It's been a busy few weeks in a lot of ways, but despite all the busyness, there is one thing that I just can't get out of my mind.
In law enforcement there's a theory called broken windows. It posits that if you have a house on a street that has a broken window, and you don't fix it, it signals that the neighborhood is in decline and therefore encourages an increase in crime. Suddenly the house has NO windows. And graffiti. And then good people move out and unsavory elements move in. In practice it's the idea that enforcing the small laws- litter, vandalism, drinking in public, can prevent crimes from escalating and potentially losing neighborhoods.
When there are issues in schools or on campuses, a lot of times people look back in hindsight and say this could have been caught here. Or here. If we had only intervened here. Or professor so and so and this other professor KNEW there was something wrong but they weren't willing to file the report, talk to the dean of students, take action. Now, it's easy to judge once all the facts are revealed. But it makes me think of broken windows. I think in a lot of ways the last two decades of fear of litigation have hurt us here. I think in a lot of ways we've become afraid to act for fear of litigation. Unfortunately, the consequences of things going wrong are severe.
School related shootings are a large percentage of mass shootings.
As the conversation about campus carry comes to the forefront in the news it's hard not to think about the consequences of this. Back in September a professor was killed in his office at Delta State University. Then, and now, the conversations center around what this means for those of us who teach. Do professors become afraid to hold office hours? Give poor grades? Meet with students unattended? Does a lack of consequences on small things encourage behavior to escalate?
These are all big issues and big questions and there's no easy answer. I'm not getting into an argument about how terrifying I think guns in a classroom are. Or how I worry about how this affects class and campus culture.
But it does get me thinking about related issues and how broken windows takes place in education. We often police the small things because we can't control the big things.
I can't control that my students are working and taking 21 credits. Or have families to take care of. Or can't afford books. Or don't have wifi at home. Or a computer. I can't fix gender disparity or socio-economic issues.
So class culture becomes focused on cellphones, laptops, how to take notes in class.
Just like in the police version though, it's easy for the good intentions to go awry. Broken windows has been criticized in that it disproportionately targets lower class and minority neighborhoods. That it is used as an excuse for harassment and racist behaviors. And this is all true. It's in the execution.
But I know in my neighborhood when gang tags appeared over Christmas break in the local park, most likely kids on school break who were bored, I immediately used 311 to report it. And it was gone the next day. And it hasn't returned. These things matter. And when properly used, broken windows works.
And it works in the classroom. But it can also be abused in the classroom.
I get it, these things are manageable. And I think it starts from a good place- the day to day behaviors, how to participate in meetings, how to discuss difficult things, how to learn to agree to disagree, these are valuable skills. We develop routines for teaching these behaviors, modeling. Then the routines at some point stop being about teaching skills like listening, how to deal with technology, and deal with peers and superiors. Instead it becomes a list of ironclad rules. We forget the purpose and focus on the action. Not only that, but most good teachers will tell you that anything ironclad, that doesn't flex and change to best serve your students is not good teaching.
I've written before about how radically my teaching and classroom changed when I stopped policing things. But there are still things I struggle with that I don't know what to do with. When a student questions my right to assign an assignment, or questions the pedagogical design. Part of me wonders if they would walk up to a male professor at the end of class and tell them they don't have the right to assign something. But I also still struggle with spending 90% of my time on one student, or two, or three. In a class of sixty I can guarantee that most of the time rather than thinking of great extra resources for my 57 students I'm thinking of the three that treat me badly.
I have to remind myself every semester that while it's good that I reflect on these issues, the stress of it is not good. Nor is the inclination to redesign things for a single complaint.
There aren't easy answers to these questions. I know I've heard people bemoan "kids these days."Which always makes me think of this:
I don't believe students are better or worse than they were ten years ago or twenty or thirty. I do think that there have been cultural shifts that have resulted in changes. I think that fear of reprisals has influenced how we react to certain things, which in turn has resulted in not correcting the smaller behaviors, which leads to problems with larger ones. But I also believe that every semester we also have a chance to influence OUR class culture. If enough of us do it. If our campuses do it, then it all can change.
But I don't think it's just the culture at large that has changed. I also think that a focus in classrooms on policing rather than teaching, on rules rather than students, has also hurt us. A few weeks ago there was a conversation on Twitter about Best Practices. That rather than being a set of things that have worked for teachers, a sharing of ideas, the concept of this worked for me, it might work for you, they've instead become a checklist. If you only do this then your classroom will work, your students will succeed. And it doesn't work that way. Too many things influence our classrooms.
I do think that sharing our ideas, approaches, and how we deal with things helps. Collectively problem solving helps.
But we have to remember that teaching is not one size fits all. We have to base our decisions on what best serves our students, our schools, our communities. And we need to talk to our students. We need to not just have these conversations with colleagues and administrators but the students we teach. It's their class, their culture, and they should know that they have a voice, and an obligation to a certain extent.
In the movie Dangerous Minds there's a scene where a student goes to the principal to seek help, is turned away, and as a consequence dies.
Louanne Johnson You... What do you mean?
Mr. George Grandey I mean I sent him away.
Louanne Johnson Why?
Mr. George Grandey Because he didn't knock, Miss Johnson.
Louanne Johnson Y Here we are. - Because he didn't knock?
Mr. George Grandey Yes, Miss Johnson. I'm trying to teach these children how to live in the world.
Yes, learning the day to day "learn how to live in the world" lessons are valuable. But not at the expense of other things. And I don't think it's an either or. You can correct a behavior in a way that doesn't shame a student or deny them of further help or cause them to shut down. Students are smart. They know and pick up on how we feel. And if
policing is the focus in our classrooms, I can understand why students
check out on the content.
The majority of students are good students. They want to learn, they want to be there. They want help. If they have an off day and snap, or get frustrated, most will change their behavior if it's pointed out to them. They're still learning.
But we also need support at the institutional level for the 1% that are a real issue, a real problem, a real concern. I'm not just talking about consequences and punishment but help. It needs to be clear in our classrooms and on our campuses that you cannot harass people. That you cannot treat professors like crap. Of course students should have recourse to deal with professors abusing authority. But more and more too I think that we need to also have policies in place that protect professors. And the TAs and adjuncts who more and more are the ones most likely to encounter these troubling situations. Campuses need to make sure that they are protecting the most vulnerable.
Campuses need to have clear guidelines and consequences for treating professors with disrespect. There need to be protections for ALL professors (tenures, lecturers, adjuncts, TAs) against harassment, or threat of harm. No one entering a classroom to teach should be afraid- of what students will do, of things they can't teach for fear of reactions. At the very least teachers should not be afraid to enter their classrooms.
With that hindsight- if students who need mental health help get it, if professors can report it, provide resources, if professors are also then protected from dangerous students, if these things are reported (Clery stats be damned) then our campuses would be safer. Our students would be safer. We would be safer and our lives would be better. Campuses should stop worrying about how bad their crime stats look and start focusing more on how their campuses got that way and how to make them better.
Last week I was talking with someone who thought the Clery Act was only for reporting sexual assault stats. It does not.
The Jeanne Clery Act, a
consumer protection law passed in 1990, requires all colleges and
universities who receive federal funding to share information about
crime on campus and their efforts to improve campus safety as well as
inform the public of crime in or around campus.
There are ways to improve our campuses, our communities, and better serve our students.
But we have to be willing to speak up. We have to file reports. We have to follow through. We cannot afford to not be bothered. Our lives and the lives of our students depends on it.