The No. 1 reason teachers are fired for performance-based issues is that they can’t control their students. That’s the voice of longtime experience from Gayle Fallon, the retired head of the Houston Federation of Teachers union who has sat in on countless dismissal proceedings involving teachers in the Houston ISD.
“In performance-based cases, it almost always was the inability to maintain order in the classroom,” she says. Yet the one thing that colleges don’t teach their education majors, she says, is how to handle kids who aren’t doing what the teacher wants them to do.
“You gotta remember, you're the adult and you don't have the luxury of losing your temper. You lose your temper, you lose control and you do things you regret and you lose your career,” she says.
We just had what appears to be a perfect example of that here in HISD.
On April 22, Errick D. Waters, a 37-year-old HISD middle school science teacher whose only apparent previous run-in with the law was a speeding ticket back in 1999, became upset when a 13-year-old student at Edison Middle School walked to the front of the classroom to throw away his breakfast trash and did not sit down when Waters told him to do so.
Maybe it was just one more thing on the last day of a long week. Maybe Waters had told his class over and over again that as soon as possible after in-school breakfast, they needed to get on their work, and he was tired of repeating himself. We don’t know the backstory, whether there was a history of tension between teacher and student; we just know the broad outlines – according to students.
We also don’t know if the student did anything really wrong or meant to do anything wrong; according to the investigator’s report, the 13-year-old speaks and understands limited English. But even if he was being the biggest jerk on the planet, the reported actions of the teacher that followed can’t be condoned.
In short order, Waters allegedly grabbed the student, shoved him and choked the kid to where he could not breathe. According to the charging papers filed with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the young teen was able get free, but then Waters pushed him to the floor and pinned him with his knee. Another student hit the emergency button in the room, but when the office responded, Waters assured the caller that everything was fine.
Waters then reportedly shook his fist at the student’s face, telling him, “You’re lucky I didn’t rip up your face!” But things still weren’t over. The teacher threw the student to the floor again, then made him clean up the room and in a final moment of pique, stomped on his foot, saying: “This is your fault.”
Again, this is all based upon statements from students and the injured teen – who later in the day made his way to the principal’s office, initiating a subsequent investigation by the school’s principal, Armando Lujan, and HISD police officer David Saucier. Saucier found the students’ statements and the red marks on the kid’s neck and the bruise on his left knee believable and compelling enough to take the case to the DA’s office.
And HISD sent Waters home, saying Waters was immediately reassigned out of the classroom after the incident was reported.
To say this is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence would be comforting and wrong. Check out the video of the Beaumont ISD teacher as reported by KHOU-TV just a few weeks ago repeatedly slapping a student and then making fun of him, including calling him an “idiot ass.” Granted, the student – who comes up smiling – and the class seem to be taking it in good humor, but this happy sentiment was not shared by the school district, which placed teacher Mary Hastings on administrative leave. Hastings was subsequently arrested on an assault charge.
Complicating the issue of student-teacher physical interaction is an addition to the state Penal Code Section 9.62 (written in while Rick Perry was governor) that allows teachers to use force, but not deadly force, “when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is necessary to further the special purpose or to maintain discipline in a group.” Designed primarily to allow teachers to break up a fight at school or to protect themselves if they’re feeling threatened, the provision provides that teachers can do this without fear of being disciplined.
Although as described in this case, it’s difficult to see how Waters might have been feeling threatened and it seems that the only fight was one that he started. We tried to reach him to find out his side of the story, but were unsuccessful in finding a phone number for him or any other way to contact him.
Fallon, while not speaking specifically about the Waters case, says teachers need help learning how to negotiate students in the classroom. Alone in a room with 25 to 30 kids, probationary teachers often don’t know what to do – while some other teachers never learn.
“First of all, never raise your voice. If you yell at a kid, you just lost,” says Fallon. In fact, Fallon is a big supporter of the Houston-based TEACH (To Educate All Children) nonprofit program that works with teachers on just these issues at a limited number of schools in HISD.
“We help teachers create safe, calm classroom environments,” says program executive director Kelly Krohn. “We give them a lot of skills in de-escalation, in conflict resolution and then just general classroom management. Classroom management is everything you do to manage the behavior before it has a chance to escalate. Discipline is what you do once it's already out of control,”
On the TEACH website, it says that 93 percent of the teachers who go through its program “find that TEACH strategies help them more easily manage small student incidents without escalating them into major disciplinary problems.”
Right now, TEACH is in seven HISD schools and hopes to expand to ten. In operation for the past ten years, the program, complete with teacher hotline, was going to start charging for its services, but in the wake of the expected $107 million shortfall in HISD funding, decided to put that off, Krohn says.
“Most of the time, classroom management isn't something that's taught at the university level, unfortunately,” says Krohn, “It's just that really practical piece. I think it's a myth that teachers seem to think it’s just created through experience. Actually, you can strategically practice it with the right information. It’s not something that has to be learned through sink-or-swim situations.”
The course advises teachers not to take the things a student does personally and encourages them to try to find something to like about the child, without liking or accepting his behavior, Krohn says.
“We teach a lot of strategies in breathing and how to breathe through some of these situations and how exhales help relax us,” Krohn says. “Another thing is we provide coaches. Each teacher gets a chance to practice their skills at their own pace and in their own classroom with one of our coaches. A lot of times, having someone come into your classroom who is not there to evaluate you can be really helpful.”
“It teaches them nonverbal communication, or what we used to call ‘the teacher look,’” Fallon says. “It teaches them not to give either positive or negative reinforcement for bad behavior. The schools we put it in, it changed the whole culture. The teachers were politer to each other, they didn’t get rattled by anything the kids did, the kids were polite, and even the administration was polite.”
But, Fallon said, this isn’t a quick process. “It usually takes about three years.” And, she said, it can disappear quickly if there’s too much turnover and the gains and knowledge are lost.
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The 2015-16 school year is coming to a close, and as anyone knows, whether it’s a game or academics, the final minutes are as often peppered with mistakes and blunders as with anything else. Focus, don’t let up, don’t screw up.
“As the end of the school year comes, it's a little more dangerous time. Everyone's a little on edge,” Fallon says. “The behavior of the student goes down and so is the tolerance of the teachers. It's a bad combination.”
Final advice from Fallon: “If you are that angry, step outside the room. Get someone to cover for you. You can't deal with a kid in anger. You will end up in more trouble than the child.”
And then, no matter what other good you’ve done, that’s how you’ll be remembered.