Leave those kids alone

I had a Work Thing today, and … well, it actually went pretty well. For certain values of “pretty well” at least, mostly involving I started a big old argument with my entire team. That’s not something I get to do all that often, and it was super fun, but it also got me through the last half-hour of the meeting without falling asleep. And you’re probably picturing a certain kind of argument when I say big old argument, and it was probably about as heated but quite a bit more civil than what you’re picturing; I’m not mad at anybody, and I don’t think anybody’s mad at me, or at least I hope not.

What was it about? Dress code and cellphones, of course. I mean, it started off more high-minded than that, but that was where it landed, and getting to air out my vehemently pro-cellphone, I-don’t-care-about-your-hoodie arguments with people who strongly disagreed with me and knew what they were talking about was actually pretty fucking invigorating.

Where did it start? With a thing called the School Improvement Plan, which is basically what it sounds like and is important enough to require capital letters, and with some other stuff called Gap Analysis and Root Cause Analysis, which is actually less utter bullshit than what I thought, but the way we were doing it is bullshit. Turns out my wife actually knows a fair amount of stuff about Gap Analysis and Root Cause Analysis, and she spent a lot of time sadly shaking her head as I was sharing documents from today with her after getting home from work.

Anyway: we were talking about student discipline, and one potential contributor to our discipline issues that was brought up was inconsistency among the staff. So, for example, if Jimmy knows that Teacher A allows something and Teacher B doesn’t, it makes Teacher B’s life harder, because teacher B tries to Enforce the Rules and is greeted with but Teacher A doesn’t do that! or something similar. Now, to be clear: I agree that this is, or at least can be, a problem. However, I don’t necessarily agree that not following the rules is the problem– I think the problem is the rules themselves. You see, we like to talk about how kids should be invested in class rules and how you should develop your class norms in consultation with your students, but no one ever applies that to schoolwide rules. You will find that you have an easier time getting me on the same page as everyone else if I am not simply handed the page.

I feel like a lot of rules in schools, not limited to but particularly rules about cellphones, are arbitrary and outdated, and “because it’s the rule” not only doesn’t work with me, it really doesn’t work with 8th graders. And I feel like teachers would be a lot better about buying into (and thus enforcing) our rules if we had reasons for them. So, as a staff, we need to spend some time reviewing, discussing, and, if needed, editing our building rules. We need to do this every year. We probably need to do it more than once a year.

And we need to do it regardless of whether Mr. Siler wins any specific argument about the rules or not, too. I’ll enforce a rule I don’t like if the staff has a conversation about something and comes to a consensus that I disagree with, because at least there’s a reason for the rule. But any rule we expect the kids to follow that we can’t justify as a group of adults needs to go. We don’t need rules that are rules just because.

(One other thing that always bothers me about this line of argument: the “get on the same page” argument only works one way, which is to insist that teachers who are less strict become more strict. It is never, ever used to rein in the exact type of teachers who love dress codes because they give them so many ways to find things that kids are doing wrong. No teacher has ever been told “We’re not worrying about this anymore, and you need to get on the same page as the rest of us.”)

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.

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