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Points of view

Searching around for info on my school district, it appears that this story is making the rounds on some local conservative politics blogs.

I’m not quite sure what to make of it. As a matter of fact, I’m at this moment substituting in a 7th grade classroom at a school that perfectly matches the demographic she’s describing. The kids, however, are all in their seats, working away semi seriously, at least seriously enough that I can start writing this entry and not have to focus all of my attention on them.

My own classes, for the most part, are similar. My bad sub day last week was an aberration (which is part of why I was so troubled by it). Usually, my subs request to come back to my classroom. There are lots of great teachers whose classrooms I visit, whose students are not only well behaved, but engaged and learning. I have a first period conference, so I end up substituting for a lot of different teachers. Most of the classes I find quite manageable (such as this one).

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That’s not to say it’s all rosy.

As my earlier stories note, this can be a tough place to teach. Even the great teachers I know sometimes have a couple of kids that get under their skin. I’ve seen teachers with a dozen years of good experience come from other districts and get eaten alive.

I suffered some serious abuse in my first year. I’ve seen other teachers come out of their classrooms covered in food that had been thrown at them.

There is an expectation from administration that the teachers (and substitutes) can handle these sorts of situations. I’m not sure the expectation is reasonable, but it is certainly met in enough instances that it’s not going to change anytime soon.

Unfortunately, as far as substitutes are concerned, this is a split world: there are classes that are easy and fun to cover, and others that are strenuous work at best, and a sheer nightmare at worst. The reason this is bad? Because good subs are treasured – they can write their own ticket. I have a coveted sub list that I’ve developed by shmoozing, trial and erroring, and by boldfaced observation whenever I meet a sub who looks like they might be able to handle it. Those subs cover my classes and find decently designed lesson plans and students ready to follow them, and leave notes with home phone numbers requesting any future coverages I might have. Good teachers and good subs attract one another.

Which means that good subs can avoid bad teachers, and good teachers avoid bad subs. Which then means that poor subs are left in poorly managed classrooms, with the expected horror stories as consequence.

Would her proposed solutions work? Maybe, if you were willing to accept a large portion of the population dropping out even earlier than they already do. Parents who can’t afford lunches for their children certainly won’t be able to afford the fines.

And those kids who are acting out? I think they’re the ones who need the help the most. They have the least support from home, the poorest social environments. Getting rid of them might save the schools, but only at the cost of damaging the society that those schools are intended to support.

I don’t think a bigger stick is the answer. The best turnaround I’ve seen at a school (in my limited years) came from a principal who not only cared about the worst kids, but made sure they knew it, and that they knew he cared about the school as a whole. After 6 months, those kids might still talk back to a teacher that pissed them off, but they’d also take care of the plants at the school and pick up trash just to help the place look nicer. When they cared about school (even if they didn’t care about education) all of a sudden they were a lot more pleasant to have in the classroom. You won’t get that result through intimidation and fear.