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Case Narrative

The Fight
On Thursday afternoon, Sara Martin, a first-year teacher at Intermediate School 91, heard yelling in the corridor outside her room. There had already been two fights earlier that day among the seventh and eighth graders on the fourth floor and Sara felt tension in the air. Sara knew that 702, one of her most difficult classes, was in their reading class down the hall with her friend Kristen, another first-year teacher. Sara left her science class to investigate the commotion. Most of her students followed her out. At the end of the hall, two young female students from 702 were yelling; a fight was escalating.

Peering over the crowd, Sara could see Keisha, a short African American girl, dressed like a tomboy, and Jackie, also African American, sporting a trendy pantsuit, platform heels, and long braids. Kristen was attempting to get between the girls as they grabbed at each other's hair and faces. Sara made her way through the crowd and tried to hold Keisha back as Jackie fell to the floor. Kristen leaned over Jackie to protect her as Keisha continued to kick Jackie's head. A security guard arrived, sending the large crowd of spectators back to their classrooms. He escorted Keisha and Jackie to the office to file reports and send the girls home.

After school that afternoon, Sara walked down to Kristen's room. “What a day,” she lamented to Kristen, “Are you okay?”

“Honestly,” replied Kristen, “I don't know if I can take it anymore. I don't understand this constant fighting. I can't believe how brutal that fight got. Keisha is out of control. I mean, why kick someone when they're down? I am going to have to call her grandmother again—which I am not looking forward to. She refuses to take any action to help straighten Keisha out—but I am not going to let Keisha get away with fighting like that.”

Intermediate School 91
Located in a predominantly Puerto Rican area of the Bronx, I.S. 91 serves approximately 900 sixth through eighth grade African-American and Puerto Rican students, most of whom are eligible for free lunch. The school building is large, with four floors and a basement. Extending from the main hallways on each floor are smaller corridors, separated by locked doors, which make the management of students more difficult. The classrooms are dirty and dilapidated. Looking from the windows, many with visible bullet holes, one can see empty lots, junkyards, graffiti, and streets strewn with trash. Adjacent to the school is a blacktop playground, which the school uses during recess, and where groups of men trade drugs and settle their disputes physically. Although some of the parents who live on nearby streets are concerned about their children's school, there is very little community involvement.

I.S. 91 has been a “school under review” by the State Board of Education for 10 years. Despite six restructuring attempts during this ten-year period, the school continues to be one of the worst performing schools in New York City in terms of state reading and mathematics test scores. In a recent political maneuver, the new Chancellor chose several low-performing schools to restructure and to provide with additional support and resources. I.S. 91 and the other selected schools were placed under the Chancellor's District, controlled by the Board of Education. These schools had been on their way to closure and were expected to raise reading and mathematics test scores by the end of the year if they hoped to remain open.

I.S. 91 opened its doors in September, excited for a year of change. Administrators divided into houses in an attempt to create smaller communities that would work with fewer students. They hoped that this structure would enable the school to address student needs, promote student learning, and improve test scores. The hope quickly dwindled, however, as the realities of the disorganization, lack of discipline, and ineffective teaching and leadership became apparent. District leaders heard rumors that the school administration was struggling, so they sent several representatives into the school to help the principal perform his duties.

Within a month after school opened, morale had dropped. Teacher absence ran high, requiring other teachers to cover additional classes during their preparation periods. These absences heightened teacher stress and exacerbated student discipline problems. Security guards resisted intervening in frequent fights, complaining, “Those teachers can't control their kids!”

Sara Martin and Kristen Jones, Teachers
Both Sara and Kristen were first-year teachers and were on the same team, meaning that they worked with the same students. Sara was part of the Teach for America program and Kristen had just completed a Masters degree in education. Although both women came to the school with sincere intentions of providing meaningful learning experiences for their students, their idealism quickly faded.

Both Sara and Kristen were middle-class white women who had grown up in the suburbs north of New York City. Although both had student taught in areas similar to the Bronx—in Harlem and Washington Heights—they had previously worked in alternative schools and were not well prepared for the difficulties of the more traditional New York City public schools. They espoused philosophies that fostered student choice and empowerment; however, many students saw their approaches as opportunities for free time. Both women were in their mid-20's and experienced significant difficulties managing student behavior and maintaining control of their classrooms. The general school environment contributed to their difficulties; neither was assigned a mentor teacher and they received little support from their administrator.

