Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

April 26, 2013

MARK HEINIG: Traveling the foggy road to better schools


— I admire Jimmy Carter — more now than when he was president.

Since he left office, he has served both Americans and the global community extremely well. He will be remembered as a great humanitarian, but probably not as an outstanding national leader. When he was president, I felt like I was on a bus without a driver, traveling down a foggy road to nowhere.

The road to meaningful school reform is just as foggy. As our General Assembly prepares to adjourn, the fog obscures the sunshine. We need to improve education, but we disagree about how to do it.

I am an aging schoolmaster — one of yesterday’s educators. Now, at the end of my career, I want to share some thoughts with today’s educators and parents. I hope that it helps them dispel the fog, prioritize the issues and create a realistic school improvement plan.

That goal is much too complex for a single op-ed article, but behavior management is a crucial part of it. Accountability is here to stay. As we continue to raise the bar on student achievement, we will use achievement to distribute dollars, evaluate teachers, and decide which students qualify for preferred career opportunities. Attentive, cooperative students are becoming more and more important. If my kid disrupts the class, it becomes harder for your kid to learn.

How should we deal with disruptive kids? The most challenging and disruptive students nearly always end up in the principal’s office.

Many teachers are reluctant to confront students who misbehave. Their authority to apply meaningful consequences has been diminishing for years. Corporal punishment, after-school detention, lowering grades and assigning extra work have almost disappeared. Each of these consequences has its critics. Maybe they should completely vanish, but what else is left if they do? Physical restraint or removing a disruptive student from the classroom might be the only options.

I do not support corporal punishment, and the kind of physical restraint that I can support does not include absurdities like duct-taping a student. Any student sufficiently out of control to require physical intervention should be handled by more than one adult. The only exception would be if the student seems an immediate danger to himself or others. That’s always a judgment call, but the duct-tape incident involved a child with Asperger’s syndrome on a school bus. Why was there only one adult on the bus?  

The mere presence of a second adult may eliminate the need for any physical action at all. That second adult can also defuse potential dangers inside the school, but few of them are as risky as misbehavior on a school bus.

The issue of seclusion is part of a broader question. When should a teacher send a misbehaving youngster to the principal? When I was a teacher, I did that if the misbehavior interfered with the teaching-learning process. I tried to contact a parent first, but it wasn’t always possible. If the misbehavior made it difficult for me to explain something to the rest of the class or made it difficult for them to understand my explanation, it was time for the culprit to leave.

The principal’s options are very limited. That’s why some kids return to class too soon. There may be no alternative. Seclusion requires space and adequate supervision.

My first principal’s job was in a school where I could isolate only three students at a time. If there were more, I had to make them sit where everyone could see them or send them home on out-of-school suspension. Putting a misbehaving student on display in the office is embarrassing. It doesn’t encourage better behavior. Out-of-school suspension is often too severe. It’s usually the last step before expulsion.

In-school suspension rooms work well when supervised by properly trained personnel. Unfortunately, the room is often available, but a qualified supervisor isn’t. I have only worked in one school where in-school suspension was consistently well-done.

To continue improving learning we must improve behavior management. We can’t achieve that at the state level by making new laws and more regulations. Each school corporation must solve the problem locally.

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo, a retired Indiana teacher and principal, is a frequent contributor to the Kokomo Tribune. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.