Playground Fights

One of the most impressive things I noticed once I started teaching junior high in a rural poverty school was the number of playground fights that took place. Just about every recess several boys stopped playing, started yelling, then cursing, then challenged each other to fight. A crowd of other boys and girls immediately ran towards them and usually encircled them chanting, “fight, fight, fight…” This made it very difficult to back out so normally someone ended up with a bloody nose or black eye. These injuries were cured in the office with a bag of ice and possibly a suspension from school for a day or two so that each pugilist could cool off. The sneakier boys would sometimes wait until a teacher was standing between him and the other kid, and then throw a ‘sucker punch.’ This meant the punch was unexpected. The kid who was hit with the ‘sucker punch’ didn’t have a chance to punch back because the teacher was standing there. It was a kind of cheating in the world of junior high kids and cause for another fight to be scheduled at another time.

One day in October a friendly psychologist, Gregg, from the county schools office dropped by to observe a special education student. At recess I invited Gregg to have a cup of coffee, enjoy the Fall air, and walk around the playground with me. Almost on cue a fight broke out among a couple of boys in the middle of a basketball game. Since I wasn’t on recess duty, another teacher took care of the issue and I continued to walk and watch with Gregg. He noted that the fighting represented a big difference between my school and another school in the county that served kids of much higher socio-economic status. At the higher SES school, kids could get a playground ball, choose up sides and play a game of any kind without actually fighting. They knew how to play and negotiate differences in ways that allowed the game to go on. If a child took offense to something, he would normally allow the offense to pass for his enjoyment of the continuation of the game. Or the offending kid would simply say ‘sorry’ and the game went on. At my school, no small offense was given without an outsized response. There were a number of kids who just looked for ways to be offended. We talked about how to address this issue school-wide. When I became principal, I learned about programs such as student led conflict managers but at the time I was simply amazed at the pattern and at the apparent endless re-cycling of the same violent responses to the same issues.

I also noticed that the school board in this district engaged in some of the most rancorous and contentious arguments I had ever seen, similar to but actually much worse than the fights on the playground. Boards were supposed to work on policy matters and allow the professionals to apply their judgment to implement the policies. But the hidden curriculum of this school board was fairly clear. They loved a good, nasty fight. Their arguments were usually based in petty differences that meant nothing to the education of the children, except as a kind of cultural policy, perhaps a shadow policy of rancor acted out in reflection of poverty culture.

A few years later at my first evaluation meeting with the board as a teaching- principal I ran into the conflict orientation again. In closed session, one of the members reamed me out because a kid from my school had flipped her off during the Christmas Program. Another member disagreed with this board member and told her she was too stupid to know a good Christmas Program from a bad one. Never mind the fact that I had just explained a significant improvement in the Math curriculum. These folks knew how to pick a fight with each other and with anyone else.

By the end of that school year, the board had decided to fire the superintendent. So they did. And they loved it. After summer, the new school year started. The county superintendent sent an interim person and after a month, they fired him too. Next, they promoted the only other principal, a more experienced one, to the job of superintendent. This fellow understood the culture of continuous offense-taking. His response was to be a highly visible brown-noser whose entire professional life was engaged in trying to determine, as a colleague described it, “whose asshole he should stick his head up next.” By the end of February, this board had found a new superintendent, hired him, (returned the brown-noser to his principal job) and then arbitrarily reduced the promised salary of the new guy. The new superintendent took the board to court and got an immediate settlement for more than he was promised in the first place and was also taken back to his former job by his former school district.

Around this time, one of the board members decided to bring a lawsuit against the rest of the entire board for defamation of character. He had bragged around the school community that he enjoyed ‘chasing skirt’ at conferences for board members and this offended other board members. One wrote a letter of complaint to him and he responded by suing the entire bunch.

At the next board meeting I distinguished myself as a young hero and didn’t get fired at the same time. The school board was discussing their options to hire another superintendent when one of them suggested they call the school attorney for advice.

I stood up and said, “I expect that would cost about $100 per hour. Why don’t you buy my school a new microscope instead?”

The teachers and staff in the audience cheered. This really pissed the board off. They adjourned into closed session and called me to come into the room with them. They told me I ‘serve at the pleasure of the board’ which meant I could be fired any time they felt like it. So I had better shut up.

The next day, I received a bouquet of roses from the teachers and a nicely written letter from the board president reminding me again that I ‘serve at the pleasure of the board’ and warning me to shut up, in so many words.

The punch line to this piece is that I stopped attending so many board meetings in order to insure that I didn’t say anything untoward and get fired. This was a good idea since that particular school board managed to distinguish itself by hiring and firing ten superintendents in one school year. I think this is a world record.

To my surprise, I noticed that no matter what antics occurred at the meetings, nothing actually changed at school. The kids came, the teachers taught, the secretary answered the phone, free breakfast and lunch were served, the janitors cleaned, the naïve heroic principal worked and wondered, the old Machiavellian brown-noser principal worked and schemed, and I was a whole lot calmer when I didn’t go to a board meeting. This phenomenon has been described by important scholars such as Max Weber who talks about the bureaucracy enduring no matter what kind of chaos seems to be taking place elsewhere in society. Also Larry Cuban is famous for his metaphor of a calm, undisturbed environment, almost impervious to change within classrooms during continuous reform efforts. This stability is like the calm of the ocean just a few feet below the stormy surface. Similarly, school districts are robust bureaucratic organizations and it takes a good deal of effort to improve or worsen their operation.

Just imagine how difficult it would be for school boards such as the one I have described, reflections of local culture, to change their focus to policies around the quality of classrooms, teaching and teachers, methods and materials and the condition of the children. For all I have railed against the Orwellian nightmarish aspects of test-based accountability, one positive outcome was to force school boards such as the one I have described to look at something far beyond their ken, some kind of indicator of the learning of the students.