On reforming suspensions: a teacher’s plea to California’s lawmakers

August 24, 2019

Jason Sanchez's sixth grade classroom.

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Dear lawmakers:

Jason Sanchez

Before you make any law that affects public education, please talk to teachers — teachers from rural and urban areas as well as poorer and wealthier areas. Students, parents and teachers represent the largest proportion of the population that is directly affected by laws impacting public education. Please spend most of your time talking with them to understand how they will be affected.

Then talk to school and district administrators, lobbyists and other policymakers.

In May, after 10 years of teaching, I resigned and left a career I was passionate about. Even though I love teaching, I had to leave. Lack of support and ever-increasing job duties took their toll and cost me my motivation to continue.

A major tipping point was when I had a particularly challenging group of students, including some who were regularly purposefully defiant. I usually handled my own classroom discipline by working with students and their families, but this time those efforts failed to address the situation. All year long I begged my school district for support. I repeatedly suspended one of the students from the classroom because he disrupted practically all learning and my ability to teach. This frustrated our office staff and district administration, but they were not able to provide sufficient support to enable me to teach the rest of my students. Months later I finally got an instructional/behavioral aide for a few hours each morning, but even that was not enough.

Many other educators are leaving the profession citing similar concerns. Teaching is an extremely stressful job and student behavior is always one of the top reasons why people leave.

We all agree that students need to be in school so that they can learn. We know that students who are suspended are much less likely to graduate. And we know that students of color and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds are suspended at higher rates. We all agree that these problems are unacceptable and need to be corrected.

We also know that positive, motivated and energetic teachers are one of the greatest factors that affect students’ learning. But overburdened and over-stressed teachers cannot consistently provide students with positive learning environments. For this reason, students cannot be allowed to remain in classrooms if they are defiant or disruptive. It is impossible to effectively teach in that kind of environment.

I know you have good intentions, but legislation to limit school suspensions is likely to do even more harm by causing teachers and administrators to become further disempowered from requiring and setting standards for appropriate school behavior. When busy administrators become unable to support teachers, the teachers are often left to fend for themselves.

We need your help. Schools are struggling. It’s affecting students’ attitudes about learning and their perceptions about tolerable classroom behavior, and it’s making teachers’ jobs even more difficult. In many of these school districts the number of suspensions has gone down, but student learning has also been reduced.

In numerous cases, administrators and teachers are powerless to give students appropriate consequences for their inappropriate behavior. While ideal, the amount of staff that is required to provide meaningful support programs with a focus on restorative justice practices simply does not exist in most school districts. (District administrators are also unaccustomed to making these staffing expenditures a priority and there are many competing needs.)

Please remember that almost every teacher who enters the profession is idealistic. They want to contribute to society, they care about students and they are excited about teaching. But sometimes their attitudes change as they are constantly worn down, year after year, by bureaucracy, increasing job responsibilities, lack of support, changing curriculum, over testing, poor student behavior, unhelpful professional development mandates, poor parenting and changing societal priorities. Over time, too many teachers end up becoming apathetic, withdrawn from the rest of the school, perpetually burnt out and chronically emotionally exhausted.

We know that when teachers build relationships with students, students are more likely to succeed in school. Teachers want to do this, but often they cannot because they are overwhelmed with poor student behavior, students who are significantly behind academically and students with special needs who receive too little support. So many of my students thought they were dumb, but they weren’t. I was just unable to provide them the extra instruction that they needed to help them catch up while also teaching the rest of my students.

Instead of bans that disempower teachers, please encourage in-school suspensions and provide funding so schools can implement and manage multiple levels of student support and restorative justice programs.

Also, in their overcrowded classrooms, teachers are struggling to teach students who are more than two grade levels behind. You can help them by providing more pull-out intervention programs and classroom instructional aides to support these students, especially with reading and mathematics instruction.

Such measures, not blanket bans, are the solution to a societal crisis.

•••

Jason Sanchez serves as a member of the California National Guard at a base in Fresno, California. He taught elementary school in Tulare County for 10 years, but recently left the profession.

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