In my last post, I wrote of the importance for any school to have faculty who are respected, fulfilled, satisfied and proud to be teaching where they are. I shared some of what I had learned through a teacher satisfaction study I recently completed and promised to share more insights.
Two issues emerged as being most important to the teachers involved in the study. In my experience, however, the issues are not unique to these particular teachers but are of central concern in many schools. One is age-old; the other, relatively new. The issue that has always been central to well-functioning schools and satisfied teachers is student discipline, and how that is supported by administration. The newer one is how schools deal with a student body, which includes students with a wider range of learning needs. At first glance, discipline, and student learning-need diversity may seem unconnected. However, they are not.
Discipline does not exist in a vacuum. On one hand, it is closely connected to the quality of curriculum and instruction, the motivational skills of teachers, the student-teacher relationships, and effective classroom management. On the other, in high-quality schools, there must be a clear sense of what is acceptable behaviour as well as progressive, meaningful and consistent consequences for misbehaviour. Generally, few rules are required. Rather, some basic guiding principles need to be universally understood in the school: treating one-another with respect and courtesy; respecting personal and school property; and maintaining a pleasant, safe, orderly environment where students can learn and teachers teach.
Many independent schools are challenged with maintaining adequate enrolment. One of the consequent evils is that administrators may fear taking firm action for fear of losing a student and often, then, an entire family. The problem may be exacerbated in schools which depend heavily on the financial support of a few families. It takes considerable administration (and board) courage to risk alienating such families and losing their students and support. However, avoiding consistent, meaningful discipline is counterproductive. While decisive action may result in the loss of some few students, without it, schools’ quality, teacher morale and reputation declines, ultimately causing a far greater loss of stature and enrolment.
There is, in some cases, a misalignment of administrators’ and teachers’ expectations around discipline, and how infractions should be dealt with. Teachers generally want clear rules and firm enforcement. They want a sense that when students are disrespectful or otherwise misbehave, there will be meaningful consequences. Sometimes, there is the perception that administrators may have a more liberal approach. Administrators and teachers need frank, meaningful discussion to achieve mutual understanding and agreement on expectations, procedures and consequences.
The issue here is not the implications of schools creating greater socio-economic, racial, cultural and religious diversity. Rather, this is about the trend of many independent schools to admit students with a wider range of learning needs, achievement, and abilities.
This trend has two roots: one philosophical, the other enrolment-based. As a matter of philosophy, increasingly it is believed that the benefits offered by a particular independent school should not be available only to students for whom school learning is easy. In addition, many feel that it is good for all students to learn together with a broader cross-section of the community. From the enrolment perspective, those schools which are struggling to maintain enrolment, may want to broaden their “market” by admitting students who, in earlier times, might not have been seen as “mission appropriate.”
However, it’s critical that schools admitting students for whom school learning is particularly difficult understand that they will require teachers who understand these students’ needs and have the appropriate skills and attitude. Additional supports from education assistants, psychologists and learning specialists may be needed. Classes may need to be smaller to allow such students to thrive. Where these conditions do not exist, nothing but trouble ensues. Students will not be successful, teachers will be frustrated, and parents disillusioned.
Students who feel hopeless will often act-out, impacting the general classroom environment and that is the link with the topic of “discipline.” However, students who misbehave out of frustration, who might prefer to be seen as the “class clown” rather than “dumb,” will not be “corrected” by disciplinary measures. The environment has to change so that they experience success.
It is self-defeating to accept students whose needs cannot be properly met by the school. Not only do those students suffer, but there will be a negative impact on the other students if there is not proper support. Teachers (and administration) will be under considerable pressure and stress from unhappy parents. Furthermore, the reputation of the school will suffer, as those unhappy parents will surely talk about their experiences. And as reputations suffer, enrolments fall.
Schools should only admit students with known special needs after careful assessment of the school’s financial and professional capacity to effectively meet those students’ needs. Schools should never make exaggerated claims to parents about what the school can do. It must also be recognised that a student’s personality is a key determinant of whether the school experience will be successful. While some students will be happy even while having to work exceptionally hard to keep up with peers, others will not. Regardless of how appropriate the accommodations the school makes, such students may feel much more comfortable in a setting where they are not as far behind the “average” students in that school.
If teachers are to be successful with students who have special needs, adequate mentoring must be available around lesson design, teaching strategies and materials. Especially with younger students, there must be sufficient education-assistant time, and the assistants must be appropriately trained and qualified to work with special-needs students.
While it may not be immediately intuitive to connect discipline, student diversity and teacher satisfaction, administrators concerned with creating a positive and supportive teaching environment would be wise to explore the strong links between them.