The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Reading about the 'Broken Windows' theory that was used to defeat casual crime in 90s New York, and about Zimbardo's 'Stanford prison experiment', I'm thinking hard about how context and situation are responsible for negative or confrontational student responses. Having been shoved, bruised or thumped four more times in the last two days, it behooves me, as the adult in all these interchanges, to analyse whether my own behaviour contributed positively or negatively to each situation.

Situation 1: Strange kid at door signals to Huseyin, Huseyin throws fizzy drink about the room, gets removed, strange kid - Robert - forcibly pushes me out of the way, twice, to retrieve Huseyin's things.
Context: Huseyin knew that, according to the broken windows theory, I try to ensure absolutely predictable responses to small infringements of rules. Three strikes and you're out, one action against property or person and you're out. He devised a way of utilising that to his own benefit.
Situtation: Lack of follow up on serious incidents when they involve children the management perceive as illiterate or unteachable. My own tractability - if a kid gets past me on the way in, I'm stupid to try to stop him on the way out. But also: my prime concern became immediately the classroom full of other fourteen year olds. I asked them to stand back, so that these boys weren't encouraged by their closeness to do anything to get themselves into worse trouble, and they complied quietly, didn't use the excuse of chaos Huseyin had offered them.

Situation 2: Strange Robert, as he shall henceforth be known, is accompanied by a stern looking anger management specialist to my room, and apologises. I don't know the kid. I accept his apology.
Later, he returns with Huseyin, who attempts to apologise, but can't resist insulting me and protesting his innocence simultaneously. He begins hectoring me about why I reported his behaviour. When it becomes clear that he isn't listening to any replies, and that he has pals outside the door, I leave the room, walk slowly to an office where I know there will be more adult witnesses if any further attacks should occur. Stand in the doorway repeating in low tones that I don't wish to discuss it with him right now. Huseyin screams repeatedly at me, though now it's witnessed by eight other adults. One of them takes advantage of my perceived guilt in setting Huseyin up, and his comparative innocence, to escort him off the premises. Huseyin ignores him.
Context: Removing the isolation of an empty classroom after school removed Huseyin's power to intimidate me. The knowledge that incidents are reported routinely to other staff created consequence and the need to at least nominally apologise.
Situation: Adding extra adults added gravitas to the situation. However it showed that adults don't have authority over Huseyin. They do over Robert.
Also, I made it clear that I was the person who decided if an apology was acceptable or not. Small victory.

Situation 3: While covering a music class (work set "they all know what to do." Cheers for that, Mister S--), a bunch of about twenty fourteen year olds decide to run in and out of all the classes in the building, piling in as a group, starting a fight with the first kid they recognise, and then piling out again, fast and en masse.
Three girls from my class pile out with them.
Without really recognising the kids in my music cover lesson, I have to decide quickly if they were in part responsible, or victims of what happened. Almost all of these kids (my school is huge) were strangers to me. It would be easy to go over the top.
I try to memorise body language, stance, numbers. I think my lot are innocent. The beleaguered deputy head arrives. I explain events, then defend this lot - they weren't a party to it, and they didn't encourage it. I call a register again, to determine who the three girls who've left are - there's no question that any of these kids will be brave enough to name them.
When they reappear, I refuse to let them in. The head of Music can't help, I can see him physically restraining Huseyin and - surprise surprise - Robert next door, so when another teacher relieves me of cover duty, I tear a strip off the three girls and take them away with me to write letters of apology. Doing so, I insist on accuracy, rather than elaborate self-defence statements. It works. They apologise.
Context: A school where children can apparently get away with this 'rushing' and harming of individuals is pretty much on the brink of losing control.
The rapid appearance of a deputy head signalled to other children that matters would be dealt with, but more public response is needed if children are not to think that these invasions are normal, are an everyday possibility.
I see kids' eyes on the corridors when they approach louder or older kids. My presence as an adult doesn't inhibit the fear reflected as they swerve and weave away. The perception here is that kids aren't so safe from each other.
More worryingly, that adults can't protect them.
We need to change that context. Desperately.
Situation: Cover teachers have so much less control than staff who know students' names. I managed this one, I think, although only just - by not expecting students to 'grass', but identifying the culprits and providing real consequences anyway. It would have been easy not to take responsibility - walk away, this is a cover lesson, it's the music department's responsibility, it's the deputy's responsibility. Instead I gave up my time to make it clear to those three kids that anyone at this school will make it their business to see that consequences will be explicit, and inevitable.
Without the context, however, this is railing against a tide.

At another school, we used to have a name for this. We used to name it repeatedly, explicity, as often as we could, and define it around ten times daily. We used to do that because we had to. The name?

Minimum standards.

Something you can only achieve by working together on.