Archive for the 'discipline' Category


A Hard Win

I work in alternative education, which means I teach “urban youth” who are coming out of jail, about to go into jail, are on probation, or have been permanently removed from their neighborhood school for fighting, drugs, carrying weapons, etc…  Often I find myself frustrated my a system that doesn’t care enough to provide sufficient supplies and teachers to children they’ve decided to throw away.  As a result, the students aren’t really encouraged to take pride in their education or themselves, let alone show respect for their school, their teachers, or their community.

I started in a new school this week and was appalled at the extreme lack of respect students showed for teachers, and even more so at the administration’s lack of follow-through on rules and procedures, but I digress.  In alternative education, anything you can do to get the students to follow societal norms is considered a “win”.  One of my focuses is to get students to refer to me by name.  In case you are unaware, urban youth show their disdain for “white society” by refusing to call teachers by their name or their title.  For example, if your name is Ms. Smith, the students will refer to you as “Miss” or “Smith” , but will not put them together.  Most teachers chalk this up as unimportant and don’t address it, but I see this a critical issue.  I feel that students should respect me and their education enough to at least learn and use my name.

So here’s how I did in 4 days what the other teachers haven’t managed to do in 5 months:  On Day 1 I introduced myself as Ms. Smith.  When students refered to me as Miss, I add the “Smith” before answering them or granting their request.  When students refered to me as “Miss” on day 2, I reminded them that my name is “Ms. Smith” and required that they say it before answering their question or granting their request.  On day 3, I pretended not to hear students until they say, “Ms. Smith”, which inevitably pissed someone off given the population I work with.  When that happened, I simply said, “I’m sorry ______ (insert name), but I’ve already given you enough respect to learn and use your name and I expect you to learn and use mine.  If you’re not going to do that, we have nothing more to say to each other.”  Then I continued with my lesson.  By day 4, most of my students were using my name.  At some point during that day, one of the “hold-outs” tried to get my attention and I ignored him.  Then he said, “I’m going to call you Ms. S…..Okay?’, and I say, “Fine.”  I have just won.  While it’s true, the student is not referring to me by my full name, I have forced them to see me as a person rather than a nameless authority figure just like every other authority figure they’ve come into contact with.   Our teacher/student relationship has finally begun.


National Novel Writing Month

I wrote my first novel in 9th grade.  I did it mostly during my creative writing class and my teacher said that few people my age had takled such a thing.  I later found that there were reasons for that.  Writing a novel is was not as easy as I thought it would be.  I’d probably be embarrassed to read it now.  I was highly influenced by S.E. Hinton and several other authors that I can’t remember now because I didn’t have enough life experience to have many original ideas.

Now I’m thinking about doing it again and I keep making up excuses.  It won’t be good enough.  Someone has already thought of that idea.  I don’t have enough time to invest in writing what I really want.  But I need a break from politics and an outlet to keep my mind off of work.  It’s National Novel Writing Month, and I get to go to a Writer’s Conference next weekend for work.  This might not be a bad time to give it another shot and see if I can come up with my own style.


Avarice (Greed)

Money is the root of all evil, or so they say.  It’s not so much the money itself, but the power and control that comes with having what others do not (and the idea that focusing on money means you’re not focusing on God).  Of course, when greed was first labeled a “deadly” sin, the church was the most corrupt institution in the land, but no one likes to talk about that.  In fact, avarice has long been a vice of religion, from the selling of “holy” relics and special favors to the evangelical preachers of today raising money to build a mega church and buy themselves a Hummer.  I wonder how many people have been convinced to rid themselves of their greed by donating all they have to their local church. 

The other side is this: putting yourself above others in one area (especially when it comes to sharing) makes it easier to put yourself first in all aspects of life.  Any time you forget to think of others you open yourself up to the ability to ignore their needs completely.  That doesn’t mean you should never put yourself first.  It is also important to learn to say “no” when you’re feeling overextended or you must do something to take care of yourself, but, as with anything, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  Being greedy with your time is the same as being greedy with your possessions.  Try to make sure to do something for someone else every day, and if someone needs something that you have (and don’t absolutely NEED), it’s should be theirs.  Many of us learned to share before we had any concept of religion or God.  It is a basic requirement of humanity, and something we should all be paying more attention to.



When I first wrote about forgiveness, it was in response to a crazed man walking into an Amish school and killing several children.  Our community was just as shocked as the Amish, but the marked difference was in how quickly they were able to forgive the man who terrorized and killed their daughters.  I was amazed, but felt that much could be learned from their willingness to put judgements aside and get along with the business of living, without fear, without anger, without regret.

I have used this lesson with my students this year, and given the volatile nature of the young men and women I work with, I feel it has served me well.  There is an incredible relief evident in the faces of my students when they realize that the teacher they swore at just 24 hours ago is treating them like nothing happened.  It’s not that I ignore the situation.  When something happens, we deal with it immediately and resolve the problem.  Because we do not dismiss students from our program unless their is an extreme situation, students who have screamed obscenities, refused to comply with norms, and, in some cases, became violent with us, are back in our classrooms a day (or very rarely, two days) after their momentary lapse in sanity.

