How Not To Discipline

Today I had a chance to observe a teacher working with a small group of special ed kids in an English class. I had had several of the students either earlier in the day or earlier in the school year. I had just finished teaching a couple of classes and he was on the same material I had been teaching.

When I accepted the substitute job, I was told only that it was English, not special ed English. So I quickly adjusted and had a good day. However, as I observed this teacher whose training and background I do not know I was struck by how many errors he made in dealing with these students. I have no training in special education but I was a psychotherapist working with children for 10 years, so that certainly gives me some background

Perhaps my remarks on what he did wrong will help others understand how to deal with such students, students who may not be labeled special ed but who have the same problems.

These kids might be slow and they might be quick. Some have emotional, not cognitive problems. They are a mixed group. That means that those who catch on quickly can make themselves feel good by ridiculing the cognitively weak ones. The differences were apparent b/c the assignment was to take turns reading from a teen novel. There was workbook work as well.

When you listen to the comments the kids make among themselves, you can hear the language and attitudes in the homes: lots of ridicule, threats of violence (and some of them are violent; one girl had a sort of guardian with her to calm her down if she flared up), constant ’put downs’, self-aggrandizement, self-deprecation, self-pity, scapegoating, ethnic slurs, and on and on. The “I’ll tan your hide” sort of talk, almost never followed up by any real action. It’s just a constant row and uproar. I’ve visited many, many homes like this and am very familiar with the patterns.

So the teacher has to provide both genuine concern for the kids with firm guide lines for their behavior and realistic expectations based on their emotional and cognitive states. What I saw the teacher do was: good thing – place his school desk in front of the students, close to them/bad thing – grade papers while the kids worked/talked. What happened, of course, was that the class was in an on-going uproar as the dominant students tried to razz each other with fart comments and to dominate the other students. Letting the class get to that point in the first place compounds control problems.

Please don’t ask me when the teacher is supposed to grade papers. I was NEVER able to grade papers with class in session.

When the uproar got too out of hand, the teacher would make cutting remarks, issue warnings, and try to make friends all at once. First of all, those things cannot be combined very easily. Second, these students have all sorts of cognitive and emotional overload and cannot sort all that out. The very first thing should have been to establish rapport with the students. With students operatomg within normal limits, you can count on that rapport lasting from day to day; not with these kids. You have to start over each day.

The sad thing was that the chief trouble maker was running rings around the teacher. He was thinking ahead, anticipating what the man was going to say or do, end-running him, and just enjoying himself while disrupting the class. When I walked in, he tried to engage me, recognizing me from earlier classes of his I had subbed in (I remembered him, too). I deflected his comments and sat down very deliberately and got out my things. You cannot engage kids when their purpose is clearly to get off track, make other students laugh, separate themselves from their peers and the assignment and challenge the authority of the teacher. I reinforced that authority by looking only at the teacher and acknowledging only him despite knowing several of the students. Later, when things were under control, I freed myself up to engage some of the students.

A quick example of how this sharp kid operated: at one point the teacher delivered himself of a short, rather pompous lecture on how the kids were feeding into each other. The observation was accurate enough, but his language was pitched at a formal level, not allowing most of the kids access to it… except for Mr. Sharp Guy. Immediately he said, “Can we get back to work now??, thereby undercutting the teacher’s authority, blocking any consideration of the remark, setting himself up as in charge of the classroom, and taking the moral high ground ? let’s stop talking and get to work.

So it’s a subtle process. Sometimes it is no more than looking away when someone is doing something untoward b/c you know they will stop with no attention, but if you reprimand them you’ll have a five minute guard-house lawyer diatribe. Other times, a quick smile or gesture in confidence gives the student the sense you recognize him and are willing to share with him. But the roles must be kept clear for special ed kids who are always too willing to fly off track. One thing can destroy their day and you don’t want to be that thing.

I’ll be glad to go into more detail or you can read the on-going saga of my five weeks in a Sp/FR class where I deal with these issues with students operating within normal limits. (I noted that one of the students today is in the French class I taught – it did seem to me she was spec ed but I had no info on her).

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