By Don Mohler
In 1955, the nation was horrified by the film “Blackboard Jungle.” It showed an inner-city school out of control where students terrifying teachers was a daily rite of passage. I saw the film in the early 60s, and I shuddered when Vic Morrow turned to Glenn Ford to say, ”You want to take me to the office Daddio? Then take me to the office.” Was this film an accurate portrayal of public education at the time? Absolutely not. Did it represent what was happening in far too many classrooms across the nation- then and now? It did indeed. Did it shape the perception of our schools and what was happening in the schoolhouse for millions of Americans? Without a doubt. Sixty-seven years later we are still trying to unlock the secret of how to educate “all” children, while at the same time providing them with a safe and nurturing environment, and the clock is ticking.
Society feels as if it is spinning out of control. Students are being bullied, in person and online. Social media is paralyzing an entire generation. And this is not just an issue for our urban educators. Schools across the nation, in supposedly idyllic communities, are being racked with teacher assaults, student fights, gang behavior, and a regular dose of threats all of which is enough to dull our senses. 74% of parents believe that schools are becoming less safe.
We have a crisis in our public schools, and we ignore it at our own peril. It breaks my heart as a parent and grandparent. It breaks my heart as someone who was proud to spend 30 years in the Baltimore County Public Schools at the local school level and as a central office administrator.
Some would say that the dysfunction in our society makes it inevitable that our schools will reflect that unrest and thus disruption will become the rule the day. They would suggest that until we address the ills in society, trying to make our schools safer is a pipe dream. But that is a cop-out, and I am not ready to throw in the towel. I don’t believe we are doomed to a permanent state of chaos in our classrooms. There are steps that we can take today that will begin to improve school climate and ensure that students across the nation attend schools that make us all proud.
Once an educator, always an educator.
Culture, Curriculum, and Responsibility.
The culture in an individual school building is palpable. You feel it the minute you walk through the front door. And the key to creating and maintaining a positive school climate is the principal. Study after study makes that point in the strongest terms, but day in and day out we are doing all that we can to turn principals into robots, fearing the next reprimand from the “folks above.” Principals all over the country are stuck in the mud, afraid of their own shadows. Doing what is best for your school community by being bold and sometimes breaking a few eggs is a prerequisite to being an outstanding leader. The whole “we are a school system not a system of schools” approach to public education has made mediocrity the new gold standard.
Former Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart Berger was controversial, and he’d be the first to tell you that he made his share of mistakes. But here’s what he got right, very right: he empowered principals to run their schools. He hated it when they called the central office seeking advice. And he could care less if some in the community didn’t agree with a certain decision that a principal just made. News flash- not everyone is going to agree with everything you do. His message was clear. Be in charge. Do you what you think is in the best interest of your students. Don’t be afraid. Put students first. At the end of the year, we’ll figure out if you got more right than wrong. So first things first: let principals be principals again.
As for curriculum, you will begin to sense a recurring theme. If we are going to let principals be principals again, then it is high time that we let teachers teach again. The focus on student achievement is important, and we do need some sort of metric to measure student progress. But in the process of moving toward national standards, we’ve stripped teachers of what makes them really unique- their individual creativity.
Drill after drill designed to prepare students for a series of standardized tests at the end of the year has dehumanized our classrooms. Being measured by whether or not you are on the right page of a standardized curriculum is stifling and demoralizing. We know that students need to write well. We know they need to be able to analyze a variety of written texts. We know they need to compute. We get it,but stop the madness! If we simply say to teachers, “Don’t feel trapped by a daily schedule coming from above. Teach your kids to read, write, and compute,” they would do just that. And the schools would be more welcoming overnight.
Today our kids don’t write enough, they don’t read enough, and they struggle with basic math facts. Teachers are burned out, and the students are bored. A centralized approach to daily lesson plans has failed a generation. And while we’re at it, how about allowing our teachers to have fun again? Let’s also make sure that art and music and foreign languages are supported to enrich the lives of our students. Play games in the classroom. Have spirit and dress up days. And make sure that recess is a part of the school day. Yes, students learn at recess. Recess and free play are critical learning opportunities, and children learn important lessons about how to get along with others, skills that just might matter as they move toward adulthood. Encourage teachers to take a few minutes out of the day to just be silly with their students, giving them a lifetime of memories in the process. Turn the teachers loose, and you will be shocked at how the climate in the building improves dramatically. Does this mean that we give up on measuring student success? Of course not. But it doesn’t have to take hours and hours of testing to determine if children can read, write, and compute. And guess what? If they can do that and if you’ve provided them with a nurturing school environment, they will be just fine. In fact, they will be better than fine.
And now for the most controversial of the CCR approach, responsibility. Your children have a right to be safe in school. My children have a right to be safe. All of our children have a right to be safe in school. And school systems have a responsibility to make sure that happens. The minute secretaries of education and superintendents decided to measure principals by suspension rates, the results were inevitable. Principals aren’t stupid. If I’m going to get called on the carpet for suspending kids, then I’ll just stop suspending them. Here’s the problem: schools looked safer on paper, but they were anything but.
Do schools need to make sure that discipline is being applied fairly and that there are not racial biases playing a role in these decisions? That goes without saying. But here’s the bottom line: in an age when online and digital learning is readily available, disruptive students should not be allowed to threaten teachers, bully students, and terrify bus drivers with no consequences. Kumbaya is fine, but sometimes a little dose of reality is just what the doctor ordered.
Do we have millions of children with emotional problems that need to be addressed? Yes. But once again, two things can be true at the same time. We need to provide students and families with the resources they need to become successful adults. We also need to say that if you are disrupting the school environment for others who just want to learn, then you can’t be here right now. Will parents and caregivers be inconvenienced at times? Yes, they will. And that might not be a bad thing. Taking responsibility for individual behavior must be front and center of any educational reform efforts.
We can do this. Our children deserve caring, compassionate schools with caring, compassionate principals and teachers. We can create what Dr. William Purkey calls “intentionally inviting school communities.” Let principals be principals. Let teachers teach. And let’s not allow disruptive behavior in the classroom to create a toxic environment for millions of children who are trying to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world.
Don Mohler is the former Baltimore County Executive and President and CEO of Mohler Communication Strategies. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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