Children are always going to misbehave, teacher Daniel Buck says, and that’s why discipline is needed in the classroom.
“I think the idea that we’re going to solve misbehavior is kind of utopian,” Buck says, adding that is “what the progressive idea is.”
“If we just get the system right, then kids are going to behave. And that’s never going to happen,” he says. Instead, Buck advocates for a strong disciplinary “system in place that anticipates and responds to misbehavior.”
The lack of such discipline in the classroom is leading some teachers to resign and harming students’ ability to learn, says Buck, the author of “What Is Wrong With Our Schools?: The Ideology Impoverishing Education in America and How We Can Do Better for Our Students.” The book was published in December.
Buck joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain how the agenda of the woke Left has led to a lack of discipline in American classrooms, and why a restoration of discipline would improve learning outcomes for students.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: Daniel Buck is the author of the book “What Is Wrong With Our Schools?: The Ideology Impoverishing Education in America and How We Can Do Better for Our Students.” He’s also a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute and a teacher. Daniel, thanks so much for being with us today.
Daniel Buck: Thanks for having me on. I’m glad to be here.
Allen: So, you’re in your seventh year of teaching. What do you teach?
Buck: I teach middle school English language arts.
Allen: OK. And what made you want to become a teacher?
Buck: I think it was something I wanted to do on and off my whole life. I was kind of always not the classroom helper, not meaning I ran errands for the teacher, but I was kind of always helping my friends, teaching my friends, and I always really enjoyed doing that. I never felt burdened, like, “Oh, the teacher’s having me help other people,” but I enjoyed helping and teaching other kids and that just kind of continued on in college and what I pursued as a career.
Allen: Well, you are very well versed in this subject. You’ve literally written a book on it, “What Is Wrong With Our Schools?” You lecture on that issue. Daniel, in your seven years of teaching, what exactly have you seen change in classrooms over the years?
Buck: Unfortunately, I haven’t seen too much change. I just continue to see continued mediocrity. Most recently what I’ve really been hammering home and seeing more and more and more of is the removal of consequences and discipline in schools.
There’s this trend, in the broader American politics, everyone’s arguing about policing and bail reform. Similar arguments are happening in schools, but people just aren’t as aware of it. So they’re getting rid of things like suspensions, expulsions, detentions, and there’s a school, I think it’s in Dallas, that has, instead of, if you kick a kid out of class for one reason or another, instead of going to the principal, they go to a reset center where there’s bean bags and snacks and they get to hang out.
So this idea that we’re just kind of going to friendly kids, we’re going to just be nice to them, and then they’re going to behave well—which any parent knows, that’s not how parenting, that’s not how teaching, that’s not how raising children works.
So I guess recently that’s really what I’ve started to see, is just the removal of consequences and discipline from schools and it’s just proving a nightmare.
Allen: I was really interested in a recent piece that you wrote for Fordham that you say, in all the highs and lows of your teaching career, “nothing has left me more stressed or anxious than student discipline.” For those of us who are not teachers or who don’t have kids in school, fill us in here, go a little bit deeper, explain what’s happening in our classrooms. Why is there this lack of discipline?
Buck: So, like I said, nothing provides as much anxiety as that. When you as a teacher walk into a room and you don’t know what’s going to happen, there’s no consistency, kids feel the same way.
Since I’ve become a better teacher, I’ve learned to kind of implement my own consequences in a classroom. I’ve become much better at classroom management. But we can’t expect perfection from every teacher. We can’t expect every teacher to be the kind of teacher that’s going to be turned into a Hollywood movie.
So teachers are walking into rooms. I’ve had colleagues that have been cussed out by students. They ask the principal for support, and the principal brings the kid back 10 minutes later with a bag of chips. And what does that communicate to the rest of the kids? Well, “We can cuss out. We can disrespect the adults in this building. We can basically do whatever we want and we get to get away with it.” And quickly, then, it’s not just individual teachers, but whole buildings.
Kids roam the hallways, they’re cussing teachers out, they’re picking fights, they’re doing all of these kinds of things. And schools become much more like a “Lord of the Flies,” this pandemonium than what we would think of as academic learning centers where kids are reading, where they’re studying, where they’re learning from a teacher, they’re working together in groups.
It just kind of becomes this even worse than a playground, because playgrounds are at least happy places. They’re places of terror. And what’s causing it is, honestly, the mollification of the rest of America.
It’s the same thing in schools. This idea that adults having authority is oppressive. There’s this trendy idea that the teacher-student relationship is the same as the oppressor-oppressed dynamic of Marx. So imposing any kind of rules on children is oppressive, even racist. And that’s really what’s causing it, is just these woke ideas are becoming mainstream in education.