Making matters worse was the placement of their classrooms, along with another young white woman who taught art, in the same corridor. This corridor quickly became known to students as a place to hang out, eat, and cause trouble with no fear of consequences from the three young teachers.

Since Sara and Kristen knew that they could not be authoritarian (nor did their own beliefs support this strategy), they spent time getting to know their students and calling their students' homes frequently. They called home to make both good and bad reports, but received mixed responses. Some parents were enthusiastic and eager to help—they were happy that some teachers at that school finally seemed to care—while others seemed bothered by the frequent intrusions. Both Sara and Kristen were regularly in contact with the families of both Jackie and Keisha.

Jackie and Keisha, Students
Jackie was a bright girl and a good student. She always came to school well dressed, with her hair perfectly styled. She often wore high heels and had long, painted fingernails. Jackie completed all of her assignments and received high grades. She was also a noted singer and artist at the school. She often stayed after school for special enrichment programs or to spend time with, or get extra help from, Sara and Kristen. She lived with both parents, who supported her and kept close contact with her teachers.

An intimidating group of girls, of which Keisha was a part, picked on Jackie frequently. Although Jackie kept to herself most of the time, the girls often got the best of her and provoked her to fight them. Because Jackie was fairly easily provoked, she frequently got into trouble as a result of defending herself.

Keisha was also a bright girl, but struggled in most of her classes. She constantly talked or fooled around and had difficulty working and completing tasks. She spent most of her time with a group of girls who had similar difficulties, and caused trouble throughout the school. Although most of the girls were very bright, many of them had difficulties in school. Because this group of girls was so tough, Sara and Kristen spent much time getting to know them. They spent many after school hours with the girls, and even invited them to Sara's house for a big dinner. Despite the teachers' attempts, the girls' behavior improved little. Sara and Kristen frequently called the girls' families.

When Sara and Kristen first called Keisha's home and talked to her grandmother, her behavior improved drastically. Keisha was so fearful that the teachers would call home again, that Sara and Kristen worried that they may have ignited some abuse. However, Keisha's misbehavior soon returned, so Sara and Kristen continued to call her grandmother.

Mrs. Jameson, Keisha's Grandmother
Keisha's grandmother, Mrs. Jameson, had raised Keisha since she was born. Although Keisha's mother was in and out of the house, she was unreliable, and Mrs. Jameson suspected that she was using drugs. Mrs. Jameson had done her best to raise Keisha, but she worked until 6:30pm each night and could not monitor Keisha 24 hours a day. She worried about the neighborhood—it wasn't a safe place and she knew the temptations it offered to young girls. She knew that Keisha was having difficulties in school, and could enforce consequences at home, but she felt that it was the school's duty to maintain discipline and it needed to improve and do its job.

When she received a call from two of Keisha's teachers early in the fall, she was hopeful that—after so long—the school was improving. She was disheartened to hear about Keisha's misbehavior, so she promised the teachers that she would “keep on Keisha.” But soon the teachers were calling for every little thing and Mrs. Jameson felt that they were not fulfilling their responsibilities to control the students.

A Conversation After the Fight
“You know, I am at work and I really can't be bothered all the time for every little thing Keisha does wrong,” snapped Mrs. Jameson when the call came through.

“I know. I am sorry to bother you again, but this is serious,” replied Kristen.

“What did she do now?” asked Mrs. Jameson.

“Keisha was involved in a very brutal fight today. She and the other girl are fine, but we are very concerned about her behavior and the level of violence. She was trying to kick another girl in the head.”

“Did she win?” asked Mrs. Jameson.

“Excuse me?” asked Kristen, confused.

“Did she win?” repeated Mrs. Jameson, “I mean, because if she didn't, she knows she better not come home.”

Stunned, Kristen did not know what to say. “Well, Keisha will probably be suspended, I just wanted to let you know,” she finally said, still confused by Mrs. Jameson's response.