Without the ability to instantly forgive these students and move on to the next challenge, our staff would drop like flies (or at least spend more time in therapy).  This is a technique that I feel is useful with all children, regardless of the degree of their transition.  As adults, we often forget that though their words might hurt us and their actions may be harmful to themselves or others, they are, in fact, just children.  They make mistakes, and they must be forgiven.  If not, we are teaching them that their mistakes are carried with them to be remembered by those they offended whenever it is convenient and that redemption is not possible.



I don’t follow sports all that often, but I spent some time as a child at baseball games with my father.  I enjoy lacrosse, soccer, and the Tour De France, but my enjoyment really comes from watching the marvel of the human body and what it can accomplish.  Of course, I was under the impression that most athletes were honest and did not rely on enhancements to perform.  I find that as more athletes are exposed, the majesty of their abilities is increasingly fleeting.  They no longer serve as an example to young men and women who strive for perfection in their game without steroids and other enhancements.  Coaches working with younger athletes must find this disturbing, as they cannot point to an athlete and say, “Look.  This is what hard work and dedication can accomplish.”  No one knows which statistics are real and which are sullied by the myriad of chemical alterations available to the young star.  Even more unfortunately, my disappointment is not accompanied by surprise.  This is just another in a long line of shortcuts taken more and more frequently by Americans who used to be revered for their drive and determination.


Betting on Students

Betting on attendance is one way of motivating our students, but betting on individual students also works well, depending on the student.  Basically what happens is this: one staff member (I’ll use myself as an example) decides that this is the week we’re going to “turn” Stacy*.  That means that I’ve decided to focus my attention on Stacy and get her to come to school daily (and on time), to pay attention in class and do all of her work (without getting kicked out), and begin to have a positive attitude about school.  So, sometime during the day on Friday, I tell Stacy about the bet.  This gives her the weekend to prepare herself, and to realize that I care enough about her to bet that she can do well.  Hopefully, she won’t want to let me down.  I also let the rest of the staff know about the bet.  They will spend the week loooking out for positive things that Stacy is doing and complimenting her on them.  They also agree to largely ignore what she’s doing wrong (uniform violations, talking in class, chewing gum, etc…) as along as it doesn’t endanger herself, other students or staff, or school property.

When she comes in on Monday (hopefully, on time), I remind her of the bet.  If she’s not on time I gently chastize her for being late and remind her that I’m counting on her this week.  If she does well in my class (does her work, stays relatively quiet, and doesn’t respond to me with an attitude), I give her a “shout out” in the afternoon meeting.  Uusally I say something like,”I want to recognize Stacy for not getting kicked out of any classes today.”  As the week goes on, I’m able to give better “shout outs” like, “I want to recognize Stacy for participating in class today.” All the other students clap (as they do when anyone is recognized) because they know that Stacy has been giving the staff a hard time.  This accomplishes two things.  Stacy is receiving positive reinforcement for the things she’s doing right rather than negative reinforcement for what she’s doing wrong.  This also shows other students that they are capable of changing their behavior and that they will be recognized for doing so.  We avoid giving negative reinforcement in front of the group (we usually pull a student aside and speak to them individually), but always give positive reinforcement in public.  On Friday, I buy her lunch as long as she has met some of the goals I set for her.  I continue the positive reinforcement until she doesn’t need it anymore and work with other students on improving their behavior.

*Names have been changed to protect the students


Betting on Attendance

It may sound a little unorthodox, but we spend a lot of time betting on our kids (or betting with them, as the case may arise).  Of course, money is never involved.  We use betting as a tool to show students that we care enough to stake something on them, and we make sure they know what we’re betting and why.  Most times they rise to the occasion, if only because the like the staff member who is betting on them and they don’t want to see them lose.

Our running bet is on attendance.  We have the school broken up into two teams.  The team leaders have a running bet on which team will have the highest attendance.  In the Monday morning meeting we give the kids an attendance goal: We need 85% attendance for every homeroom every day to beat the other team.  During our homeroom meeting (after lunch) we tell the students what the percentage was for their class (mine is always the lowest because I have several pregnant girls, two gang-bangers, and a few other students who have the worst attendance on the planet).  Then in the afternoon meeting we tell the students what their percentage was for the team.  The team who wins makes sure the other team hears them cheer.  Then the losing team leader say, “Did you hear that?  Do you want that to happen again tomorrow?  Do you want to LOSE?”  Of course, they all say no, them we do a class year cheer, remind them to get with their friends who weren’t in school today and convince them somehow to get their butts to class, and let them go home.  The cycle repeats daily until Friday morning, when we tell them who won.  We reward the winning team with a movie, a morning basketball tournament, or something else the students come up with (within reason).

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I am not perfect. I do my best to practice what I preach, but I am human. My mantra is, "DO NO HARM". I may not always succeed, but I will always try. My goal is to be a better person today than I was yesterday.

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