THE BLOG
07/25/2011 04:10 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2011

New Orleans Charter Schools Need to Respect Teachers' Experience, Students' Dignity

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the New Orleans Recovery School District has reacted to "minor rule violations by forcibly handcuffing children to furniture, brutally slamming them, banishing them from their schools and cutting short their education." In the wake of other reports on charter schools in New York City (here and here) and under-the-gun public schools in Texas, it should be no surprise that New Orleans would use extreme discipline, and the criminalization of teenage misbehavior to push challenging students out of their charter schools. The American Independent helps explain why the Recovery District has relied so heavily on draconian disciplinary regimes.

In "New Orleans schools: A nexus of poverty, high expulsion rates, hyper-security and novice teachers," a Teach For America alumna, Davina Allen, observed, "If you're struggling with behavioral issues, then there's a very good chance you're not teaching well." New Orleans faces the additional problem of relying heavily on young teachers, and they are notoriously weak in classroom management. "No one is saying all old teachers are better," said Allen, "but the new paradigm is that you don't want veteran teachers around."

I will leave it to others, who are closer to the events in NYC, Texas, and New Orleans, to document how often they abuse disciplinary procedures to push kids out of school. In this data-driven era, it frequently is tempting to arrest students so schools do not have to record suspensions, but I have never heard of the level of cruelty that was described in the Recovery District. So, I will concentrate on what I know firsthand, and explain why veteran teachers are still needed to manage the behavior of difficult kids.

The American Independent cited an education scholar who requested anonymity, "Knowing how to manage behaviors with kids who watched their parents drown in Katrina is not something a French Literature major from Long Island can learn overnight." Having been a 39-year-old rookie, I can second that observation, and build upon it.

During my 17 years since graduating from college, my experiences ranged from roughnecking in the oil fields and hitchhiking to legislative lobbying and writing an award-winning book. The most valuable assets I gained were a repertoire of funny stories, and one-liners for defusing tense situations. The best way to deal with students, I found, was to treat them with the same respect used with the adults from those other walks of life.

The very best preparations for teaching were experiencing failure, as when I flunked my orals, had my manuscripts rejected, and fouled up a major professional task. The second best preparations were being pushed to the point of exhaustion on the job or on the road, so that I had to subject myself to soul-searching. In other words, modesty learned from defeat is the best preparation for a prime teaching skill, being able to "roll with the punches."

Once teachers learn from the school of hard knocks, we often forget another advantage that is denied to young teachers. Classroom leadership is an ecological relationship. When many students see a young teacher, they smell blood in the water. Administrators know that rookies struggle, but often they are unwilling to expend the political capital necessary to provide disciplinary backing to newbies. Many times, I have used the leverage that comes from experience and successfully demanded disciplinary backing. Assistant principals who will support a known quantity, however, tend to be reluctant to go out on a limb to help a new teacher in an identical situation.

Veteran teachers know to start off the year with team-building and foolproof lessons to start with successes and motivate. Nowadays, however, teachers are pressured to immediately jump into the aligned and paced curriculum, and not invest enough time in listening and building relationships. And how does a teacher know that his or her favorite lessons are foolproof without the experience of having foolishly bombed with them? And think of the "leg up" veterans get walking into class the first day when we already know many of our students and being greeted by the brothers, sisters, cousins and, sometimes, children of our former students.

Too many "reformers" want to get rid of Baby Boomers because we are not receptive to the slogan of "Whatever It Takes!" Those theorists want to micromanage the pace of instruction, not understanding the need to pace the human element of teaching and learning. Veteran teachers understand the ebbs and flow of energy during the long season. The rate at which many students catch up is determined by the time it takes to rebuild their confidence after setbacks. And we have learned the hard way that conflicts at home are a constant threat to the peace of mind of inner city students. We also anticipate the annual family crisis season that kicks off like clockwork every Thanksgiving and peaks around Christmas.

There is a grain of truth to the mantra of "No Excuses!" that is drilled into the minds of young teachers. But I wish that they would be taught the much more profound lesson that teachers used to be taught. It is much smarter to think ahead and avoid conflicts. It is wiser to slow down and avoid mistakes than to clean up afterwards. There are times when educators should push students beyond their comfort zones, but day in and day out it is better to respect kids' autonomy. Yes, a sense of urgency is necessary and we should take advantage of every opportunity to put as many points on the board as possible. It is just as crucial, however, to not put the ball on the ground. Or as I was taught, "don't go off rootin' and tootin' and there won't be no cuttin' nor shootin.'"

And that gets back to the lessons that New Orleans should have learned. Yes, students must respect attendance and tardy policies. If the school bans food in certain areas, it should judiciously enforce its rules. Failure to do detention must lead to credible and timely consequences. But issuing $250 fines, handcuffing students, and giving them criminal records for violating those sorts of rules are the bigger mistakes. And the equally big error is believing that urban schools can function without heeding the experience of veteran teachers who could have warned against those policies.