Monday, September 3, 2012

Expectations vs Reality

A little over a week ago I attended a White Sox game (actually, a Red Line Double-Header: Cubs @ Wrigley in the afternoon, then a Red Line ride down to The Cell for White Sox ball in the evening - awesome, but beside the point). During the top of the third inning, catcher A.J. Pierzynski was ejected, upon which he immediately swung around, pushed up the mask and was in the official's face.

photo from

Naturally at that point Ventura had to come out of the dugout, and was then ejected himself.

photo from

And of course throughout the ordeal the entire stadium was whoopin' and hollerin', cheering Pierzynski and Ventura on. Flowers came in to catch, the Sox won, there were fireworks after, and yet for most people the most memorable part of the game was the altercation in the third inning.

Put this into the context of a middle school or a high school.

1. Student A is upset by something that Student B says. Student A then immediately begins yelling in Student B's face (and as we all know, we're very lucky if it's just yelling).

Staff Reaction: try to break up altercation using whatever procedures/policies school has in place.

2. Crowd of Students gather round and start whoopin' and hollerin'.

Staff Reaction: try to disperse crowd while still trying to break up altercation.

3. Student C jumps in the fray to back up Student A.

Staff Reaction: try to keep Student C out of it while still trying to disperse crowd while still trying to break up altercation.

4. Crowd of Students becomes even more excited and animated.

Staff Reaction: try to get all three main parties disengaged while trying to disperse crowd.

5. Students A, B, and C are finally pulled apart and taken to separate offices for de-escalation and consequences, crowd is dispersed, and for the rest of the afternoon teachers have difficulty beginning each class because the students are still reliving, recounting, and reanalyzing the scene from earlier.

Staff Reaction: vetoing the conversation, lecturing the students on their Jerry Springer-ish voyeurism, using the opportunity as a springboard to discuss good choices and the consequences of actions, etc, etc.

Administrator Reaction: rehashing with the staff policies and procedures for breaking up hallway disturbances, reiterating the importance of staying on top of the students at all times and not allowing such things to occur in the first place, reminding of the importance of being at your hallway post during passing periods, etc, etc.

Staff Reaction to Administrator: nodding, doodling, thinking about what to make for dinner, annoyance that only a couple of staff members weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing at the time of the incident yet everyone is getting lectured, etc, etc (you know it's true).

I'm not suggesting that fights should not be broken up, crowds not dispersed, procedures not reviewed and so on. All of these actions are necessary to ensure the return of stability so that the school day can continue, learning can continue, and lack of injuries among the student (and staff) body can continue. 

I am suggesting that we are fighting ingrained human nature. If a manager screams at an official, if two hockey players drop their gloves, if two ball players exchange blows, then the crowds are going to go nuts, the benches are going to empty, and everyone is going to jump into the fray. It's the same thing in schools. If someone feels disrespected, they are going to let go on the person who they feel disrespected them, then their friends are going to jump in to back up their boy/gal, the crowd will go wild, and it will be the talk of the school for hours. It doesn't matter how many lessons on conflict resolution and communication you work into the curriculum, how many "Expectations" posters you hang, how many PBIS Cool Tools you implement, this is how things are going to go down. Yet every time an incident goes down in this fashion (and it always goes down in this fashion), we debrief and analyze how things could have been handled differently to avoid the same results. And then the next time it goes down the same way. Is there an answer? Is it reasonable to expect 12, 13...17, 18 year olds to have the presence of mind to reject inner impulses and act responsibly in the heat of the moment when surrounded by dozens to hundreds of people who have just witnessed their defamation? And is it reasonable to expect these kids to handle the situation in that responsible manner when they have never witnessed the adults in their lives reject those inner impulses?

It seems unrealistic to me, but I see no other way to manage a school than to set the expectation that students walk away from altercations, that they stay out of it when their friends get into one, and that they continue walking by rather than stopping to take in the show. I will present the lessons on conflict resolution, on good decision-making, on the consequences of actions. I will de-escalate the excitement of students who come into my classroom after witnessing such an event. But inside, I know the same scene will repeat itself over and over again throughout the school year, with the same progression and same results. 

Anyone have any thoughts regarding our expectations versus students' reality?


  1. Hmm, this is an interesting analogy. I agree that we are fighting human nature and that posting and reiterating behavioral expectations within the school and berating teachers for mishandling or not handling the conflict will never eliminate physical altercations, which are inevitable. The insane part is the repeat offenders. Some humans, regardless of age, have tremendous difficulty with impulse control and learning from consequences. In the adult world, within a professional or legal context, individuals who repeatedly engage in fights not just booted from the game or suspended from school, but escorted away FOREVER. Because serious actions have serious consequences. In the realm of public school, ineffective consequences are repeatedly doled out while a handful of individuals hijack the security and productivity of others, who might only once or twice (throughout the course of their lives) become involved in a serious fight. That said,I appreciate sincerely the candid acknowledgment that these events are naturally going to occur, bystanders will be bystanders, and showing students a clip on bullying from ABC's 'What Would You Do' will not, however idealistic you want to be, eliminate these very human instincts. But let's eject those repeat offenders from the game. For good.

  2. Thanks for the response! I had to laugh out loud when you mentioned the bullying clip from "What Would You Do" - that is exactly the kind of thing that administrators coming back from one of those 'all the answers to universe' conferences would have teachers do. And expect significant and lasting results from. Not just results, not just temporary results, but significant, lasting results.
    I also have to agree with your assessment of the ineffective consequences applied in these situations. The ones who are repeatedly in these situations know exactly what will happen - they'll get a nice long vacation at home and then teachers will legally have to make every effort to get them caught up in class, once again at the expense of the students who didn't get in trouble - so they get involved in the same situation over and over. Then when they get their first (second, third, etc) jobs and can't cut it they blame their employers for intolerance rather than realizing that that's not how things work when you're out on your own. I agree, there should be real consequences for real offenses.
    And I know there will be the people who protest that they are just children and that their ability to foresee consequences is still developing along with their frontal lobes and... yeah, but fully developed frontal lobes or not you know it's not okay to wait around the corner and then jump the girl who dared to talk to your boyfriend in the lunchroom when she walks by.
    And then of course that girl is going to fight back, and her friends are going to jump in, and the crowd will gather, and the hallway will resemble a scene from "Gladiator" (or a baseball game) once again....