To Improve School Discipline, Change Teacher Behavior

Photo illustration by Slate.
Across the country, educators are rethinking their approach to school discipline in response to sky-high suspension rates that disproportionately affect black children.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

When one of Henry Arguedas’ students got upset and slammed a book on the floor last year, the teacher followed what has become standard protocol in schools across the country: He sent the teenager out of class to an administrator who would decide his fate.

But, at Mission High, a San Francisco school that’s brought down its suspension rate significantly in recent years, the story didn’t end there. A veteran teacher and a dean followed up and gently encouraged Arguedas to think carefully about why he had sent the student, who is black, to the office for glaring and slamming the book. As Arguedas reflected with his colleagues, he realized to his dismay that he had misinterpreted the teenager’s emotional problems and inability to express himself for aggressive anger—possibly because the student was black and male.

Across the country, educators are rethinking their approach to school discipline in response to sky-high suspension rates that disproportionately affect black children. Some of the more common efforts aim to change student behavior or overhaul school protocols. A district might unilaterally ban suspensions for more subjective transgressions or adopt restorative justice practices designed to repair relationships when there’s been a rift. But a growing number of schools in the Bay Area and nationally are realizing that improving discipline is just as much about changing teacher behavior as changing student behavior.

This is not as easy as telling teachers to act and react differently. The effort requires significant support and mentoring. “If we are going to be asking at a policy level for a shift in disciplinary practices and disciplinary outcomes, then there has to be support all down the line,” said Russell Skiba, the director of the Equity Project at Indiana University and an expert on racial disparities in school suspension rates. Too many school districts are telling teachers what does not work—suspending a student for a dirty look, for instance—without helping them figure out what does work.

Mission High’s leaders recognized nearly a decade ago that re-educating educators was crucial to ending racial disparities in school discipline. The shift in their approach to discipline was part of a larger school reorganization that included adopting anti-racist curriculum (including lessons and readings that are relevant to students from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds) and creating small learning communities throughout the school. Several California lawmakers and foundations have a keen interest in the issue, helping turn the Bay Area into a leader in rethinking what Elizabeth Green describes as the “discipline of discipline” in her 2014 book Building a Better Teacher.

Various programs have cropped up to support the effort. A local partnership called All-In! places therapists and special-education specialists in elementary classrooms, helping teachers identify and address trauma-induced behavior and emotional problems that they might otherwise dismiss as mere misbehavior. Seneca Family of Agencies, a California child welfare organization, is expanding the approach to five Oakland and two San Francisco schools using a $3 million grant from a U.S. Department of Education innovation fund.

“Most teachers in urban schools have had the experience of asking for support for their kids and not getting it, or worse yet, being told that they were failing at some level,” said Ken Berrick, Seneca’s founder and CEO. While All-In! provides teachers with support that many crave, Berrick notes that they have to be open to gentle criticism and change, too. “Teachers who don’t work well in teams don’t do well in our model,” he said.

These targeted efforts, as well as districtwide restorative justice training for teachers, appear to be paying off. San Francisco Unified School District reports a 49 percent drop in suspensions over two years. Mission High’s suspension rate was just 4 percent in 2013, compared with more than 20 percent in 2008.

Part of the drop is attributable to broader policy changes. The San Francisco school board has banned out-of-school suspensions for “willful defiance,” a subjective and ill-defined category disproportionately applied to black students. (Three years ago, black students made up just 11 percent of the enrollment in San Francisco public schools, but nearly half of those suspended for willful defiance.) And last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that bans willful defiance suspensions for all California students in kindergarten through third grade.

Oakland Unified School District is under U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights monitoring because of racially skewed suspension rates, so this year it started requiring teachers who kick students out of class to fill out a universal form that asks what efforts they’ve made to keep the student in class. Chris Chatmon, who directs Oakland Unified’s African American Male Achievement initiative, said the move prevents teachers from sending students to the office with a Post-it note or text message devoid of context or rationale. In the past, student discipline referrals were “all over the place,” Chatmon said, adding that with the new form “we can begin to look at where the trends are.”

At Mission High, educators are learning that discipline and instructional coaching are inextricably linked. One of the school’s teachers, Pirette McKamey taught for 20 years before becoming what’s known as the school’s “instructional reform facilitator.” McKamey and two other school staff members make up the team that teachers can call on when they’re struggling with discipline, student motivation, and a host of other issues.

In October, a fourth-year teacher named David Gardner needed help. Students in one of his ninth-grade geometry classes were acting out, and the strategies he’d tried—more direct instruction from the front of the classroom, different seating arrangements—weren’t working. “I found that I wasn’t having success getting a majority of kids to buy into what I was doing,” Gardner told me. So he asked McKamey to watch him teach and offer feedback.

On the day McKamey visited the class, the lesson focused on logic and structuring proofs. Some students worked in groups to configure blocks of various colors and shapes into hexagons or triangles and puzzled over how best to describe what they’d done. Later, McKamey estimated that only about a quarter of the class was on task at any given time. Others took slow, meandering trips to the pencil sharpener or acted out in subtle ways. Two students, for instance, disobeyed school rules and kept their cellphones out while another listened to earphones. One boy stood his skateboard on end and spun it round and round. Two others playfully jousted with rulers.

Several students seemed poised to tip from distracted to downright disruptive. One teen, in particular, consistently rode that line: a black boy named John (not his real name). He popped between tables during group work, sang loudly as Gardner gave the class instructions, and at one point left the room without permission. But John’s hand was also the first one up when Gardner asked what the groups had accomplished with their proofs, and his answer was precise and on target.

When McKamey met with Gardner a few days later to debrief, she told him “the pacing was off.” If Gardner improved his instruction and kept more of the students engaged, McKamey assured him most discipline problems would disappear. McKamey also suggested that Gardner might, unknowingly, be telepathing a dislike for John, which triggered the student’s unhappiness and frustration. “Think of him as someone you like and who you’re going to take care of,” she said. When John causes a disruption that demands a response, McKamey suggested using humor rather than a punitive tone to defuse the situation publicly, and then talking to John in greater depth about the incident privately.

Weeks later, Gardner said McKamey’s advice was helping. When John’s behavior got out of hand, Gardner tried talking with him one on one before calling home or sending the boy to the office. He also tried to praise John for positive behavior.   

Skiba, the Indiana University professor, said teachers need to be trained in “warm demandingness.” As one example, he described watching a teacher coax a student who had his head on his desk to sit up. She kept urging him to lift his head higher and higher, but when he was finally upright, the teacher showed empathy. Specifically, she walked by him, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Get some more sleep tonight’’ in a friendly, supportive way, Skiba recalled. “It’s possible to show kids that you are not going to let up on them until they reach your expectation, but within that to be establishing a friendship.”

Other ways of showing “warm demandingness” include greeting students at the door, collecting their assignments by hand instead of using a drop-off basket, and saying thank you. Mission’s McKamey said as a younger teacher she had a habit of frowning while reading student work at her desk, an unconscious default she’d never given much thought. Then her students told her they thought she hated their writing. Now McKamey makes a point of smiling and laughing occasionally while grading.

At Mission, Henry Arguedas, now in his fourth year of teaching, said the coaching has helped. He says he has been working to understand his own biases and to get to know his students better, and has sent far fewer to the office with hastily worded discipline referrals in hand as a result. “Somehow this year [the students] understand that it’s my classroom,” he told me, “but it’s also our classroom.”