Allen: And where is this happening? Is this isolated to maybe public schools in inner cities or is this across the board across America, whether you’re in a rural community or in a city, there are public schools where this issue is occurring?
Buck: This is happening pretty much everywhere. In the piece I detail, I’m starting to keep track of individual districts and even whole states that are getting rid of things like suspensions, which no one likes kicking a kid out of school for a few days, but it communicates to the rest of the class: “This is the kind of behavior that we don’t tolerate here.” And it may not necessarily reform that one student, but it protects the learning for everybody else.
So again, I’m keeping track of the individual districts that are getting rid of these things, states that are getting rid of these things. But yeah, it is happening across the board. And it’s hard to pin down because schools are incentivized against honest reporting of discipline because it makes them look bad. But there’s data out there of school leaders reporting an uptick of fighting, vandalism, general classroom disorder and disruptions. They’re increasing across the country.
Allen: So if you would, share some stories with us from teachers that you have talked to of how this is affecting them, it’s affecting their ability to be able to do their job and educate, but also, how is this affecting just teachers as people?
Buck: One story that caught my eye—I’m in the Milwaukee area, and there was an open letter to Milwaukee, the school board, and the teacher said she is growing fearful of going to work. She and her colleagues are, they dread going to school now, and they spend their time trying to put out bigger fires like fights, vandalism, the destruction of property.
So it’s no longer, “Oh, we have a few kids that are kind of talking too much or throwing paper airplanes across the classroom.” We expect kids to be kids. But, like, desks being broken and kids hitting each other and drawing blood in class.
Max Eden and [the American Enterprise Institute], I’m drawing a blank on what district this came from, but he’s done some reporting on this.
There’s a district that had a, basically, behavior audit and teachers could send in what they’re seeing, paragraph reports. And … one quote struck me from it. They were told there wouldn’t be suspensions unless there was blood, which is just, like, a horrifying line.
But what it does to teachers is it should be a joyous profession—working with kids, seeing them learn. There’s nothing that brings me joy like the productive din of a classroom that’s learning. And I enjoy driving to work every day, but I know there are teachers out there that are in chaotic schools that are terrified of going to work, that are scared of themselves being physically accosted by students, verbally berated by students.
But there’s also just this dread, this background anxiety: “What are my kids going to learn today?” And the jump from “These kids are disrespectful” to “I am unworthy of respect,” it happens quickly and it’s emotionally crushing, and it’s not necessarily the teacher’s fault. There are these policies that are causing this disorder, but a lot of teachers put it on themselves and it’s just terrible.
Allen: What do you think is the role of the teacher versus the role of the administration and the district to be setting these policies? Because you said that you figured out some ways in your own classroom to classroom manage, but does that only go so far when you don’t have an administration backing you and giving you the authority to really implement strong discipline when necessary?
Buck: I liken it to a fleet of ships where you might have the best captain in the fleet can sail from point A to point B on a ship that’s leaky with winds that aren’t in his favor. So you’re going to have teachers that can succeed no matter where they are, but it’s certainly going to help if all of the ships are well built and the winds are in your favor. Same thing with schools. If you have a consistent behavior policy that’s consistently enforced, it’s much easier for all of the teachers to succeed.
And like I said in the very beginning of this podcast, we can’t run a school system expecting all teachers to be in the top 25% of teachers. We need to create a system that’s going to work for 90% of them. We’re going to have standouts, we’re going to have duds, but we can’t have a school system where 90% of teachers can’t succeed and only the stars have functioning classrooms. That’s not going to serve teachers, that’s not going to serve students, that’s not going to serve families.
Allen: So how did we get here? Because it doesn’t feel like that long ago that there was a very different scenario and teachers had a lot of authority in the classroom. And it wasn’t that long ago that even paddling was allowed in schools. So how have we gone from that to where we are now?
Buck: It’s a couple different things, but it’s a story that’s not too difficult to tell. Discipline debates were kind of going back and forth for eternity in schools for as long as schools have been in existence. This debate really last hit the national stage when [former President Barack] Obama sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter threatening schools with, basically, they were going to get sued, there was going to be legal action if there were disparities in consequences. So if black students were being given suspensions more than white students, that kind of inflamed the debate.
And then we stopped having this debate during the pandemic because schools weren’t open, so kids weren’t really, you know, you couldn’t have misbehavior in class because everyone was at home.
And then George Floyd happened and this back and forth that we were having—”Should we be using suspensions and expulsions? Should we not?” Back and forth, back and forth. When the George Floyd event happened, the disciplinarians just gave up. They bent over backward and they let the progressives run roughshod over them.
So we saw a lot of these no-excuse charter schools, these schools that were known for their strict discipline, putting out statements saying, “We’re going to get rid of things like the expectations for silent hallways,” dropping their uniform rules.
