Fire Drills in Prison


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“We get yelled at all the time, every day.”

We’re having a “RESPECT” week at school, where members of faculty get on the announcements in the morning and give the kids a thirty-second pep talk about how to show respect. This is part of our PBIS initiative, which has its strengths and weaknesses. One of them, which unfortunately now hits the kids in the face once a day, is that their ownership in PBIS is very, very small. (Read: none.)

I try to counteract this by flipping the morning message on its head. If the theme is, “Use respectful language,” I ask the kids: “What language do adults use to respect you?” If it’s “Be prepared,” I ask: “What do prepared teachers look like to you?” And then I take notes visibly and think out loud about how to incorporate their feedback into the way things run in my class.

There’s an art to teaching kids how to talk productively in groups without overpowering or bullying them (or letting them do the same to each other) and I have spent many, many, many years figuring out the guidelines I have the kids use. Perhaps that’s next week’s post. What hit me in the face last week, though, was the kids’  unadulterated, consistent, pure message.

“We get yelled at all the time, every day.”

Tween hyperbole? Possibly. But even allowing for this, there clearly is something going on in our infrastructure that makes the kids genuinely feel this way. They are pounded, daily and without cease, with rules and expectations over which they have no control, and into which they have no input. There are no safe spaces at our school (recess? Universal independent study time? Functioning student government? Heck, a graffitti wall?) to offset this, not even the hallways, where students don’t even have time to go to the bathroom, much less have the “privilege” of checking their phones for thirty seconds.

And while clever superintendents ask for their schools to be turned into prisons, I might make the argument that we don’t have much further to go on that score. More kids spontaneously compare school to prison in our conversations than I am at all comfortable with.

I’ve blogged endlessly on the increasingly strong cross-cultural research of Deci and Ryan that human beings need three basics– connection, a sense of competence, and autonomy— in order to internalize healthy behaviors (which is supposed to be the whole damn point of school, is it not?), so the kids’ message isn’t exactly new.

But here’s the worst part for me, as a teacher who works actively to give kids these basics: in a system based on dictatorial control, when I must switch to a more authoritarian role, as in this morning’s fire drill, it unravels all my work.

Sure, the kids comply. Sure, they’re safe. But when we get back to the classroom, it takes me that much more reassurance, explanation, and care-taking to convince them that I’m not faking my interest in their autonomy. That I’m not just another hypocrite who’s making sure that

“We get yelled at all the time, every day.”

And I lose them. Sometimes for just a few minutes. Sometimes for days. And sometimes, as with my most jaded and sensitive kids, for good.

Faber and Mazlish suggest a small set of communicative rules for situations like this which dovetail nicely with Deci and Ryan’s research, and which I am trying to put into play whenever I have to put on the “mama bear hat” and engage my kids’ immediate cooperation. They go like this.

Give the child a chance to be helpful.

State your expectations clearly.

Show them how to make amends if needed.

Then give the child a choice.

Take action, if necessary.

Allow the child to experience natural consequences. (Note: lots of school consequences are not “natural.” Be careful with these.)

Later, problem solve in partnership with the child. Talk about your feelings together, brainstorm together, come up with a solution together.

I am still working on implementing these consistently.

But at least I can guarantee you that, no matter how small and silly they seem, they don’t happen in a prison.

6 thoughts on “Fire Drills in Prison

  1. “One of them, which unfortunately now hits the kids in the face once a day, is that their ownership in PBIS is very, very small. (Read: none.)”

    This was apparent to me on day one of the roll-out of this program. Sadly.

    Keep fighting the good fight and know that it matters.

  2. All good points. At an age when kids are asking for and capbale of autonomy and at least some shared control of their outcomes, we actually seem to pull in the reins, and its no wonder most middle and high school aged students are dis-enamored with school.

    Curiously, we seem to get them all prepared in many elementary classrooms to be autonomous and intrinsically motivated beings, and then somehow consider it wise to turn classrooms back in to rigid, teacher-centered places somewhere around 6-7th grade?

    Me smells a standardized test driven bastardization…

  3. OK. I love this post dearly. I love the love for 7th graders. I love the love for students. Well done.

    I teach math at the college level. I have an ongoing debate with my colleagues about certain features of our developmental math courses, which are housed in and collectively referred to as “The Math Center”.

    Here’s how that debate goes:
    Colleague: Students complain about being on their own in the Math Center, but they don’t use all of the many resources that are there to support them.
    Me: But they kind of *are* all on their own.
    Colleague: That’s a myth. There’s a schedule, there are tutors, office hours, videos, etc. etc. etc.
    Me: But if such a large majority of them perceive that they are on their own, shouldn’t we take that as feedback? At what point does their perception of reality trump ours?
    Colleague: But they’re not on their own.

    And on and on.

    So it is refreshing to read about how you listen to students and about how incorporate their perceptions of the school experience into your attempts to reconstruct the reality of that experience for them and for you.

    Lovely stuff. Thanks.

  4. Thank you, Joe, John, and Christopher. I appreciate your kind support here.

    My own experience of school as a Catholic private student was steeped in authoritarianism, and while I’ve had some success in redirecting that impulse in myself, this remains a top professional priority for me. The realization was key that even the tiniest amount, even justified, is magnified by the kids’ relentless experience of powerlessness.

  5. A little late to be commenting on this, but its timely for me.

    As a new teacher I have found myself struggling profoundly with what I perceive to be these exact issues (a class full of seniors, 95% black, who say they are going to college, yet none of them scored more than two correct out of seven linear graphing questions on my course pre-test, just to give one example). If not for having a day off today, I do not know when I would have discovered that I have been following the path of those whose ideals I do not share. I am thankful you still have it available and thankful to Dan Meyer for leading me to you. I think I know how to get back on my path….

    Now all I need is a little moisture in my lessons that will make me more of a teacher and less of a baby sitter.

  6. Keep talking, Tom. No question is stupid, we tell our kids, and no comment is too late. 🙂 Tell me what you think you might do. I’m a big fan of small, actionable steps with measurable results– dreamy idealist me learned that the hard way.

    I owe Dan big time–a digital friend and supporter since 2007.

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