Monday, March 03, 2008

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!!!!!!!!!!!!


Blogger Peter Thies said...

"I have argued that teachers should be given the authority to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms."


3/03/2008 10:42 AM  
Blogger denine said...

A friend referred me to your blog, and I am glad that she did. This particular post hit close to home for me as I am sure it did for many educators. I am wondering how many time you had to refer kids to the office and how your principal/vice felt about it. I think our admin would get tired of the kids being sent to the office and eventually tell me or any other teacher to stop doing it. Do you have any thoughts on that?

3/03/2008 3:47 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Bell, Ph.D. said...

As a school psychologist, one half of my meetings around behavioral issues stem from this concept that kids are testing limits. I also work at a middle school, where testing limits is well within the developmental expectation.

Regarding the "testers," I want to point out that many students are not developmentally able to make the connection between today's behavior and abstract concepts such as "you should get an education so you can go to college." I have heard teachers tell 6th graders the hideous trajectory they are on for adulthood with their current behavior. It is completely lost on them. They think day-to-day. Very zen! So I agree that you have to make a clear policy in which the consequences are clear and immediate.

Truth is, kids know exactly which teachers will enforce the rules and which ones won't. If you can't back up your word, then all the rules in the world won't help change the behavior.

Lastly, since teachers run out of meaningful consequences fairly quickly (most of my students like detention because all their acting out friends are there too), what is your experience with positive group contingencies? For example, our school has a classroom attendance contest, in which they get free dress if they reach a certain percentage of on-time attendance.

Glad I found your blog! It's nice to hear the teacher's point of view.

3/03/2008 7:28 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/03/2008 9:07 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Peter, I think you and I are soul-mates on this one.

Denine, even though I did go to my principal and tell him what I planned on doing last year, I was concerned about the office getting tired of me sending kids there. As it has turned out, that hasn't been a problem at all. There have been so few kids who have hit the five tardy mark, and they are usually spread out. As I said in the post, I started doing this at the beginning of our third marking period last year, so this is now the fifth marking period. I don't think I've had to send kids to the office more than three times during any one quarter, and this quarter, which will be ending in two weeks, I haven't had to do it at all.

Rebecca, I use positive group contingencies in coaching (obviously), and I also use it for small groups when I use cooperative learning, but I've never really used it for an entire class. I don't think I'd be comfortable doing that. When I use it in cooperative learning, it can be a little frustrating, because there are some kids who couldn't care less about helping their group to do well.

And by the way, I'm glad you found my blog, too. It's great for me to hear from someone like YOU!

3/03/2008 9:10 PM  
Anonymous Zeke said...

Sometimes one needs to take the bull by the horns - good for you! I always found that if I took such an action, I would get supported, if only because it was clear that I would not stop trying to change a policy/decision which I thought was wrong. It was sometimes almost comical to see how easy it was to 'get my way', with parents as well. I taught in this school for 36 years and don't think I abused the rules, as I was never really insubordinate, just a questioner, or as I said in my last years, the 'resident curmudgeon [sp]'.
I often found that teachers were too willing to 'go along to get along' and didn't want the grief that might come with principled stands. Would that more did as you!

3/04/2008 1:42 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

"Resident curmudgeon"? Hey, I like that! It beats the heck out of "crotchety old man"--a handle I have been known to wear.

3/04/2008 2:51 PM  
Blogger The Vegas Art Guy said...

The nice thing about the school I am at is that they really don't like it when kids are late and the consequences start at tardy #2 (detention) and go up to 5 which is suspension. I've already got one for detention and a several more that I've talked to about getting to class on time. Consistency is the key, once they know that you don't mess around the class will be better behaved, even if they're 8th graders and it's the last period of the day...

3/12/2008 10:07 PM  
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