Sunday, March 27, 2011

Transfers Are Generally "Miss"

In the past four years I've worked in two very different settings where the term "transfer student" has meant extremely different things.  When I taught for a spring on a U.S. military base, transfer students were extremely normal.  There were systems in place to ease the process and it was assumed a number of students in the grade would come and go as their parents were given new orders mid-year.  While the increased work load was a bit exasperating (it takes extra to catch them up, settle them in to your specific classroom, etc.), it was not an extremely stressful, painful process to get them on track in your classroom.


Cue New York City transfer students.


This year I've had two students join my classroom mid-year.  The first was brought to our school through the most common method for mid-year transfers: the safety transfer.  This means either that the student was unsafe at her old school or perhaps that the student herself posed a risk to the students at her old school.  She arrived late in the fall when we were just settling in, but was able to contribute to a major decline in behavior amongst the students in her class- one that has since remained.  While her classmates did not become aggressive like her, they did see her ability to mouth off to each and every teacher as an invitation for them to take more liberties with their own behavior.  Since her transfer she has also been suspended numerous times for aggressive behavior and has attacked at least one of our other female students.  In spite of her initial desire to turn over a new leaf and in spite of our continuing support for her doing so, keeping a level head and listening to adults has simply been too much for her to handle.


The second transfer arrived just last week.  After being switched between a number of suspension sites on Staten Island, this young man, his mother, and his seven brothers moved to the Bronx after a serious home issue arose.  During the week he has been in my class, things have been fairly hit or miss.  On the very first day, he threw markers at another young man-claiming it was an "accident"- which I talked to him about, basically sending the message that he should avoid such "accidents" whenever possible.  Since then he has chosen another young man to bully incessantly and in an increasingly violent manner.  For example, he ejected an umbrella into the back of the young man's head, claiming once again that it was an accident.  I changed the months-old seating chart in that class after that incident, isolating the transfer student slightly at the front of the room (placing truant students on the seating chart around him) and watched him like a hawk, while at the same time making sure I follow through with whatever support I would give any new student.


Now, from what I can tell, there are a couple of ways people in the city tend to view a situation like this.  First is what might be referred to as the "child-centered" approach.  This is the idea that whatever the transfer student went through must have been pretty tough, that he was most likely not learning a lot at his previous suspension sites, and that whatever happens he will learn more at our school than wherever he was before.  All of that is probably true.  There seems to be quite a number of folks in the city, however, who are unwaveringly committed to this point of view- so much so that even if the kid went on a murderous rampage they would still adamantly claim that keeping the kid in our school is what is best for him or her and therefore the best possible scenario.


Another viewpoint might be termed the "children-centered" approach.  Basically, a teacher has thirty plus students in a classroom and has built relationships with all of them throughout the entire year.  It's the teacher's job to find ways to tame the new student and teach them to coexist with the ones who are already kind of nuts, while simultaneously creating balance between the students doing their jobs and those who are not.  On a given day, the learning environment can be extremely delicate, as one or two students going off can destroy everything you've planned and everything your students have worked toward.  When it comes to an extremely disruptive student (especially a new one), the teacher can certainly point out that the disruption, intimidation, and potential violence is enough to derail everything going well in that classroom (which is true).  The extremists on this end isolate the student and go to war with them, letting them know that they aren't welcome and they go overboard when the kid screws up.  From their point of view, they are saving the many by cutting off the troubled few, who destroy the process.


In reality there probably needs to be a balance between the two.  Yes, transfer students in NYC are almost never "hit", but instead whopping "misses".  The fact of the matter is that as a classroom teacher there is not a ton I can do about the situation other than keep the administration and guidance up to date on a student's behavior, go through my normal discipline routine, and call home whenever possible.  While I can grumble all I want about it, feeling extremely angry that a potential threat to my students has been thrust into my classroom, at the end of the day it's best to try to work the kid into the fold and get them used to classroom norms just as I would on the military base and hope that he or she doesn't injure me or my other students.  Hopefully, one day the Department of Education will realize that shuffling students from school to school to school is not the solution to whatever issue is causing their abominable behavior.

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