Persistent Dilemmas That Cling to Teaching

Nearly three years ago I wrote a post on a new teacher’s dilemma. In that post I defined what a dilemma was and distinguished it from a problem. Then I presented an instance of a dilemma in a novice’s classroom and asked readers what they thought.

Since then, I have written about dilemmas often in this blog (see here, here, and here). Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I offer this older post again to new readers.

I have used the word “dilemma” in earlier posts since superintendents, principals, teachers, and, yes, students face situations that call for difficult choices among conflicting values. So for this post, I offer a thorny dilemma with which readers can wrestle.

By dilemmas, I mean situations where you have to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing you end up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value.

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us face is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices.

With that brief definition of a dilemma, consider the following situation that faced this first-year teacher.

In a culturally diverse high school of 1300 students in northern California, Dorothy Ramirez teaches 10th grade biology. In one of her 5 classes she has 32 students of whom one-third are Latino, one-third are African-American, and one-third are white, Alberto, a 17-year old Latino who has turned in his assignments on time and hovers between a C and D, has begun disrupting the class.

Recently, Alberto began to talk with those around him while the teacher is lecturing or leading a whole-group discussion. Even after Ramirez quietly asked Alberto to stop, he continues these side conversations. On two occasions, she kept Alberto after class for a few minutes to ask if there was something going on to account for his behavior. He said nothing. The next day, he repeated the same behavior during a student presentation and was rude to Ramirez when she asked him to stop. Two other students began smirking and talking to one another while the teacher listened to students give their opinions during a whole-group discussion. Ramirez asked Alberto to leave class for 10 minutes to cool off outside the door and he did. The same thing happened the following day.

Ramirez decided to call home because she feared that she was losing control of Alberto. If this occurred, then it might spread like an infection to the rest of the class. She called his parents and discovered that they speak only Spanish. Since she speaks only English, Ramirez enlisted the help of a Spanish-speaking counselor at school who called home and spoke with the mother. The mother told the counselor that she, too, is having trouble with Alberto, the oldest of her three children and she promised to speak to him.

The next day in biology class, Alberto had another run-in with Ramirez over the same conduct. The teacher called the counselor and mother and they met the following day where it came out that the mother couldn’t control Alberto at home. Ramirez suggested speaking with the father. The mother got very upset because the father works two jobs to support the family and if he finds out about Alberto’s behavior at school and home, the father will beat him as he has done before. The meeting adjourned with no action taken but deep concern over what to do if Alberto causes more trouble in class.

1. Which prized values are in conflict for Ramirez?

2. What are Ramirez’s options in managing this dilemma?

3. Which one should she choose? Why?

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Persistent Dilemmas That Cling to Teaching

  1. Since much of this post resonates wth my own (current!) experience as a first year teacher, let me take a crack.
    1. The competing values are the welfare of and productive working relationship of the teacher to an individual student versus the need to create a learning environment (legal burden) on the teacher for the majority of the students. Alberto’s behavior creates a disproportionality dynamic on the teachers emotional/physical engagement in the classroom. This can easily happen in classes of students (with diverse backgrounds and needs) and upsets an already delicate balance of the needs of each member in a 30+ student class on one teacher.
    2. One option is to crack down on Alberto and bring all the school’s resources to bear on his behavior and family life up to and even including removing Alberto from the classroom, reporting the family to child protective services, and thus probably perpetuating a downward spiral of educational achievement for Alberto. Another option is to do nothing, to make the classroom virtually intolerable for those who want to learn, and giving a subtle green light to others that want to disrupt and thwart learning. The costliest solution is to take Alberto into some sort of individual learning/tutoring relationship, giving him independent work that he must complete external to the classroom (library? during that hour). This means the teacher has the perhaps interesting but unwelcome task of bifurcating the curriculum in hopes of keeping Alberto engaged. The assumption on this last course of action is that Alberto has interests, and that he would engage the curriculum if it could be connected to his interests. [This creed is something I have encountered student teaching in an alternative learning environment, i.e. Big Picture Learning, Littky, Washor, et al.)
    3. Ramirez should choose the first option I delineated. The statement of the mom regarding abuse in the presence of the required reporters (of such behavior/incidents) suggests a clear next step. Ramirez should be proud of her sensitivity to the situation which brought the information to light. Ramirez should not regret the decision based on real or perceived shortcomings she has heard about the system she is referring Alberto to. Ramirez should be proud of having a classroom where learning is respected, she is respected, and those who don’t respect either will be put on notice.

  2. larrycuban

    Nice job of analyzing the choices, John. When my graduate students and novice teachers analyzed the Ramirez dilemma many arrived at the same choice as you did. Thanks for commenting.

