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A better approach to student discipline

New York Teacher
Michael Mulgrew Headshot

Michael Mulgrew

For teachers, school discipline is a prerequisite for student learning. If one or two students act out in a classroom, their classmates lose out on instruction. In discussions about school discipline, policymakers tend to focus on the rise or fall in the number of student suspensions. But as anyone who spends time in a classroom knows, the real issue is much deeper: How do we change the overall climate in our schools to reduce the conflicts that interfere with student learning and make suspensions necessary?

Addressing that challenge is the mission of the Positive Learning Collaborative. PLC is a joint UFT-Department of Education program in which all adults in a school building — from the custodian to the principal — are trained to cultivate strong relationships with students and to recognize when students are facing crises that could lead to behavioral problems. They learn techniques that help them defuse student conflicts. This is particularly important for those students who face extraordinary challenges like homelessness or disability and who are much more likely than their peers to be disciplined or suspended.

Effective programs also provide curriculum to help students learn constructive ways to deal with frustration, anger and depression; behavior specialists who regularly visit classrooms to provide ongoing support; and a data system to track progress so schools can adapt midstream if something is not working.

We need these changes because African-American and Latino students have borne the brunt of the public school system’s failed discipline policies. They have been disproportionately suspended under “zero tolerance” plans. And equally troubling, they have been the first to have their education disrupted when other students act out — a reality that rarely becomes part of the public discussion and that school communities are unprepared to tackle.

The UFT and the DOE launched the Positive Learning Collaborative in six schools in the 2012–13 school year. That first cohort of schools has seen an 82 percent drop in suspensions and a drop of more than half in the kind of violent incidents that usually lead to suspensions.

At the same time, academic gains in these six schools as measured by standardized tests have either kept pace with or exceeded the gains made in comparable schools, while both staff and parents have reported increased levels of trust among all parties and a calmer and more nurturing school environment.

The PLC has been a boon for PS 42 in the Bronx, a school where large numbers of children grapple with traumas such as homelessness, and where misbehavior had been a problem.

To try to turn the school around, Principal Lucia Orduz brought in new resources and the PLC, which introduced programs to train teachers in a variety of restorative justice practices.

As Ms. Orduz put it, “We’re offering the staff a solution. We’re saying, here is the equipment, here are ideas, here are tools. You’re not in this alone.”

The result: suspensions at PS 42 started to go down, not by pretending there were no problems, but by training the adults in the building in how to alter their own — and their students’ — behavior.

I recently visited PS 42 and talked with educators and the principal about the changes in their school since the adoption of the PLC’s approach to improving school climate. It’s the subject of the UFT’s most recent “On the Record with Michael Mulgrew” podcast.

Expanding the Positive Learning Collaborative, which is now in 25 schools, is one of the union’s legislative priorities. We are lobbying both the state and the city for additional funding so more schools may benefit from it.

Our union has been generally supportive of the city’s school discipline reforms though we have insisted that student suspensions can sometimes be both necessary and appropriate. But in our discussions with the DOE, we have made it clear that focusing solely on suspensions treats a symptom rather than the underlying problem.

Our students deserve schools with a safe, nurturing learning environment free from disruptions to instruction. It is the job of the adults — particularly supervisors — to create and maintain that environment for all children, a job that programs like the Positive Learning Collaborative can help accomplish.

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