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December 2015 | Volume 57 | Number 12
Fixing the Leak in the Teaching Force
As an elementary student, I was caught playing tag with a friend in the hall. We were on our way to recess when she tagged me and ran back into the school. I hurried after, tagging her and turning immediately to make my escape out the exit door. In the next moment, I was pinned against the wall by a strong hand on my throat. A small gold chain my parents had given me for Christmas broke and fell to the floor. The teacher—a large man—said, "A gentleman doesn't hit a lady" and held me by the neck. I was terrified. I couldn't breathe. When he let go, I walked, humiliated and in tears, to recess while a crowd of students watched.
This event shaped my emphasis on upholding student dignity in my teaching practice and classroom management policies. Students already deal with a wide array of stressors, including multiple "home" addresses, blended families, sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, dependency on electronics, and social anxiety, to name a few. With mounting pressure to fit in and navigate the school environment, students need teachers and administrators who are committed to lessening—not increasing—their burdens. This is why I employ five important policies in my classroom. They go a long way toward upholding student dignity and providing a safe learning environment for students at any grade level.
I collect and purchase hundreds of pencils, pens, and reams of paper every year. These supplies are available to all students, no questions asked. I make it clear to kids that forgetting a pencil or coming to school without paper is not a big deal. I draw no attention to such oversights. Supplies are situated around the classroom and students have open access to whatever they need. And yes, students could take advantage of me with this policy. But I don't mind. For me, the risk is worth it.
I don't raise my voice to students. I don't put them down or belittle them. I don't call attention to their mistakes. This does not mean that I never use a student's name while correcting behavior. To the contrary, out of respect for all students, I will say a student's name to get his or her attention. However, I say it respectfully, and I thank students when they comply. In addition, I hold one-on-one conversations after class to address behaviors respectfully.
In my classroom, students do not have to ask permission to go to the restroom; they are allowed to sign out on their own. I teach a few guidelines—like choosing an appropriate time and making sure no one else is already signed out—and then hand the responsibility over to the kids. For students struggling with anxiety, asking to use the restroom can feel like a monumental hurdle. Consequently, some kids will sit in pain rather than ask to go to the restroom. When they struggle, they certainly are not learning. (Note: For liability purposes, this may not work with very young students.)
If students are really hungry, I let them eat. I request they bring snacks that won't damage our carpet or stink up our garbage cans. I also have snacks available in case I feel students are distracted by hunger. Hungry students can't learn. My current school reports a poverty rate of 35 percent, which translates to nearly 300 students on campus. Blanket policies that prohibit eating are misguided and insensitive.
By accepting late work, I place more value on the learning than the deadline. Contrary to outdated mantras, the world is more flexible and employers adjust deadlines. Quality takes precedence over punctuality. A small deduction may apply if a student turns in an assignment past the due date, but I still accept late work. Not accepting late work is like not requiring someone to pay a bill once it's past due. Such gotcha tactics are absurd. We must make room for students whose lives render arbitrary mandates regarding rigid deadlines unrealistic.
With as many as 55 percent of teens across the United States reporting moderate to extreme stress in school, educators have a responsibility to put as much effort into supporting students as they put into providing a rigorous curriculum and effective teaching strategies. Curriculum and instruction accomplish nothing when students feel devalued.
Would you like to write for the next "Road Tested" column? Visit www.ascd.org/educationupdate for submission details.
Chad Donohue is a middle school English teacher, university adjunct professor, and freelance writer.
Copyright © 2015 by ASCD
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