“Well, thank you,” snapped Mrs. Jameson before she hung up the phone.

Kristen's View
“I just don't understand Mrs. Jameson's response,” she lamented to Sara after her conversation. “I know that it is important not to be considered weak in this neighborhood, but to allow—to even encourage—this behavior is absurd. There are no consequences in this school, none at home—what kind of lesson are we teaching these kids? You would think that at some point, someone would say 'enough is enough' and start to teach the kids to walk away from these fights. I don't get it. I know how hard growing up is—especially as a girl—I don't understand why they have to attack and hurt each other. Things are hard enough for these girls.”

“It is even more frustrating,” added Sara, “to know that we don't even have the support of the parents on this—that they are actually working against us. It's unbelievable that they think it is okay for their kids to fight like that and to actually create consequences if their kid loses a fight! What values are they teaching around here? And what can we do about it? You're right—we have no consequences from the school or parents, and the kids certainly don't listen to us—how are we going to control them now? If Keisha's grandmother accepts that kind of behavior from her, then our authority is completely undermined.”

Mrs. Jameson Approaches Kristen
“This is the last time I want to talk about this,” Mrs. Jameson said as she walked through the door of the classroom clutching her purse and stopped a few feet from Kristen's desk. “I had to take off work to come in here and talk to you, but I want to get this thing cleared up.”

Kristen had expected Mrs. Jameson's visit after Friday's classes, and was familiar with her demeanor from speaking to her over the phone, but even so she was a little taken aback by her directness. “Well, why don't you sit down and we can talk about it?” she offered. Mrs. Jameson replied without delay, “I don't have much time so I can tell you what I want to say from right here.”

“Well…okay, Mrs. Jameson…” Kristen started.

“This last thing with Keisha and that other girl just goes to show that you teachers can't control those kids,” replied Mrs. Jameson. “They need to close this school once and for all, and I'm not the only one who thinks so.”

“But Mrs. Jameson, what do you want me to do?” Kristen asked, exasperated, looking up at Mrs. Jameson with her hands flat out on her desk in front of her.

“Do your job,” said Mrs. Jameson, “If you can't keep the peace and keep those kids from fighting, Keisha has got to take care of herself and that's what I told her.”

“Keisha has got to get control of herself and stop fighting,” Kristen countered, getting up from her desk, “and we need your help to get her to do that. We're sending her mixed messages. It doesn't help her behavior to have you encouraging Keisha to fight.”

Obviously frustrated, Mrs. Jameson paused for a minute, her face growing tighter. “To tell you the truth I don't think that white teachers should be teaching here. What do you know about living in the Bronx? You drive in and drive out and they want to talk to the kids about peace and all that other nonsense. That is not what our kids need—they need to survive and they need skills—that's the only thing that's going to get them out of this neighborhood. You teachers don't know what it's like to live here and to make it here—like my granddaughter would be able to walk down the street if she let some skinny girl beat her down. You'd be better off going back and teaching those white kids up in Westchester, or wherever it is you're from.”

Kristen had to stop for a moment to keep tears of frustration from welling up. “What can I say to this?” she thought, “What should I do?”

The people and events in this case are based on real life accounts, but have been disguised to protect confidentiality.



Discussion Questions

  • What are the assumptions being made by Sara and Kristen? By Mrs. Jameson? Are they being communicated?
  • How do Sara and Kristen's expectations about student behavior differ from those of Jackie, Keisha, Mrs. Jameson, and the neighborhood?
  • Do Sara and Kristen have realistic expectations for involving students' families in managing student behavior?
  • How does the difference in beliefs between Mrs. Jameson and the teachers about the role of the school and family in maintaining student discipline affect their communication?
  • How does the perception of some school staff as “outsiders” as a result of racial, ethnic, or class differences impact their effectiveness as educators?
  • Whose responsibility is it to change the problematic behavior of the students in Intermediate School 91?
  • If you were a teacher in a similar setting, how would you resolve the situation? Would you involve the principal or any other school personnel? If you were a caregiver in a similar situation, how would you respond?
  • What affect could school or district wide policies and strategies, such as recruitment of teachers, have on student discipline issues?

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project