Q: I’ve been a teacher for more than two decades and currently work in a high school. I take my work seriously and like to be treated as a professional. My principal doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo. He had the not-so-brilliant idea of asking staff members to sign up in shifts to watch (um, babysit) students who have been assigned to in-school suspension (ISS). Meanwhile, the administrators loop the building, talking on walkie-talkies and acting self-important while we lose planning periods and help sessions with students. Why is our time less important than theirs? I’ll admit we’ve all been a little juvenile. We’ve been griping about this among ourselves all the time, but no one is willing to risk being perceived as a complainer or as someone unwilling to pull their weight. The administration has been very clear that negativity will cost us their respect, so this isn’t an irrational concern. I’d like to attempt a direct conversation, but I’m unsure how to bring it up. What could get my point across without negatively impacting my performance reviews?
A: It sounds like your in-school suspension program is cobbled together. As you explain, teachers are serving as rotating babysitters. Although that’s better than sending students home, possibly unsupervised, it’s still a missed opportunity. With a more structured, intentional, and properly staffed program, your school could address the underlying issues contributing to kids’ behavioral problems. I’m wondering whether any time is spent teaching students conflict-resolution skills, identifying and addressing learning or emotional challenges, or providing them with opportunities to restore trust. Are they working on school assignments, engaging in mediation, checking in with a school counselor or psychologist, and reflecting on the precipitating incident in writing, or are they sitting in the main office doing nothing?
I recommend you start by researching the topic. Investigate what other schools and districts are doing. The Children’s Defense Fund, for example, drafted a document spelling out best practices in school discipline. CDF notes that many school districts are “moving away from viewing and using ISS as a punitive and exclusionary tool, and towards seeing it as an opportunity to support students with varying social, emotional, and behavioral needs in a positive and proactive environment.” The organization recommends crafting a mission statement so all school personnel are on the same page regarding policies and expected outcomes, and it suggests appointing one consistent in-school suspension coordinator who will ensure students complete work and keep up with their classmates.
The main reason to do your homework is so you can present a well-informed argument about why it’s time to revisit your school’s approach. Tell your principal in advance what you’d like to discuss, and when you meet, stay focused on solutions. Explain why you don’t believe this to be the best use of teachers’ time and why it’s inconsistent with recommended best practices, then suggest some feasible alternatives. Don’t just walk in with a list of demands or complaints. Try to see the situation from his point of view. If he picks up on your contempt about his seeming self-importance, you’ll lose from the get-go. So stay calm, and be clear that you’re willing to help him think through the variables. If you don’t want to approach him alone, you could invite a like-minded colleague to join you.
As you noted, the constant, secretive griping and complaining is getting you nowhere. So shift gears and try a different strategy. Your principal is unlikely to penalize you if you’re direct, respectful, and willing to roll up your sleeves and help.
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