One of them, they had this great slogan, “Work hard and be nice,” and they got rid of it because it was oppressive. It was suggesting that students should only be submissive, which is, like it was racist, which is just ludicrous. This idea, “Work hard, be nice,” that this is somehow only a white person thing, that is the racist idea, not suggesting that this is a slogan for everyone.
So in line with the policing debates, that kind of turned this debate up to 11 and schools just let go of all punitive discipline while municipalities were also trying to defund police and implement bail reform and all this kind of stuff.
Allen: And did the COVID-19 pandemic, as far as just the isolation of kids and having kids online for a year or longer, is that playing a role here as well?
Buck: Most certainly. We were trending in this direction before a lot of districts were getting rid of suspensions and expulsions. Before I talk a fair amount about this in my book, “What Is Wrong With Our Schools?”, I trace these debates back decades, but it kind of was a cross of two bad trends—this movement away from punitive discipline and worsening student mental health.
The pandemic put kids in a place where they were isolated. They kind of lost some of these social skills that they had. It made them more anxious and depressed. So they came back to school in a bad place at the same time that schools were kind of loosening all of the screws and getting permissive when it came to behavior. And those two things just created chaos and pandemonium right now.
Allen: So, let’s talk solutions. When you say we got to get discipline back into our schools, back into the classroom, what does that look like?
Buck: I mean, it looks like not getting rid of suspensions and expulsions. Suspensions and expulsions aren’t a solution. I don’t really love the idea of talking about solutions, so to speak, for behavior. We’re never going to solve behavior, whether we want to call it human sin, a natural self-interest, just the idea that evolution has made us imperfect. Kids are always going to misbehave.
I think the idea that we’re going to solve misbehavior is kind of Utopian. It is. That’s what the progressive idea is. If we just get the system right, then kids are going to behave. And that’s never going to happen.
Even in a perfect system, Timmy’s going to push Johnny, not because he’s bored in class, not because he’s hungry, not because he’s oppressed, but because he’s an 8-year-old and that’s what 8-year-olds do. They act out sometimes.
So I don’t even like the idea of thinking about solving behavior. We need to have a system in place that anticipates and responds to misbehavior. Can we make it better? Can we make it worse? Can we have better curriculum? Can we have better instruction? Can our classes be a bit more engaging? Can our boring things like the cafeteria flow or schedules, like these unsexy debates, yes, that can improve or worsen behavior, but at some point we’re always going to need a disciplinary, rigid structure, boundaries around kids. That’s just teaching, that’s just parenting. That’s just how you raise kids.
Allen: Can you offer some advice to those who are listening who are teachers and who are struggling to maintain that order and have discipline in the classroom? And then also maybe offer advice to anyone listening who wants to be a teacher and who’s thinking, “Oh my goodness, what might I be getting myself into?”
Buck: It’s certainly doable. This year my classroom really started to improve and I realized I couldn’t rely on my administration for this and I had to kind of implement all of these things for myself. And it’s a balance between being the disciplinarian and also rewarding kids. So both sanctioning bad behavior and rewarding good behavior.
So some consequences I’ve implemented in my own class, I will give up my preps, my prep time, to pull kids from lunch to give my own detentions. I will pull individuals from gym class to give my own detentions, extra work for them to do to take home, extra homework. I’ve called seven, eight, or nine parents in a single night, both for, “Hey, your kid did this in my class today. Can you take the phone away from me?” I don’t make that explicit of a request, but that’s usually what happens. Or also, “Hey, your kid got the best grade on this essay. I want to make sure I praise them for it.”
I have in-classroom rewards where I keep track of their grades, how they’re behaving, and I pay them out in not real cash, classroom cash that they can then use to buy snacks that they can buy, extra credit they can buy. I have a comfortable rolling chair that they can sit in for 45 minutes of class, those kinds of things.
So implementing my own consequences and rewards. This should be a schoolwide thing and too often it’s not anymore. So I’ve kind of had to do it in my own classroom. It’s a little bit extra work, but in long run, I’ve appreciated it because I don’t have to rely on other people for it.
And then also, it is all of the other stuff. It’s being engaging in instruction. It’s using amusing examples to help explain concept. It’s picking, not picking books that kids are going to relate to, but helping them relate to books.
“Romeo and Juliet” isn’t immediately relatable to kids, but helping them see that street fights; that young, impetuous, stupid love; that conflicts between parents and kids, these are universal ideas, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a white guy from 400, 500 years ago or a modern black author. These themes and ideas are universal to the human condition, not to skin color, not to era, time periods, or anything like that.
Allen: Daniel Buck, the author of “What Is Wrong With Our Schools?” You can find his book on Amazon. But Daniel, thank you for your time today. We really appreciate you joining us.
Buck: Yeah, thanks for having me on. It’s been a great conversation.
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