Over winter break, Jess Zalph ’16 spent a week teaching and observing at an urban charter school. This is part one of a two-part essay, the first of which will focus on the discipline system and the second of which will focus on academics at this school.
At 9:06 a.m., the fire alarm went off. The students stood up from their desks, filed outside to 15-degree weather in short-sleeve uniform t-shirts, and lined up for attendance. Long after attendance had been taken, we were all still standing outside, waiting for the fire truck to come.
As a visiting teacher, my only role at this point was to observe and try not to let the middle school students see me shiver too violently. The bell was a false alarm, but we needed to follow standard protocol before returning to the building. The students—surprisingly silent given the 20-minute fire drill in the middle of an urban tundra—began to clump together for warmth.
“No huddling!” rang out the voice of an adult, who had been lucky enough to grab a coat before exiting the building. “I said no huddling! That will earn you a major deduction for disrespect to adults and failure to comply with directions.”
At the time, this sounded a little like a foreign language to me. I was only on day two of a week-long program that involved teaching and observing at a prominent urban charter school. Besides, which is a worse fate, “deductions” or frostbite?
One of the most iconic factors of the school was its discipline system, which involved deductions that were taken out of a student’s (the school calls them “scholars”) “paycheck” at the end of each week. Major deductions could be “earned” for speaking at the wrong moment, saying something rude, failing to complete classwork, or failing to follow instructions with due speed. Minor deductions might be earned for smaller offenses, such as an untucked shirt or a missing belt. There was acknowledgment of positive behavior as well: achievement credits for intelligent comments, for example. The amount of “scholar dollars” remaining in each student’s paycheck at the end of each week determined their eligibility for prizes and participation in school events.
Making students adhere to these types of rules using this system was gently called enforcing “culture.” Teachers appeared to endorse the system with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and some seemed to act out of pressure rather than genuine belief. Honestly, the entire administration and faculty seemed to be caring and dedicated and to have the best interests of the students at heart; our difference in opinion was over philosophy and approach.
I went into the program skeptical of charter schools but also minimally informed, with my opinions based only on others’ opinions and anecdotal evidence. I came out of the experience with a vastly improved ability to describe certain practices that I find detrimental, but also with a better understanding of why these practices were instituted. My experience cannot necessarily be generalized to that of all similar schools across the nation, but from what I have been told by other teachers who have worked in these types of schools my impression is that the practices I observed are fairly common.
To be frank, the discipline system seemed objectionable and counterproductive. On top of the weekly “paycheck,” which was sent home with students every Friday, particularly poorly behaved students were sent to the “Den.” When I first heard about this, I was immediately put in mind of the “Chokey” in Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” but the Den was not a closet filled with spikes and glass. Rather, it was a metaphorical state of degradation, which forced students to wear bright yellow lanyards and spend their meals apart from their peers. They also had to get a sheet signed by their teachers at the end of every class period, certifying that they had not earned any major deductions in that period and that they had completed their work.
I understand the temptation for such a stringent system. It’s streamlined. It’s clear. It passionately embraces the desire for “accountability” that has swept through public schools and restructured classrooms.
I also understand it because, although the students were for the most part well-meaning and good-natured, many of them were prone to being distracted or distracting in class. After one particularly difficult hour and a half of leading lessons in reading and writing, I was overwhelmed enough that I described the experience to a teacher as “behavioral whack-a-mole.” The material was interesting and I wanted badly for the lesson to go smoothly, but I was unwilling to hand out punitive deductions to the students who failed to do as I wished. As a teacher I am willing to be firm, I am willing to instruct, I am willing to demand, but I couldn’t bring myself to play into a system I perceived to be harmful.
In the short term, however, playing into it seemed to be necessary. The students seemed impervious to requests such as “listen” or “let him finish.” They had not been taught to respond to requests that might be made in the real world and had instead learned to operate only within the system set up by the school—to behave or follow instructions only if there were “deductions” at stake.
But the problems set up by this system were far deeper than failing to prepare students for real world requests. For one, it was demoralizing. Students in the “Den,” forced to wear bright lanyards (or the modern academic version of a scarlet “A”), were embarrassed in front of their peers and teachers. I saw students respond to this either by being crushed under their “delinquent” label, losing motivation to work or speak, or by defiantly deciding that they did not care about that punishment or any other and acting out further. How could either of these be the desired result?
Furthermore, the label imposed by the school showed all the teachers that the students in the Den needed to be treated as troublemakers. In a classic example of self-fulfilling prophecies, these students seemed doomed to remain delinquent. They were repeatedly punished more harshly than their peers for minor infractions, and, even more damaging, they were often chastised mistakenly for actions they did not perform.
I watched these students learn that authority was unfair. I watched them learn to view adults with distrust. I watched the older students roll their eyes after being given any instructions, no matter how reasonable, because they had internalized that they would not be treated fairly.
When students felt they had been given an undeserved deduction, they would often protest, as is to be expected of fifth graders. Any words of dissent were immediately shut down with a new punishment: “You have just earned a major deduction for disrespect to adult.” As a child I was relatively well behaved, but I can’t imagine being anything but resentful in a situation such as this. I think I would have tried to start a rebellion.
I saw students get lost. Some spiraled out of control as they desperately tried to get busy teachers to sign their Den sheets to prove they had been well behaved, and others sat in the corner of the room in despair and refused to move. Piling more deductions on them could not pull them out of their crisis, and yet that’s all that happened.
At least in the classroom, there was no flexibility in punishment, and teachers often seemed pressured to deliver deductions when administrators were present. It was sometimes used as a replacement for teaching as well. I asked one of the fifth graders how he felt about the deduction system.
“I think it’s mostly fair,” he said. “Except for sometimes. Sometimes I don’t answer a question on my worksheet because I don’t know the answer, but then I earn a major deduction for refusing to work. And I don’t think that’s fair.”
Teaching is not easy, and often the students’ behavior doesn’t make it easier. But when I tell people about the school, they ask me if it was in fact a prison. Students shouldn’t be treated like criminals, or else they will start to believe that criminals are what they are. More than that, systematized unfair treatment, especially at schools, can generate the behavior problems that the school is trying to fix.
So if I become a teacher and my students are cold, I’m going to let them huddle.
Jess Zalph is a member of the Class of 2016.