Teacher to Parent - Banning meaningful consequences for students who willfully defy teachers

Jody Stallings headshot


Q: I read the California State Senate voted to ban schools from suspending or expelling students for “willful defiance” of teachers, staff and administrators. They also can’t be suspended for disrupting school activities. The bill now goes to their congress. Why would they vote to do this?

At first I thought this was a joke, but then I read the article. It’s nightmarishly true. Senator Nancy Skinner says that suspensions are bad because the students “are sent to an empty home, with no supervision and denied valuable instructional time.” So, she reasons, they should be kept in school.

That’s nice. But what about the students and teachers who are left to claw for educational survival in lawless classrooms operating completely at the whim of emboldened, disruptive mutineers? Apparently the legislators and their $110,459 annual salaries have other things to care about, like indulging their bizarre obsession with the single ill-behaved student at the expense of all other children, all teachers, and indeed the entire system of education. It seems clear these so-called leaders care more about the “willfully defiant” than the “obediently compliant.”

Let’s suppose at your job you knew you could not be suspended or fired for defying your boss and disrupting the workplace. In a staff meeting she assigns you a project, and you throw it on the floor, curse her out and leave. Maybe you’re lazy or entitled or possess deep character flaws. Since you’ll always have a job and will always get paid, why wouldn’t you indulge your most selfish tendencies? And when you do, it won’t be long before your colleagues give up on their own tasks and emulate your attention-rewarded mayhem.

But of course the situation I described is preposterous. You will get fired if you act like that at work. So what is the CA legislature (and others soon to follow) doing to prepare students for such a reality? The exact opposite of everything any sane person would do. Their solution is to teach our most impulsive, malicious, and dangerous students that their bad actions cause no bad consequences.

While it’s generous of legislators to insist that unruly students go free, it’s a tragedy that they aren’t even a little concerned about the students and teachers who will be enslaved in an educational system that values the nastily defiant behavior of the few over the learning needs of the many.

Sorry, I misspoke. It is only the students who are captive. Teachers are breaking free. A study by the Learning Policy Institute showed that − despite yearly salaries $18,000 higher than the national average − 80% of California’s school districts report a teacher shortage because so many are leaving their classrooms.

Why? If the problems in California are anything like they are elsewhere in the country, one of the major issues is classroom discipline. And on this issue, the “leaders” are grotesquely out of step with those in the foxholes. A 2019 Charleston Teacher Alliance survey, for example, showed that 90% of teachers believe removing disruptive students from the classroom has a strong impact on improving student learning.

Failing to remove disruptive students from the classroom puts teachers in an impossible position: they can either teach their lessons or they can grapple with the disrupter. They cannot do both. More grappling means less teaching.

But worse things are apparently on the horizon. Bad behaviors that are not rendered uncomfortable for the student will escalate. The child who refused to stop running in the hallway this year will next year tell you to “f$@& off” when you tell him to stop. In no time at all, teachers will routinely be both verbally and physically assaulted. Some schools are there already, without the extra nudge from their legislators. Why would anyone continue to teach under those circumstances? How could any student learn?

I note that the bill was passed by a class of aristocrats who wouldn’t be caught dead teaching actual students in a real school. I challenge these oblivious elites to actually spend six months in a real-live classroom and see if they still agree with this policy. They’ll never do that, of course, because it’s much more fun to make lots of money ruining things than it is to experience how hard it is to fix what you’ve broken.

What is happening to us? Our schools used to demand and expect the very best from students. Now we not only expect but wallow in their boorish, vicious, and ill-intentioned actions. When a student curses out his teacher and makes a mockery of her classroom, it’s not a surprising exception; it’s the new normal. With these depressingly low aspirations, we are headed off a cliff.

I love teaching. I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. But the day the legislature bans meaningful consequences for students who willfully defy their teachers is the day I walk away from it, and I am certain I will not be the only one.

Instead, I think I would spend my days on the side of the road, allowing people to throw bricks at me. I would probably make more money, and it would be much less painful.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. He is the recipient of the 2018 first place award in column writing from the South Carolina Press Association. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent.

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