Friday, August 21, 2009

A Letter A Principal Should Never Receive from a Teacher

After regaling one of my roommates with horror stories from teaching in the Bronx for the last half hour I decided to dig into my archives. The following is, verbatim (other than changing names that are italicized), a letter that I sent my principal during my second year of teaching. Why am I posting this now? Two reasons:

1.) To illustrate the discipline problems that too many teachers in urban schools encounter.
2.) To provide a template for teachers who find themselves in similar situations. If you find yourself in this situation, don't wait until February to do this.

I can see a strong argument that the letter shows my incompetence in the classroom as much as anything else. I will point out that I have never claimed to have been the best teacher in the world and will be the first to admit that I could've done many, many things differently when I taught. But I think the more salient point is that this type of behavior should never be tolerated in our schools. Blaming the problem on a wide-eyed young teacher will do nothing to solve it.

Before reading the text of the letter you should know that the behavior described within is something that was a daily occurrence at my school. This letter was not particularly unusual, I'd sent others like it to administrators in my school before. The only real difference between this letter and others was my level of frustration. NYC publishes a rather comprehensive discipline code but there was little attempt to follow it in my school (and I know mine wasn't/isn't the only one). I decided to cite the specific infractions committed by the student and the interventions mandated by the city rules in a vain attempt at helping out the other kids in my class who were suffering because of this child. Anyway, without further ado, here's the letter in full (with names changed, of course):

February 28, 2006
I am requesting that Johnny be removed from Class 6A5 and suspended. The class is unable to function while he is present in the room. We have attempted countless types of interventions and none have worked. He presents a physical danger to every person present in the room and regularly harasses (both sexually and physically) other students.

I have written countless anecdotals detailing Johnny’s detrimental behavior and his major infractions of the discipline code. A clear pattern of severely disruptive and dangerous behavior has emerged and continues every minute that Johnny is present in the class. Last week a request for suspension was made and denied. Given the severe and repetitive nature of his actions I believe that a suspension is now well-warranted.
In addition to his in-class antics, there is little doubt in my mind that he is responsible for the series of late-night obscene and harassing phone calls placed to my residence over mid-winter break. My roommates were awoken multiple times, yelled at on the phone, and called “gay.” Two messages were left on the answering machine saying that I am “a faggot,” that I looked “so ugly it wasn’t like funny,” and saying “sweet dreams sexy boy” among other lewd and obscene suggestions. The police are currently investigating the situation and do not have a definitive identification at this moment, but based on the sound of the voice and vocabulary selection, in addition to a number of damning statements that Johnny made in class, it is wholly likely he was behind the phone calls.

In addition to his previous violations, Johnny committed the following discipline code infractions yesterday (27 February):

Level 1
B06 Behaving in a manner which disrupts the educational process (e.g., making excessive noise in a classroom, library or hallway)
B07 Engaging in verbally rude or disrespectful behavior
Level 2
B14 Using profane, obscene, vulgar, lewd or abusive language or gestures
B18 Engaging in a pattern of persistent Level 1 behavior*
Level 3
B20 Being insubordinate; defying or disobeying the lawful authority of school personnel or school safety agents
B22 Fighting/engaging in physically aggressive behavior
B26 Engaging in vandalism or other intentional damage to school property or property belonging to staff, students or others
B28 Engaging in sexual harassment (e.g., sexually suggestive comments, innuendoes, propositions or inappropriate physical contact of a sexual nature such as touching, patting, pinching)
B33 Engaging in a pattern of persistent Level 2 behavior
Level 4
B36 Engaging in intimidating and bullying behavior – threatening, stalking or seeking to coerce or compel a student or staff member to do something; engaging in verbal or physical conduct that
threatens another with harm, including intimidation through the use of epithets or slurs involving race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, religious practices, gender, sexual orientation or disability
B43 Engaging in behavior which creates a substantial risk of or results in injury
B49 Engaging in repeated Level 3 behavior

The following are a few examples:
9:56 calls a female student a “dildo hopper,” and says “you’re a dick” then proceeds to hit her with a book (B06, B07, B22, B28)
10:08 throws a battery across the room (B06, B36)
10:22 tells a female student to “suck my nuts you white bitch” (B28)
11:55 enters room, screams, throws books against desk, breaking the binding and hitting my foot in the process (B26, B36)
11:56 exits the room to line up for lunch and immediately begins wrestling with another student in the hallway, he ignores my requests to stop (B20, B22)
1:52 throws the metal tip of a pen across the room, when I go to pick it up he hits me with a paper ball (B18, B43)
1:53 I send a note to the Asst. Principal or dean, Johnny screams at me calling me a “fuckin’ liar!” and then storms out of room (B14, B20, B33, B36)
1:56 throws pen at two girls who took the note, re-enters room, screams at me to “get the fuck outta here!” and says my “breath stinks like dead feet” among other things. (B14, B20, B36, B43, B49)
According to the discipline code, the minimum penalty for a B28 infraction (sexual harassment) is a parent conference, and the minimum penalty for either a B43 infraction (risking physical harm) or a B49 infraction (repeated level 3 behavior) is a principal’s suspension.

