Why are our schools at war with the students?

A series of necessary steps that we can take collectively, individually to improve our education system, starting with our children.

Students Warwick U 311 (photo credit: .)
Students Warwick U 311
(photo credit: .)
It’s that time of year again. Students in my education classes, as well as throughout Israel, are applying for teaching jobs. They are confused because most of them want to teach out of love of children. We know it’s not for the money because there isn’t any.
But when they apply for jobs, they are told, in a variety of ways, that children are the enemy. In many schools in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, they are warned that they are not allowed to be nice. Even experienced teachers have been threatened with being fired or removed for being too nice. Have you ever said after a doctor’s visit. “What a terrible doctor. He was so nice. I will never return?” Have you refused to shop in a store with nice sales personal or refused to tip a nice cab driver?
It’s more than simply a problem with false opposites. Some might say the opposite of nice is hard-nosed or tough. It’s a problem with faulty attitude and ignorance of the way children learn. The actual opposite of nice is mean. Do we really want students to learn how to behave by exposing them to mean role models throughout the day?
What can Israel afford least; a student who is poor at algebra or speaking English, or a student who solves social problems by being mean? Being hard-nosed is great for fighting wars. Do we really want to be at war with our children?
The fact is that a nice teacher can be fabulous or incompetent. We have all had some of each. The same is true of hard-nosed teachers. Nice or not nice is irrelevant. What matters is effectiveness.
IT GETS worse.
When teachers try to implement state of the art, effective, behavior-centered solutions that are highly successful the world over, even in hard-nosed places like Singapore, they continually hear, “That won’t work in Israel.”
This attitude is both demeaning and dangerous. Educators who believe this rubbish think that Israeli students are inferior and unable to solve problems as intelligently and with the same level of responsibility as other students throughout the world. Effective educators should believe that our students are among the best, not the worst. Moreover, this attitude is degrading to teachers, implying they do not have the skill or ability to reclaim students at risk.
Punishments satiate, meaning the more they are used to correct behavior, the more stringent they must become. For example, if a student receives a one-day suspension, after a short time, it no longer becomes a deterrent. If it is increased to three days to really teach the child a lesson, soon that no longer works as the child becomes used to it.
Most children who create problems every day are not convinced that there is a better way by increasing the amount of misery given to them. With these students, every decision becomes a power struggle as the child tries to prove he cannot be controlled and the school digs in and decides that being nice doesn’t work. Poor techniques lead to poor decisions and irresponsible policies. And around and around we go.
The problem is magnified because most students are good children, but by being treated this way, the good ones harden and act more like the minority of children who need special treatment. It is time to apply common sense to schools:
1. Discipline is a major part of the job. It teaches responsible decision-making and responsibility. We must do it in a way that is optimistic, breeds hope and refuses to give up, even on our most difficult students.
2. Relationships work better than force, especially in Israel.
3. Students learn more from teachers who care about them.
4. Being a good and tough teacher means having high expectations, knowing how to effectively express these expectations and understanding what to do to stop inappropriate behavior in a dignified way when students say or do things that make the teacher angry.
WHAT CAN we do to stop this war?
Here are a series of necessary steps that we can take collectively and individually to improve our education system, starting with our own children.
Demand that your child is never (or rarely) humiliated, punished or reprimanded publicly. Names should never be written on the board for any reason. It has been proved time and time again that not only does public discipline reduce learning, but the fear of it, whether it happens or not, also decreases a student’s desire to learn.
Demand that educators take the time to build solid relationships built on trust with your child. Most do already. Save the carrot and stick for donkeys. The children who are most hurtful are the ones who are most hurt. We need to reach them before they become dangerous adults.
When letters are sent home, it is as silly to expect the parent to solve a school problem as it is for a teacher to solve a home issue. Parents and teachers need to work together, without blame or finger pointing, for the good of the child. Become a working team, not adversaries.
Suspension should be an absolute last resort. Ask what other, more positive steps were taken before accepting a suspension for your child. I know of at least 25 better consequences to try first. Refuse to accept a suspension without knowing all of the steps previously taken and their results. No child under 7th grade should be sent home without an adult present all day. Children cannot learn at home, nor feel welcome in school when removed. They fall further behind which leads to increased behavior problems. It might be true that troubled youth may cause problems for the “good kids,” but suspending them doesn’t remove them from our lives. It only makes them more dangerous and expensive to society with less chance of reclaiming them as they age. Schools have no influence on students who are not there.
Make regular schools more like alternative schools. Alternative school settings are often very helpful, and for some students a welcome relief. Using them is not the same as suspending troubled youth. They work, not because the student was suspended from regular school but because they use a different model than the silly carrot and stick approach of regular school. They focus on relations, trust and hope.
Dramatically increase the pay for educators. We put our most valuable assets in their hands, both our loved ones and our future. We absolutely cannot ask for excellence and pay them like baby sitters. Then we have the right to demand changes in how they control their schools and classes.
THE OLD definition of toughness comes from a failed European vision from a distant generation. Like an addiction, once in, it is hard to get out. But get out we must, for the good of our country and the good of our children.

The writer is a professor of education at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and the author of 20 books on issues related to behavior, discipline and motivation.