PUYALLUP, WA — In the quarter of an hour after class began, Michael, a seventh-grade boy, drummed a pencil on his desk, leaned back in his chair to make the legs creak, shouted out the window to a friend, and threw a wad of paper at the wastebasket. Distracting behavior like this plagues public-school classes. It prevents teachers from teaching and students from learning. And, if it isn't stopped, it guarantees the continued demise of our schools. "Michael, please take out your script," I say.
"My part's over," he blurts out. The class is reading a play. Most students enjoy exaggerating their voices to create characters. Michael, though, makes clucking sounds and grins at anyone who looks at him.
I see students like Michael every day. They have neither learned self-control nor persisted through intellectually difficult tasks. In fact, they often have a history of abandoned projects and social promotion. And many of them master only basic skills.
Meanwhile, the victims of the disrupters have little class time to analyze problems and evaluate their work. A disrupter stops the flow of learning thus ruining the chance for thinking at higher levels. And most victims are girls, since most disrupters are boys.
"Open your script, Michael. Your lines are coming up," I remind him. "I left it in my locker. Can I go get it?" he asks, getting up. He wants to roam the halls and wave at students in other classes. I hand him an extra script.
In classrooms all over the United States, it is the Michaels who destroy the learning atmosphere. And, although this abuse is pervasive, taken individually these deceptively minor incidents are lost in more spectacular events. Yet every year, students reap the bitter harvest of substandard education. And not because the means don't exist to change this situation.
School buildings and equipment might be old, but they are adequate. Supplies are not plentiful, but they are sufficient. And today's teachers are excellent. Rules, regulations, and laws are the problem. They force teachers to tolerate behavior that turns a classroom into a showcase for one or two students who monopolize a large portion of the teacher's time and energy.
One federal law protects children diagnosed with certain disorders or medical disabilities from the consequence of their behavior. They cannot be removed from a regular classroom if a disruption they cause is related to their identified need. Another law requires school attendance. It appears to support the public-school system, but it almost promises disruption when a child doesn't want to be there.
The law does say students may not "disrupt the educational process." Teachers may refuse to keep a disruptive student in class, but only for a few days and only after carefully documenting the student's behavior. Consequences such as after-school detention, Saturday school, and suspension often depend on parents' agreement.
If you ask a teacher for a sensible solution, in one way or another the answer will be, "Get the disrupter out of the regular classroom." No more accommodations or excuses.
But don't abandon those who choose not to learn. Instead, provide opportunities for the misguided Michaels to gain the skills they need to rejoin their peers. A solution could be as simple as a class in each school building where students work individually and learn proper classroom behavior. All our young people deserve enough time with a teacher to help them recognize and develop their potential. A few must not stop that interaction. Above all, we must preserve the classroom for teaching and learning.
*Joyce Wazneak-Alvarez teaches Ianguage arts and beginning speech and drama at Edgemont Junior High in Puyallup, Wash.