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Case study: a New York school

The image of New York City public schools is one of violence, metal detectors and unruly, streetwise kids. But I never fear for my safety at the School of the Future in lower Manhattan, and I am rarely exhausted by disruptive student behaviour. The school's atmosphere creates trust and makes students feel comfortable - they are, therefore, less likely to "act out" against it. The administration supports its teachers and helps us deal with behavioural issues, and each teacher strives to establish similar behavioural norms and make every lesson engaging and relevant.

We have 550 students in grades 6 to 12 (middle and high school, ages 11-18) and 50 teachers. Founded in 1990, the school emphasises teaching children to be lifelong learners and to work collaboratively. No class has more than 25 students and, although it is a public school, students have to apply to enrol. They hail from all five of New York's boroughs and are diverse racially, ethnically, economically, and in ability levels. I have taught seventh and eighth grade here for the past two years.

The small number on roll and small class sizes mean that behaviour issues are not as prevalent as in other high schools. Students know one another and their teachers well. We generally teach the same students for two-year cycles, so foster deep relationships and quickly notice and handle any changes in a student's behaviour or disposition. Things rarely get to the stage where pupil aggression is taken out forcefully inside the school.

This sense of community, however, could not exist without the support and vision of a strong administration. Our vice-principal has created a "community expectationsbehaviour policy", which each student and parent must read and sign at the start of the school year. This sheet sets the tone for the year and outlines behaviour expectations, policies for absences and lateness, dress code, and types of punishments. The policy emphasises that students must take part in enforcing behaviour and that they are "expected to report all conflicts or vandalism to a teacher or the vice-principal as soon as possible; hurtful acts such as name-calling, using profanity, touching others inappropriately, rough-housing, or violence of any kind will not be tolerated". Punishments are given "depending on the incident".

All the students and staff take the policy seriously and, perhaps most importantly, our administration can always be counted on to support us and intervene when students are seriously disrupting learning. Teachers in each grade level meet with the vice-principal weekly to discuss any student who is behaving badly, and she tells us about any negative behaviour she has had to deal with outside the classroom. This gives us all a broad picture of what is going on with the kids we teach.

Establishing behavioural norms in our classrooms and designing lessons and curriculum that are engaging and relevant help us keep behaviour in check. Mentors also observe and meet each of us - including senior staff - at least once a week to tackle whatever issues we are having, from problem students to finding teaching materials, to time management. I find this relationship essential as it allows me to troubleshoot any problems particular to my class and me, and so create ways to deal with and eliminate disruptive behaviour. When I first started working at the school, I would ask my mentor questions such as: "How can I get Josh to stay in his seat and stop making squawking noises during class?" We would then discuss specific strategies for tackling his disruptive behaviour.

She also emphasises that bad behaviour is often the result of lessons and curriculum that do not engage students. At first, her mantra drove me crazy because I felt it was unrealistic, given all the different sorts of baggage that come with each student and the demands of a curriculum that is largely prescribed by the state of New York (in the United States, each state dictates what is taught when). Eventually, I realised that I could cover the topics that the state mandates with more success by covering events thematically rather than individually. Fortunately, my school allows me to use the state-sanctioned curriculum more as a guideline than a dictum, because our philosophy is that students should learn a few topics deeply rather than many superficially.

While it is true that not all bad behaviour can be eliminated solely through lesson content, now that I am sure that each lesson I teach is leading toward greater purpose and understanding, I feel more confident about my teaching. My students respond to this and are, as a result, better behaved. However, sometimes I feel behaviour is managed in too "touchy-feely" a manner at my school and we give the student the benefit of the doubt too often. Sometimes figuring out which student deserves what punishment drags out endlessly, with students, parents, teachers and administrators talking in circles. We can end up talking for hours about which problem students deserve to go on a field trip and which do not.

But on the whole our behaviour code works because students and teachers genuinely want to be at the school. They also have confidence that they will be treated as intelligent human beings. Schools like ours are able to overcome the problems of fragmented families and poverty because of the "safe" atmosphere that has been created within our four walls.

Justine Bonner teaches humanities to seventh-graders at the School of the Future, a small middle and high school in Manhattan

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