There was a recent conflict in New York City over the presumed overuse of emergency services by the school. Children are being removed by ambulance for behavioral problems with the city council claiming that the school is falling short in providing mental health services. Both sides miss the heart of the problem. Each time the school calls for outside help to control behavior, they weaken their authority. Each time schools focus on mental health needs rather than education, their area of expertise, they weaken their authority. There will always be some unruly children and that may be more true in city than suburban environments, but the key to behavioral control and good education lies in the culture that gets established in the school. It is the milieu of the school that matters, meaning that the school needs to have an authoritative and caring principal at the helm, teachers who are empowered to teach in the class, and students who believe that they are in a safe place and where learning is valued and what they are there to do. There are many factors that work against these dynamics and they are certainly a reality in crime ridden neighborhoods. Yet, the inner desires of human beings, the principals, the teachers, the parents, and the students themselves, to have a safe, positive and learning milieu is still universal regardless of how these individuals must adapt to the circumstances within which they live. It is not surprising that so many city parents are looking to charter schools and don't relate to philosophical discussions of how public school ought to be, or even whether those charter schools are showing statistical and documented advances in the educations they provide. Parents first want their children to be safe and secure. They then want their children to learn. If the charter school can provide safety, it will be hard to dissuade them from getting behind that movement. And safety does not come from powerlessly flailing and calling in outside troops to make it happen.
So let's look at the components of a positive milieu that will bring the culture that these children and their schools need. First, principals need to be in charge. Although they are certainly subject to performance review through their own chain of command, they do not need outside evaluators usurping their power to be personally responsible to evaluate, guide and train the teachers in their schools. Teachers need to be in charge of their classrooms. That means they need to have the freedom to use their own expertise to employ the curricula that is available for the children they teach and employ it is ways that do not force them to look over their shoulders at outside evaluators or standardized test scores that will have significant bearing on their evaluations and their careers. I don't have a major problem with tests. They may provide some useful information. But hinging careers on those tests and using them as the primary measure of educational success disempowers teachers and compromises their abilities to manage the things that go on in their classrooms.
Mental health treatment is not the purview of the school, but a matter for parents in consultation with their doctors, to address. Schools can certainly provide some student guidance services, but there is a limit to how much they can deal with mental health issues. What we need to do is to distinguish between true mental health problems that call for outside (not necessarily emergency) interventions, and behavioral problems that get fueled by the disempowerment of the teaching staff and the weakening of the positive peer milieu. And this brings us back to my favorite subject, which is homework.
Large numbers of behavioral problems are created by our overreliance on homework. By weighting homework as heavily as they do, teachers have given up large parts of their authority with their students in no less of a way than the do by dialing 911 to handle an in house behavioral problem. Let's look at teacher education and ask ourselves, what are teachers trained to do? They learn to teach. They learn classroom behavioral management techniques. They are not trained in homework-giving, and they are not trained in mental health. The more they spend time in class assigning homework, grading homework, and dealing with the problems of homework not done, the less time and energy they have to use the skills they truly have to both teach the children and establish the type of positive milieu that will aid them in managing the class.
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