Corey Bunje Bower

Asst. Principal
Union Rep.
Regional Union Rep.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: "Johnny" was not suspended for any of the behaviors described in this letter . . . though he was suspended about a week or two later when he had a breakdown in the hallway and threatened to kill the Asst. Principal.


Alex said...

There are plenty of things wrong in our urban schools, but how can any school administrator expect his/her teachers to maintain control of their classroom when behavior like that is not handled quickly, efficiently and severely.

I'm not sure who is getting the worse lesson - Johnny, who is allowed to behave in that manner with impunity, or the student in my upper-middle class suburban school, who acts like an animal but then mom and dad and lawyer come in and the entire thing gets under the rug?

Roger Sweeny said...

Just before I read your post, I had finished Charles Murray's Real Education. It's an interesting book: fairly short, probably about 80% right, and I suspect libra non grata at your school. Near the end, he says:

There is no excuse for [terrible] schools. Buying the textbooks and identifying and getting rid of the terrible teachers is easy (technically easy, not politically easy). Getting the school under the control of the adults requires relentless enforcement of a few basic rules:

Disruptive students are not permitted to remain in class. ... Students who are chronically disruptive are suspended. ... Students who in any way threaten a teacher verbally or physically are expelled.

Most public school systems already have rules on the books that correspond to these basics, but in many systems they are not enforced and never will be, for reasons ranging from bureaucratic pressures to political pressures to bad principals[and, he mentions in the next paragraph, lack of "alternative schools" to send the chronic disrupters]. pp. 141-2

Steve Dudenhoeffer said...

As a spouse of a high school teacher, I believe the article should be titled, "A Letter Every Principal Should Read Daily" or "Principals: Remember You Were Once a Teacher."

My wife has been insulted, physically attacked, mocked, and often ignored. For some reason, parents and school administrators believe that if only the teachers could teach better (better classroom management), these problems would just go away.

In reality, it will take a combined effort between teachers and administrators to make our educational system better. In fact, I believe one of the top complaints among teachers is the lack of support from administrators.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

RS: It's unclear that suspensions really do much of anything (at least for the individual being suspended, it sure seems like it would help the class), and even though it would solve the discipline problem I just think expulsion is generally too extreme. In short, I think discipline is only an easy problem to solve if we're not concerned with how we treat kids. As to not allowing disruptive students to remain in a class, I'd have to agree with that. Though NY State law would not.

SD: A Principal should never receive such a letter b/c a teacher should never be put in such a position. The student should have been dealt with long before it got to this point -- and shouldn't have remained in the classroom after any one of these incidents.

Steve Dudenhoeffer said...

cbb, I agree. When major disturbances occur in the classroom, it just destroys that whole class period and no one learns anything. If they handle the smaller issues when they first occur, there will be fewer larger problems.

Roger Sweeny said...

It's unclear that suspensions really do much of anything (at least for the individual being suspended, it sure seems like it would help the class)

That seems a, um, inelegant way of putting things. Suspension will probably hurt the kid being suspended and help the 20-odd kids who aren't suspended. That seems like something to me, and a pretty positive something at that.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Roger, I mean it's unclear whether suspending somebody changes their behavior post-suspension. So even if it helps the other kids while he's gone, but it might not help that much after he returns.

Brian Rude said...

All this reminds me of when I was a young teacher in the 1960's beset by discipline problems, though my students were never as bad as you describe. I got out of teaching after a few years. I decided it was just too much. I enjoyed many things about teaching, but I decided I was not good at discipline and never would be. But from my experience I formed some definite ideas about discipline.

Probably the most important thing I concluded was that a school must provide the tools teachers need to maintain order in the classroom, and teachers must learn exactly what those tools are and how to use them. This sounds pretty obvious, but I think it is often poorly understood. If you don't have the tools to do your job, then you can't do your job. It's that simple. And if you don't know how to use the tools you are given then you can't do your job. Again it is just that simple.

But within this basic framework there is a lot of variation. Some teachers have various tools in their own personality to handle discipline problems, and for them the tools provided by the school are of secondary importance. To quite an extent they do indeed "handle their own discipline problems". Other teachers don't have many tools from their own personality to handle discipline problems, and thus must make skillful use of the tools provided by the school. For some teachers the tools from one's personality plus the tools provided by the school don't add up to enough to do the job. When that is the case one ought to get out of teaching. I felt I did become skillful in handling the tools provided by the school, but discipline was hard.

Two years teaching math in a prison school sharpened my perspective on these things. The prison school gave us powerful tools to maintain discipline, so discipline was relatively easy, even though our students were tough.

So it seems to me that it is very important to analyze just what it takes to handle discipline problems. What "tools" are needed? What "tools" must come from the school, and what "tools" must come from within? I tried to address those questions in a book I wrote and now have on my website. One particular "tool" that comes from the teacher's personality is of special importance. That is aggressiveness. Skillfully used aggressiveness can cover up for a lot of deficits in what the school provides for handling discipline. Here's a link.