The Magic of Limits
If I ever wrote a post on all the ideas I've had and things I've tried that failed miserably, it would probably be the world's longest post. Since I don't like long posts, I'm not going to do that. And besides, if I did that, no one would ever tell me again, like Daniel Simms did in a comment on an earlier post, that I am at least as smart as they are. (I still get a lump in my throat when I go back and look at that one!) Instead of that, I'm going to write about something I did that actually worked. Amazing, but true! And I'm going to write about that because I think there's a lesson in it.
When it comes to doing the things students are supposed to do in school, there are different types of kids. One type sees education as important. They do the things that are necessary to be successful in school, and they behave well because they believe that is what they are supposed to do. If all kids were like this, there would be no teacher shortage; people would be knocking down the doors to get into the profession. But not all kids are like that.
At the other end of the spectrum are kids who I would call "the limit-pushers." They don't like authority, no matter how reasonable the people with that authority try to be. For whatever psychological reasons, these kids are interested in seeing what they can get away with, and they will constantly be pushing the limits to see how far they can go. Some of them realize that they need an education, and they might even want to get decent grades; others don't really care about the education, but they want to stay in school for the social aspect; and still others don't even care about that. Finally, there is a large group of kids who are in-between. They are not limit-pushers themselves, but they are constantly paying attention to how much the limit-pushers are able to get away with, and they behave accordingly.
One of the biggest problems we have in public education is that the limit-pushers inevitably find out that there aren't very many limits, and of course, the in-betweeners see that, too. Behavior in classes can be outrageous, and nothing particularly bad will happen. Kids might get scolded, they might get detention, or they might get suspended for a couple of days. Big deal! Kids who don't care very much about getting an education find out that if they don't do their schoolwork, they will get a low grade, and they might even fail a class or two. Once again, big deal!
There are so few limits in public schools because the courts have ruled that education is a property right that can't be taken away without due process of law, and teachers and school officials can be sued if a judge--who has never been in a classroom--decides that somebody's rights have been violated. As a result of this, in too many public school classrooms across our nation, behavior is horrible and effort is minimal.
If only we could establish meaningful limits, we could do so much better. Over the last year, I've had an experience that, I believe, demonstrates this. Our school has a tardy policy that has basically become a joke. Beginning with the third tardy for a class during a marking period, kids are assigned a half-hour of detention. So once a kid hits that third tardy, the teacher has to fill out a discipline slip for that tardy and every subsequent one, turn them into the office, and then the principal will assign the detention.
Most students want to avoid detention, but as I said earlier, many of the limit-pushers couldn't care less about that. Up until last year, I would always have a few kids with tardies in the double-digits for each quarter--ten tardies, twelve tardies, seventeen tardies. There is no question that filling out the discipline slips was a lot more hassle for me than the detention was for those students. If some of those students decided not to serve the detention, and enough detentions piled up, they would be suspended. Hey, vacation!
Finally, a year ago, I had enough. At the beginning of the third marking period, I told my classes that from that point on, beginning with a student's fifth tardy, I would not allow that student into class. The student would be sent to the office, and would receive a zero for everything we did in class that day.
Since I began operating under that policy, the most tardies any of my students have had is six, and that was just one student. No other students have had more than five tardies, and the number with that many has dropped dramatically. I was able to set a very clear limit for my students, and man, did that solve the problem.
I have argued that teachers should be given the authority to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms. I have also argued that if we had that authority, we wouldn't end up having to remove very many students. I think my experience with my tardy policy lends credence to that.
Right now, I have about seven kids for whom the biggest favor I could do would be to tell them that they have about two weeks to pick up their performance or they will be gone. But I can't do that. So they will continue to do nothing, and the third quarter will end, and they will take their Fs. Until then, they will tell themselves that they will try next quarter. And then, when next quarter comes, they will tell themselves that they will try tomorrow...or next week...or next month.
If only those of us who teach in public schools were given the power to set more limits. The magic that we could work!!!!!!!!!!!!