Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Prep Schools for Prison

prison-barsPerhaps a place to start in changing the pipeline-to-prison phenomenon is with teachers’ emotional responses to their students.

You know, Alfie Kohn has been talking about the dangers of punitive classroom management strategies for at least a couple of decades, but, alas, history does appear to perpetually repeat itself. I just read an article by a professor named Russ Skiba called “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Achieving a Balance in School Discipline” that pretty much says what Kohn said in books like Punished by Rewards and Beyond Discipline: getting tough on disruptive students does not solve the problem of disruptive students. In fact, “exclusionary discipline” tends to exacerbate the problem.

That is (the article states), schools that are most effective with their zero tolerance policies (meaning they often expel and suspend troublesome students) “have poorer ratings of school climate and school safety, higher rates of racial disparity in discipline, and lower scores on academic achievement tests.” The part about racial disparity is especially interesting and important. According to Skiba’s article, black students are particularly affected by “exclusionary discipline”: while black students were suspended twice as much as white students in the 1970s, black students are now suspended THREE AND A HALF TIMES as much as white students under zero tolerance rules.

(It appears that being African American in school cannot be tolerated.)

What really struck me as I was reading this article was that, after the first paragraph or so, I was reminded of an NPR story I caught on the radio on Monday about solitary confinement in prisons. Apparently, the head of a prison somewhere put himself into “the hole” to experience what so many prisoners experience. I don’t think he made it in solitary for 24 hours before deciding that he was going to change that policy in his prison. It’s simply inhumane.

So what I was thinking while reading Skiba’s article was “Hey! ‘Exclusionary discipline’ feels like another version of solitary confinement.” And, lo and behold, a few paragraphs down I read, “…being suspended or expelled significantly increases the risk of school dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system. These risks, often termed the school-to-prison pipeline, are magnified for students of color.”

Right. Zero tolerance schools are like prep schools for prison.

(Click on that school-to-prison pipeline link. The statistics are OUTRAGEOUS.)

Because it exposed such noxious effects of punitive classroom management, especially for students of color, I really liked Skiba’s article. It ended with a list of nine things teachers can do to achieve balanced discipline and, while I can’t stand the implication in so many writings about education that teaching is simply a matter of following a list of procedural to-dos, his list isn’t bad.

Only, once again, the to-do list is focused on students. “Do this with or to your students.” “Teach your students to do this.” All well and good. Students do need to learn how to exercise self-restraint and take responsibility for their actions. These are appropriate and crucial objectives for any educational system.

But here’s a fact that really deserves to be examined: “Disruptive,” “troublesome,” and “problematic” are in the eye of the beholder. And the beholder of students is the teacher. Wouldn’t it make sense to talk to teachers about their perceptions of disruption? What one teacher can call “trouble” might look like “feistiness” or a “cry for help” to another. Might the first step in managing classrooms be teachers’ management of their own fear and anxiety when faced with students they deem “problematic”?

Might classroom management start with personal emotional management on the part of the teachers? What do you think?


  1. Amy Antongiovanni

    February 27, 2014 at 10:05 am

    Absolutely! We must look at our own reactions as teachers first and foremost before we even begin to “punish” the student who irritates us. Most of the time there is a personal history I can recall, a story of my own, that points directly to the behavior that is pushing my buttons.
    I love, in Betsy’s book, when she talks about the confrontational student, and how, perhaps that is the only way he knows how to communicate. I have a student right now who is that guy, and now I just take a deep breath and think to myself, as he is pontificating, it’s not about me, it’s not about me. For I understand that he doesn’t wish to challenge me, so much as he needs to be heard. And probably he doesn’t really have anyone to listen to him as can come across so abrasively. So my next step is to approach him in a non-threatening way and to talk to him about his tone of voice, etc. Of course, he reminds me of my dad when he holds court. Ever the authority, even when he has no idea what he is talking about much of the time.

    • Betsy

      February 27, 2014 at 10:48 am

      I love your story, Amy! You’re so right on! I’d love to hear what happens as you convince your pontificating student that he IS being heard (and seen). Amazing how powerful a little genuine attention can be. Sara Ruddick, the author of one of my favorite books (Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace), calls attention a form of love. I totally totally agree with her.

  2. This is spot-on. I want to follow your links now and read the other articles about the school-to-prison pipeline. So typical of the zeitgeist, to “fix” schools by driving out of them the people for whom they are not working. Like raising the average lifespan in your country by deporting all the sick people..

    • Betsy

      February 27, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      What an apt (and depressing) characterization of the zero tolerance approach, Joe: driving out of school the very people whose behavior proves that what the school is doing ISN’T WORKING. And the expelled kids are the ones who desperately need the holding environment of a school, as they wouldn’t be so disruptive if they had what they needed at home. Well, if schools won’t provide it, prisons will, right? It reminds me of therapy clients I’ve had who have told me that the best years of their lives were in JAIL.

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