I remember when I first started teaching, I would hear adults in the building constantly tell kids to “Stop playing.” I found that phrase heartbreaking. Kids are supposed to play; that’s part of childhood! I know that our teachers and admin were referring to horseplay, but as a younger, maybe more naive, English teacher, I wasn’t ready for the word “play” to have those negative associations for children. Now, years later, I have to keep myself from correcting students in the exact same way.
Teachers see it every day, especially at all-boys schools like the past two schools I’ve worked at. Kids might start off with an arm around each other in the hallway, then it devolves into a sort of joking quasi-wrestle, and then someone will go too far and a student will turn angry in a flash. A tense moment happens. Sometimes one boy will grab another’s tie or collar. I move in between them and he’ll let go and say “I’m just playing.” Sometimes they immediately start smiling and laughing afterwards. Other times they stay serious. You never can tell, and that’s a problem. Teachers sometimes see versions of these exchanges a dozen times a day as kids navigate their friendships and relationships. The vast majority of the time, it is friendly greetings and warm embraces. But the rough-housing happens enough that you will hear adults ban any kind of “playing” or “touching” or anything that could lead to trouble down the line. One school I worked at even wrote referrals for horseplay, which could result in in-school suspension. A consequence that comes from the fear of a lack of control – because there’s just not enough staff to tell down the hall if things could escalate in a split second.
We know policies like this are bad for students, especially boys, who crave love, affection, and intimacy, like everyone on this planet, and seem to only know how to get human contact by putting their fellow classmates in a faux headlock between classes. Zero-tolerance policies happen because schools are skeleton crews that are too understaffed to handle all of the myriads of issues that students face. And so, just like the line between playing and horseplaying, school staff are hard-pressed to decipher the contours between conflict, bullying, and fighting — except we know in these cases the consequences can be more dangerous.
Any building that houses so many young people in close proximity will naturally have conflict. And some teachers do take a sort of zero-tolerance policy towards conflict in their classroom — which mostly means a refusal to hear out any conflict in their presence. But conflict will find a way regardless, in a less supervised hallway or bathroom, in a substitute teachers’ room, or over Snapchat or Tiktok. They are frequent, sometimes petty or small-seeming, but every single one brought to an adult requires a judgment call. Do we mediate? Quickly, in this hallway? At length, with a counselor? Does this need parental or assistant principal intervention? Or are both students saying they’re okay now and we let it go to keep from creating a bigger situation from nothing?
I wish I could say that I’ve always gotten these judgment calls right. They are the sort of thing that has kept me up at night. Rarely are situations ever cut-and-dry and typically with students, there are hurt feelings on all sides. Sometimes they just want to be heard, but other times they need action and feel like it isn’t being taken. Sometimes, it feels like a clear-cut case of bullying that you try to mediate with a counselor and it doesn’t seem to get better after mediation. Sometimes it’s clear that one student really needs additional mental health support, but cannot get it for some bureaucratic reason or another.
Sometimes you bring the issue to the security guard, assistant principal, principal, whomever, to prevent a fight and it’s ignored or minimized; you find out those students fought later that day. Sometimes you raise the issue positive that these students will fight and it turns out there really was no danger; they were just playing! Sometimes you raise the issue and those students are convinced not to fight at school and then they fight just far enough from the bus stop that it is no longer considered a JCPS problem anymore.
It always seems so obvious in hindsight. I will tell you the amount of guilt I feel even secondhand when someone says that a problem has been going on for weeks ignored. That means every time a student mentioned it or the problem reared its head, it seemed small enough at the time not to make us take notice. There are lots of reasons for that. Sometimes it is just because a bigger catastrophe was going on somewhere else. Sometimes the early warning signs just weren’t obvious enough. Teachers are often expected to make 20 judgment calls every 90 seconds. The vast majority might be benign, but it feels like a real weight is repeatedly put on the shoulders of school staff. When it feels like you have to rely on your intuition to predict when a student is nearing the brink, it doesn’t feel like you get to make mistakes. And that’s what keeps me up at night.
But what can we do other than lose sleep over it? Teachers and school staff are on the frontlines of these issues, but our schools are skeleton crews during the best of times. For years, we have begged for additional staffing for adequate supervision and to lower the student to teacher ratio, and it is high time we get the funding to cover those positions. We need more people who can provide mental health supports, supervise hallways, and generally give the love and attention that make for happy and healthy students. If there were more of us, each of our plates would be less full. Each of us could bear less of the cognitive load and deal with less decision fatigue too.
Of course, there are other ways to lessen the burden of teachers during this shortage so they can focus on their students. Undoubtedly if you know a career teacher, they have told you how things have changed over the past decade: a heightened focus on standardized testing and so-called accountability that has mostly translated into more meetings and more paperwork. All of this against the backdrop of incredibly traumatic times for this generation, including two of the deadliest school shootings of all time. Why wouldn’t we want to remove every other distraction and let teachers teach?