When Richland County, South Carolina, Sheriff Leon Lott addressed the national media Wednesday, he wanted to make two seemingly contradictory things clear. First: His former deputy Ben Fields, caught on video dragging a young black girl across a classroom floor at Spring Valley High School, was out of line. "What she did," Lott said of the girl's purported actions — refusing to get off of her phone and pay attention in class —"does not justify what that deputy did."
Second: The student started it. Lott peppered the press conference with victim-blaming, which contradicts what most teachers actually do on a daily basis.
Classroom management — or, as it's called in some schools, "classroom culture" — is at the very heart of teaching. An educator's ability, willingness and training to keep a classroom calm and manage disciplinary problems when they arise can determine whether a student winds up in handcuffs, according to several educators who spoke to Mic. While each educator was careful not to blame teachers for incidents like the one in South Carolina, all were clear that this essential part of their job is often overlooked whenever the media spotlights the rare instances when classroom behavior becomes national news.
At stake are the futures of millions of school kids, and especially students of color, who are usually punished more severely for classroom disruptions than their white peers. Known by experts as the "discipline gap," the varied punishments faced by white and black students have dire consequences. One 2013 study by University of California, Los Angeles' Center for Civil Rights Project found that of the 1 million middle and high school students who were suspended during the 2009-2010 school year, 24% were black and only 7% were white, and that the rate of suspensions for students of color has grown substantially since the 1970s, while the one for white students has hardly changed at all.
"Certain students, especially poor students and African-American students, are more likely to receive harsher penalties," Indiana University professor and report participant Russell Skiba told the Huffington Post. The report also found that suspensions increase the likelihood that a student will eventually drop out.
But looking at students as the bad actors misses the point.
Take Lott's comments about the student, for instance. "She was very disruptive, she was very disrespectful and she started this whole incident with her actions," he said during Wednesday's press conference. "She refused to leave the class as directed by the teacher, she refused to follow his instructions, he called for assistance from the school administrator, the school administrator got there — he was African-American — and he attempted to get her to leave the class also. She refused his instructions and was disrespectful to him."
It's impossible to determine at this point what actually happened in that classroom that precipitated Fields's arrival, but managing student behavior seldom begins with the student. Courtney Parker West taught middle school in Henderson, North Carolina, for five years before taking a staff position at Teach for America, where she now coaches teachers in the region.
"There's this idea that teachers need to control their class," she told Mic. "But a teacher needs to control him- or herself." West noted that even veteran teaches struggle with developing the language and tone of voice needed students who often bring complex emotions into the classroom. "People don't recognize the power dynamic in a classroom," she said. "A teacher, regardless of their racial background, is standing in for a gatekeeper for their institution. If students feel powerless in that situation, they're going to respond like any reasonable person would."
But learning exactly how to do that is a delicate balancing act that sometimes changes from year to year, class to class and student to student. Chela Delgado is a 10-year veteran who teaches government and economics at a high school in Oakland, California, and estimates that managing classroom culture is "90% of the job" of a teacher. She says that classroom culture is established through teachers' relationships with each student, and those students' relationships with one another.
"It's important to make feelings and emotions in class a norm," she told Mic, noting that she does this through daily check-ins, which establishes an important routine in students' lives in which they know they'll have a space to talk about their feelings and be less likely to have their emotions overwhelm them at other moments in class. "If you don't make space for students' emotions, they're going to come out anyway, in ways that are more explosive."
But educators often can't learn this on their own. One high school teacher from South Carolina, who spoke to Mic anonymously because she works in a non-union state and fears retribution from her employers, emphasized the help that teachers need. "It's important to allow them to have professional development on ways to handle situations like this," she said of disciplinary problems in the classroom that escalate. "Teachers need to know how to deal with students who are rough around the edges. Having classroom management [skills] that are culturally responsive would definitely be beneficial."
That's especially important for students of color, no matter the race of the teacher. "Any teacher has the potential to maintain the white supremacy of schools or disrupt the white supremacy of schools," Delgado said.
The reasons that students act out in class are as varied as the students themselves. West, who coaches teachers in North Carolina, noted that challenges exist both inside and outside of the classroom. "Either they're not being challenged or they are struggling with a concept," she said. "Sometimes they walk in the door with things that have nothing to do with that teacher or class, but are dealing with things that make it hard to concentrate."