Don’t prove me right.

Whenever I engage in debate on social media, I am prepared to encounter fallacious and emotive arguments. And yet, when the discussion turns to classroom behaviour or school suspensions and exclusions, people start making stuff up about me.

And this is not new. A year ago, I wrote a blog post about an academic who claimed in a tweet that I had argued that teachers should not have to follow laws they disagree with, a claim I consider to not only be false, but defamatory. I said I would remove the blog post if the tweet was deleted and a correction made, but it is still there today.

The recent examples are perhaps a little ironic. In this blog post, I wrote about an article in which a number of students discussed why they had been suspended or excluded from school. I made the reasonable point that this is just one perspective on the events that led up to the suspension or exclusion. The teachers in the schools involved may have a different perspective. This is not necessarily to accuse anyone of lying – people tend to put a spin on events that suits their narrative. They may make true statements but fail to mention elements that others think are critical. They may emphasise or downplay aspects of what happened.

Perhaps inevitably, I was criticised for not immediately and uncritically accepting these students’ stories. Apparently, my disbelief was due to my fear that the new strategy in New South Wales would reduce the number of students with a disability being suspended. Obviously, this is not true:

To teachers, the issue of the veracity of students’ versions of events is key. I doubt that there is anyone in the teaching profession who has not heard two very different versions of the same set of events from two different students. Teachers simply cannot operate on the principle that we uncritically accept everything every student tells us. And perhaps it is this that is missing from the advocate perspective – advocates only ever hear the one version of what happened at school.

In fact, one of my top pieces of advice for all parents – one I try to live by as a parent myself – is this: When your child comes home and describes something outrageous that happened at school, they may be right. However, when you contact the school about this, rather than starting from the premise that the story you have heard is a completely accurate and fair summary of the events, put that summary to the teacher you speak to and ask, “Is this right?” Sometimes, things are a little more complex than they first appear.

Somehow, this argument – which I assume that my readers will have no difficulty in comprehending – became translated into me claiming that ‘schools are not transparent and cover up or lie about issues’ – something I never said:

I don’t understand the need to do this. If you disagree with me, there are plenty of arguments I have actually made that you can take issue with. Making stuff up is an eccentric approach to take in a discussion about the veracity of different versions of events.

In addition to all this kind of stuff, one person replied to my blog post with a link to this radio interview. In the interview, a campaigner refers to people, ‘in their blogs and in some opinion pieces’ being apparently confused about the difference between a disability, a mental illness and ‘behavioural issues’ such as ‘oppositional defiance’. I think this comment is about me because I have written blogs and opinion pieces on the issue of suspensions and exclusions and I often discuss disabilities and disorders at the same time.

I do not think I am confused about these issues. What is clear is that children with disabilities make up a large proportion of students who are suspended or excluded in New South Wales. I certainly do not think it is clear that the representation of students with disabilities in these figures is necessarily due to discrimination. Some disabilities, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), can affect student behaviour. Moreover, the idea that there is a clear dividing line between disabilities and ‘oppositional defiance’ is thrown into question by the fact that ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) frequently co-occur. I think we can perhaps all agree that if New South Wales produced a breakdown of which disabilities were represented in these figures then that would perhaps help us to start answering some of these questions. If, for instance, we found large numbers of visually impaired students were being suspended then a role for discrimination may seem more likely.

However, why is it so important to delineate the differences between disabilities, mental illnesses and behavioural issues? What is the relevance? It is not as if campaigners are claiming that it is fine to suspend students who belong to some of these categories but not others. Campaigners generally argue against all suspensions and exclusions and even school discipline more generally. The following is my transcript of a later section of the radio interview:

“I was a teacher for 17 years and in virtually every single situation, you could look back and pinpoint why a situation had escalated or happened to be in a certain way and in the majority of cases, it was linked to what the school or I as a teacher would have been doing – whether that child was not engaged enough because the work was either too difficult or too simple for them, or there was a situation going on outside of the classroom that caused that child to react that way. So, do I punish a child because of that – because they’re a child trying to emotionally regulate?”

I have been a teacher for 23 years and this is not my experience. In my experience, suspension and exclusions have never been seen as punishments. Instead, they have been used as a method of last resort to prevent harm to others. If campaigners succeed in severely restricting such a method of last resort in New South Wales, my experience therefore suggests that the result will be harm – harm to other students and harm to teachers.

The reason I am making this case now and dealing with the flak that is sent my way – including distortions of what I have said and, in one case, even contacting my employer – is because I do not want to be proved right.


6 thoughts on “Don’t prove me right.

  1. Penny says:

    In my experience “Campaigners generally argue against all suspensions and exclusions and even school discipline more generally.” is more ‘some campaigners’. And virtually noone argues ‘against even school discipline more generally’. Seems a strawman.

    • I think there’s plenty of evidence to support this – even just from reaction to my blog posts over time. But, in this case, look at the proposals NSW is putting forward. They seek to minimise suspensions and make principals responsible for educating kids they exclude – effectively preventing exclusion. None of this is apparently dependent upon whether the suspended/excluded child has a disability or not. So, why am I being asked to make distinctions between disabilities, other disorders and other underlying reasons for suspension when I write about it?

    • Chester Draws says:

      And virtually noone argues ‘against even school discipline more generally’. Seems a strawman.

      You would think this, as sensible people who don’t follow the debate in any depth do, but you’d be wrong. (You’d think no-one would argue to completely “defund the police” either, but there’s quite a few people that want that to happen.)

      When someone argues “Punitive school discipline does not improve student behavior or academic achievement” ( what do you think they want?

      Since there isn’t really such thing as non-punitive discipline — any discipline not ultimately backed by the threat of punishment is a waste of time — these people are effectively stating in black and white that they are against discipline.

      Sure, they waffle that “Establishing and maintaining a positive school climate helps to encourage self-discipline and prevent discipline problems” but that is true only if the school has a positive climate. Which is more or less impossible to impose if a student works out that no matter what they do, they won’t be punished. Positive school atmospheres occur in schools with strong (as opposed to harsh) discipline policies.

      And, “Using positive approaches when discipline issues arise reconnects students to their peers and teachers, improving the school experience for the community” is true. But it doesn’t apply in all cases. If one kid punches another in the face, what “positive approach” should we apply apply? (Hint: if it isn’t the student’s fault, then it must be the teacher’s fault for not being “positive” — and so the teacher is punished for the student’s actions.)

      So yes, there are indeed people out there who argue effectively against discipline. Sure they will say that they believe in “non-punitive” discipline or in “positive” discipline. These are empty words, that no teacher in the real world can use.

      What proponents will always avoid is explaining how this is meant to work when one student assaults another, or steals their phone, refuses point blank to do any work, or is rude to the teacher. (Nor racially mind you — the “positive” discipline crowd get very, very punitive all of a sudden in the event of a racial slur.)

  2. Pingback: A small but vocal minority speaks | Filling the pail

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