Rejecting the school discipline blame game

Parents and teachers must get past finger-pointing

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Discipline is often a source of conflict between home and school.

School staff and parents want the same thing – a safe and orderly school that provides a positive environment for teaching and learning. But when student misbehavior occurs, teachers and parents aren’t always on the same page.

Parents complain that their children are not treated fairly or that teacher shortcomings are the real problem. Teachers charge parents with failure to hold their children accountable or worse.

The resulting blame game undermines the development of the working partnership that schools need to be successful.

These divisions are not inevitable, but overcoming them requires a commitment to working hard on communicating and building trust. It means leaving our preconceptions at the door and approaching each case with a focus on overcoming problems rather than affixing blame.

Two sets of experiences have shaped my views on this issue. For a half dozen years, I took time out from teaching a full roster to serve as a disciplinarian at Julia de Burgos School, trying to mete out justice to 300 middle schoolers. Meanwhile, my son tested the patience of teachers and administrators at a long succession of schools, constantly suspended … when he wasn’t truant.

Communication is a big part of the battle. Teachers should establish a relationship with a parent before problems occur. When misbehavior does occur, the parent should be made aware of it promptly. This will frequently nip the problem in the bud. Even if it doesn’t, the parent is at least aware of it if more serious incidents occur later.

Parents are often rightfully resentful when they find their child has been suspended for a pattern of behavior that they had not been made aware of. At the same time parents, having been made aware of a problem, need to respond to requests from teachers or administrators.

The quality of the communication is at least as important. Teachers and disciplinarians need to establish a constructive, non-judgmental tone. As a parent, I once attended a conference where the dean repeatedly lectured me about how outrageous “your child’s behavior” is and how “you need to get him under control.” If she spoke to me this way – a middle-class, White male, savvy in the ways of the School District – I could imagine how she addressed less privileged parents. I knew my child’s behavior was extreme and, if she had bothered to ask, I could have helped her to understand why and what we were doing about it.

It is important for educators to listen to parents. Parents can often provide important insights on how to address the problem if only encouraged to offer them. After all, they know their children better than anyone else.

Too often, stereotypes based on race and class get in the way of seeing parents as responsible partners in their children’s education. “What can you expect of these people?” is still a refrain sometimes heard in the teachers’ lounge.

It is also important to not respond defensively to criticism raised by parents. Sometimes our weaknesses as teachers do play a role in student misbehavior. Even if this is not the case, arguing about it detracts from trying to focus on solutions.

Of course, parents also need to listen. Sometimes we have a hard time believing our children do things in school they would not do at home – and some children know how to manipulate their parents. If a teacher explains the problem calmly and has good documentation, this goes a long way to overcoming the parent’s skepticism.

In many schools, particularly those where school climate is poor, the quality of justice is very uneven. Harried administrators and disciplinarians, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of discipline referrals or pink slips, often make decisions without fully investigating. This can alienate both students and parents.

When I was a disciplinarian, I once got a pink slip on which the teacher said a girl cursed her out in front of the class. When I called her to my office, the girl admitted she did it but claimed she had been provoked by the teacher’s unflattering remarks about her mom. I made the judgment that this was simply not credible based on what I knew about the teacher and the child, and I suspended the girl.

When the girl came into school with her mother, the parent was angry, believing that the teacher should also be reprimanded for her behavior. My response was to take her to the teacher, confident that the teacher had acted correctly. Much to my embarrassment the student’s account turned out to be true. The teacher apologized. I did too and rescinded the suspension, learning a valuable lesson in the process.

The reliance on out-of-school suspensions as the consequence for so many infractions is another practice that drives a wedge between parents and the school. Providing supervision for a suspended child on short notice is frequently difficult or impossible for working parents. Parents, with some justification, question how giving the child a day off from school will send the right message.

At the same time teachers expect that there will be consequences for persistent misbehavior or serious incidents. Many teachers have had the humiliating experience of being threatened or verbally abused by a student – only to have the student returned to their class bragging that nothing was done.

As is so often the case in the School District, the lack of resources is part of the problem. Inadequate numbers of counselors and lack of staffing for in-house suspension programs are cases in point.

But schools can and should engage parents as a group in formulating discipline policies along with teachers (and students where appropriate). If parents are part of this process, their concerns are more likely to be addressed, and they can be expected to act as partners in improving school climate.

A strong and active contingent of parents in the building can be a powerful force for a positive school climate. Parents in halls and classrooms can help teachers with the difficult business of classroom management. And parents who understand how tough it is from first-hand experience are going to be allies in pressing for common-sense policies.