Frank and Me

Sinai Elementary School, Halifax

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Several commentators on this blog have frequently taken issue with the approach of the Virginia Dept. of Education’s (VDOE) Code of Student Conduct and its emphasis on avoiding suspensions. They often quote passages from that document without specifying what is wrong with them. Presumably, the wrongheadedness of the approach should be apparent to all.

The latest such criticism was in a recent article by Jim Sherlock. He complained particularly that recent guides and documents on the subject of student conduct issued by VDOE did not refer to the “evidence-based techniques offered by the federal study Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.” However, after perusing that document, it seems to me that the recommendations put forth in the report are largely compatible with the approaches recommended by VDOE. For example, here are two recommendations of the report:

  1. We recommend that teachers carefully observe the conditions in which the problem behavior is likely to occur and not occur. Teachers then can use that information to tailor effective and efficient intervention strategies that respond to the needs of the individual student within the classroom context.
  2. We recommend that teachers actively teach students socially- and behaviorally-appropriate skills to replace problem behaviors using strategies focused on both individual students and the whole classroom.

Compare those recommendations with the VDOE language quoted by Mr. Sherlock:

Developing positive relationships with students that are built on mutual trust and respect have been shown to demonstrate some of the highest positive effects on student achievement and behavior. Developing relationships requires ‘specific skills of the teacher such as the skills of listening, empathy, caring and having a positive regard for others.’

The two documents seem to be on the same wavelength. By the way, nowhere in the federal report could I find even a mention of suspension from school.

Virginia is not an outlier in its effort to avoid school suspensions. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, Dallas, Texas, (hardly a “woke” city) schools used to suspend misbehaving students. Now, those students are sent to “reset centers,” where they talk with counselors about the misbehavior that led to their disciplinary problems. Elementary schools in the city start the day with a 45-minute social-emotional learning session.

My only foray into teaching at the K-12 level taught me a lesson about looking beyond a student’s misbehavior to try to determine its cause. It was a long time ago, the summer after I graduated from college, when I was waiting to go off to basic training. I got a job in my home county of Halifax, teaching in a special summer “enrichment” program for elementary school students. I don’t remember anything about what we went over in class, how many students I had, or any of the students themselves. That is, with one exception. I remember Frank.

Frank was about 7 or 8 years old. It was hard not to like him.  He was bright, funny, and could be charming. He could also be infuriating. He often talked out in class, was “sassy,” and often would not do what he was told. In short, he was not mean, but he often went out of his way to defy my authority.  I was flabbergasted. I had never encountered a child defying an adult this way. I did not know how to handle him. At times, I felt like smacking him, but I was able to control myself. It was not until near the end of the program that I learned that Frank’s father had left the family. The kid was acting out in class in order to get attention from one of the few male adults in his life. If I had had the training on getting beyond his misbehavior to what was troubling him, we both could have had a better experience. As it was, I do remember our parting on good terms.