When I worked back at my old school in Detroit, the Christmas choir performance / Holiday Assembly was always a stressful affair. This stress came from the fact that assemblies were chaotic events. Most students saw this break in routine as an opportunity to screw around. Other students would skip out on the assembly and roam the halls with their friends, and a select few would sneak into the locker room and get high.

Often, the students who remained in the auditorium didn’t fare much better. Constant disruptions were the norm. On more than one occasion, the choir teacher stopped mid-song in an attempt to silence the audience. There were a couple times when he actually cancelled the whole assembly and told the teachers to take their students back to class. This was a failure because a majority of the students, already out of class and a mere 30 minutes away from Christmas break, would simply walk out of school instead of returning to class and finishing the day (in retrospect, maybe that’s what the choir teacher was trying to do in the first place, ha ha ha). I remember one student skipping out on the assembly and saying, “I’m going home. They won’t suspend me because then it would be, like, 4 weeks without going to school.” (He was right – the administration was reluctant to have suspensions go past Christmas break for fear that the students would simply go to school somewhere else.)

So, this year at my long-term sub job, when I got a memo that there would be an assembly during 6th hour on the last day before Christmas break, I went into “battle mode.” I was anticipating the skippers and the disruptions. I was anticipating the possible fights. I was anticipating anything – except a normal, high school holiday assembly.

It turns out that my fears were totally unfounded. It was a normal holiday assembly. I got down to the auditorium and was greeted by the principal, who was dressed like Santa (which never would have happened in my old school). The Spanish club led the school in a bilingual sing-along, another club organized a candy-cane eating contest (though I think an eggnog chugging contest would have been more entertaining), and the choir performed two songs. The 450+ students in the audience were so respectful that the choir teacher was able to make announcements from the stage without using a microphone.

If you’re a teacher in another district, or you grew up in a functional suburban high school, and you’re reading this, I know that what I described above might sound pretty average to your school. But for me, this successful holiday assembly was a revelation in just how different this school operates in comparison to my old place of employment.

Overall, working in this particular district has been an eye-opening experience. I’ve worked there for over a month and I’ve regained some of my enthusiasm for teaching. I’ve also gained a better understanding of the gap between well-funded suburban schools and under-funded urban schools. Don’t get me wrong, I always knew there was a gap, but I don’t think I fully understood the degree of the gap until now. And I’ve also come to the conclusion that the gap is not totally financial.

The success of the Christmas assembly is a perfect illustration for the gap between my new school and my old school. The staff at the new school doesn’t have to spend a majority of their day enforcing rules. Therefore, they don’t mind giving the students a little freedom to organize events. In turn, the students follow the guidelines and the event goes off with no problems.

At my new job, it’s almost like there is this subconscious social agreement (which may, or may not be fully recognized) between the staff and the collective student population. It’s like, “Let me do my stuff and you can do yours.” (You know, I let you talk in the last five minutes of class if you remain silent during my lecture, etc.) There’s this foundational respect or code that’s somehow been instilled throughout the school. And it’s also something that really puzzles me. How does the staff create this environment?

Somehow, students at my old school couldn’t collectively embrace this concept of “give-and-take,” or “subconscious social agreement,” or “trust,” or whatever you want to call it. There were students who understood this social agreement and would try to organize spirit week, or dances, or assemblies. But often the student-organized events would get cancelled because other students wouldn’t go to class, or the principal would decide that the most recent “disruption” (aka “fight”) in the lunchroom was reason enough to pull the plug on student-organized events. It’s this gap of understanding that seemed to be part of the problem with the social environment of my old school.

In my classroom, even this concept of give-and-take was totally foreign for some of my students. I would say something like, “Look, if I see your iPods/mp3 players out, I’m supposed to take them. But that’s a hassle for me. If we get through today’s lesson with time left over, you can listen to your headphones or respond to that text message that’s “supposedly” from your mother, or whatever…” and so on. Despite this announcement, which I would make frequently, I STILL had students breaking the rules. It was totally baffling.

I don’t want to start psychologizing here, (or spend time debating if “psychologizing” is even a real word) but is this understanding of a social give-and-take between adults and students the real difference between failing and successful schools? Can it be that simple?

For a variety of reasons – some reasons more valid than others – a lot of my students in Detroit expressed doubt toward authority figures (parents, other teachers, police officers, etc.) and I’m left wondering if it’s even possible to develop that type of social trust between students and staff when the students have already developed a sense of mistrust. Is it totally lost by the time a student is 16 years old?

Furthermore, over the last four weeks I’ve been wondering what would happen if the entire staff and administration at my new job were suddenly transplanted into my old building. Obviously, a dedicated staff is important. But is an excellent staff enough to conquer the social attitudes of the students?

Today, I guess I have more questions than answers.


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