as Dr. Fair did (believe me, it happened), you would have been able to hear a pin drop during the brief pauses of her tirade.  We would have instinctively known we had crossed a line and were in big trouble.  Not so with Fair’s students.

They laughed because they knew no punishment would be forthcoming for their inappropriate and disruptive behavior; behavior that caused a doctor of education to completely lose her cool and probably her job.  The students knew they ruled the classroom and there was little that any mere teacher could do about it.

Ask any teacher in Guilford County and they will likely confess to arriving at the brink just like Dr. Fair.  “There but the Grace of God…�, they will say.  The only difference will be that they hopefully left out all of the expletives… or, no cell phones were recording them if expletives were used… or, they wisely left the room when they sensed themselves getting ready to go over the edge.

The latter choice would be the wisest, of course.  But more to the point; in today’s unruly classrooms, their leaving might be the only practical choice because teachers know it is very difficult – if not impossible – to get disruptive students out of their classrooms.
By law, a teacher or an administrator can no longer unilaterally decide to expel or otherwise mete out swift disciplinary action to deal with disruptive students – the litmus test for keeping order is now a legal question: is the observed bad behavior “significantly disruptive”?

Since the 1975 Goss vs Lopez Supreme Court ruling, students have learned they can do pretty much whatever they want without fear of swift consequences.   In effect, Goss vs Lopez elevated disruptive students’ due-process rights over the rights of the whole school to get a proper education free of disciplinary distractions.

In our schools, ‘due process’ is known as ‘writing him up’ – a legal set of documents that every teacher knows well and one that has caused many to absorb student abuse and look the other way rather than undertake the onerous paperwork required.

In an eye-opening, 2000 essay entitled “Who Killed School Discipline?â€?, City Journal author Kay Hymowitz put it this way, “…Because of Goss, you now had to ask: Would a judge find your procedures satisfactory? Would he agree that you have enough witnesses? The appropriate documentation? To suspend a student became a time-consuming and frustrating business.â€?

Frustrating indeed, right Dr. Fair?

Until teachers are once again able to call the shots in their classrooms with the confidence that the parents of disruptive children and administrators will back them up, I fear we be hearing more and more of teachers losing it in the classroom in the future.

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  1. mc
    Posted November 21, 2007 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    excellent column. I love to teach but your column, in stark contrast to the letter to the editor ,reinforce my decision to teach at the college level not in the public schools.

  2. Posted November 21, 2007 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    You’re right on target with this one. Right now, I’m thankful I can choose not to think about it!
    Happy Thanksgiving to the Hoggard’s!

  3. Posted November 21, 2007 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Great column, David.

  4. gcs_student
    Posted November 21, 2007 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    How can the students be happy and willing to learn, when the teachers themselves are unhapy and thre just complete the day?……The teachers in the public education system in NC are treated horribly, whether it be monetarily, or just with the amount of trust they are given. The ones who could fix this problem seem to turn their backs on the teachers. I hear teachers all the time make comments about Terry Grier, and usually they have nothing close to a happy tone of voice when his name is used in a sentence. Let’s take some of his salary and give it to the teachers!….(or just get rid of him completley!)

  5. Posted November 21, 2007 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Excellent column, David. Keep em’ coming!

    Student, if you’re 18, one thing you can do on your own is register to vote, then exercise your right to vote in school board elections next year. Vote for the candidate of your choice.

    And to the rest of you, please vote next year. Next year’s school board elections are critical to the success or failure of GCS. I’m not hearing of any other candidates (or possible candidates) interested in running next year. This may change by February when the filing period begins. But please exercise your first liberties next year.

  6. Ann H
    Posted November 21, 2007 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Dittos to both David Hoggard and EC Huey. Another related hardship Dr. Grier has forced on teachers of unruly students is his “value added” scoring. Teachers who strive to get these students who curse them, come when they feel like it, and sleep or disrupt class when they are there, are now being told that getting them over the EOC hump at the end of the year is not enough. If those kids don’t score what was predicted for them 5 years ago on these end of course tests (keeping in mind only those students who Guilford County has kept track of for 5 years are considered) the teacher is rated ïneffective. It’s just a way to put all the responsibility on teachers and none on the students. Most states, including trend-happy California and Texas, rejected this scheme for what it is. Dr. Grier has managed to sell it to Guilford County and the state. Oh, and by the way, he has also made Civics, a 10th grade course in almost all NC counties, a 9th grade course here, meaning teachers have to take students without the world history background needed, and still get them through the course and make the score some psychometricians dreamed up. How can those genuises factor in such things as poor attendance, drug usage, pregnancy, gang participation, etc., and still tell a teacher what he/she should achieve. Poor Dr. Flair…it’s so true …there but for the grace of God.

  7. Posted November 21, 2007 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the compliments, but I’ve got to know:

    If eveyone agrees that this is the way things are, and the way things are is beyond intolerable, why in the hell is it still the way it is?

  8. hht
    Posted November 21, 2007 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Because of the ‘game’ public education plays. Teachers are afraid their jobs may be at risk if they speak up. School Administration tell the teachers their hands are tied (unable to suspend students) by Central Office. Central Office says that is not true. Teachers are afraid to speak up for fear they may put their principal at risk. It might make the school look bad. So around and around it goes. But more importantly – the public is out of touch with what goes on. Without a doubt – it should be mandatory that the superintendent, his staff, and all school board members be required to accept a substitute job at a school. They should arrive anonymously and unannounced, and stay for the entire day. This should be required at least four times a year. In fact, why don’t you try substituting and see for yourself. You will not believe what goes on.

  9. Posted November 21, 2007 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Your suggestion that I try my hand at substitute teaching is like asking me to travel to Baghdad and join a platoon to get a feel for what combat is like.

    I get it just from the dispatches I receive from both fronts so really don’t need to actually experience the situation on the ground of both our classrooms and our occupation of Iraq to understand. Others might, however.

    Your described “game” of ‘passing the buck’ is right on the mark from others I have heard from for several years.

    It is high time that teachers start getting pissed off enough to confront Central Office as a unit on this one, narrow issue. A little civil disobedience via a planned “sick out” might be in order.

  10. gcs_student
    Posted November 22, 2007 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    Where have all the good unions gone?…..Power comes in numbers….

  11. Posted November 22, 2007 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    GCS: there is no collective bargaining by teachers in NC because we’re in a “right-to-work” state, although I like David’s sick-out idea.

  12. Posted November 22, 2007 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    “A little civil disobedience via a planned “sick outâ€? might be in order.”

    I doubt you’d get teachers to support that. Despite the difficulties, most teachers are deeply committed to their students and don’t want to be away from them.

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