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  5. Pete Laberge

    Has anybody thought that Alberto may be bored? ADD? ADHD? Have Aspergers? Suffer from mild Autism? Etc… He should be tested. He may be suffering from depression. There are many possibilities. Including those bugaboos of horrors, drugs or alcohol.

    Has anybody considered that some teachers and some students are not meant for each other, or that some teams of students are not teams? So maybe Alberto need to be put in a different class. (As a trial period thing.) If he succeeds, then, fine. If not, then that is not the solution. Alberto and this teacher might just not be “clicking together”.

    I realize the problem as presented… is entirely theoretical. But in real life, the ideas as they are thus far presented, could prove harmful. So we would need to find out more about Alberto, his family, etc.

    Yes, I know about the father. But he needs to be brought into it too, and it explained to him that his son has a problem or two. Yes, he might beat Alberto. However, it can be explained to him that this would not be a good idea. It might involve, police, children’s aid, deportation, etc. So the father would likely co-operate. After all, his whole family could be at stake. He would have incentive to cooperate.

    Also, no one seems to have investigated what goes on in Alberto’s other classes. In real life, this could provide crucial clues. Moreover, the other students have not been investigated. Something just before or just after this class… could be affecting Alberto! (A school bully, another problem class, a bad teacher, exposure to some…. thing.)

    Lastly, how are Alberto’s grades both elsewhere and historically? Has he had problems in the past, or is this a very new thing? There might be useful clues here, too.

    I am surprised that none of the professionals involved brought up any of these ideas. Perhaps they never met an Alberto, he is mere theory to them. Obviously they have never been an Alberto…..

  6. Cal

    I think John is exactly right about the underlying dilemma. One of the big issues I had at ed school was its predilection for focusing on the individual student rather than the class. I remember a case study in classroom management in which a girl had started hitting her classmates. Our small groups were to focus on identifying potential causes for the girl’s behavior. I thought this was absurd, and said so. As a teacher, the *cause* of the girl’s abusive behavior is far down my list of concerns. My first concern is the safety of all my students, and so the girl must be removed from my classroom–preferable permanently.

    If the school wouldn’t support my removing Alberto from the classroom, then I would put him in the far corner of the room, faced away from everyone else. It is amazing how effective this is at shutting kids down. He will not learn, true. But he’s not going to learn, anyway. My priority is my other students.

    Schools spend a small fortune on counsellors and other services. Those people have the first priority for identifying the cause of bad behavior, and providing the necessary support. I think the entire line of thought you present here (not necessarily your own) puts too much emphasis on the teacher’s reponsibility to the individual child, rather than on the teacher’s responsibility to the class. Of course, teachers must try to reach disruptive students, but only to the extent that the student is not interfering with the overall class.

    Ed schools aren’t the only institutions that have trouble with this concept. Many educational policies, such as mainstreaming, are premised on the belief that highly disruptive children are the teacher’s responsibility, with his or her responsibility to the class a far distant second. The current push to remove or eliminate suspensions spring from the belief that teachers are simply removing troublemakers to make their life easier, rather than ensuring the learning integrity of their classroom.

    And yes, I understand the reason for the dilemma. I’m not convinced that mainstreaming is a good idea, but I have often seen disruptive students removed from class when another teacher could have easily refocused the student and saved him. I don’t know where the line is, but it starts by everyone understanding that yes, there is a line, and teachers must ultimately decide in favor of their class, not the individual.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Cal, you are clear on which side of the line you would come down on in the case of Alberto. One of your virtues is the clarity of your decision. As always, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  7. One of the factors that you stated in the Alberto story was that he was an average student who had started to misbehave. The suggestion is that this is new behaviour. I am surprised that the teacher and counselor have not met with the vice-principal. It sounds like he is trying new behaviour for a reason and a session with the teacher, VP and Alberto is in order; after that one with him and his parents would be the next step but that would be tricky with the father. Is Alberto acting out his father’s disrespect for women? Why has Alberto singled out this teacher if he is not doing it in other classes or is he? I have often been surprised to hear that something I said or did was mis-interpreted by a student and offended them. Sometimes mediation is necessary between the teacher and student to smooth over the situation. However, if this is a case of Alberto’s doing this because he is enjoying the attention, then the logical step would be to remove his audience from him until he can comply. Ramirez has a desire to control her classroom and a need to protect Alberto from his father ( at least as far as we know). She should push for getting the admin. to find the root of Alberto’s aggression and she should deal with his followers. I would phone their parents because they might be more supportive and have more control over their kids. The key to dealing with most ( not all ) parents is to tell them that their child’s behaviour is affecting his learning and the learning of others. This is often sufficient but of course, you don’t always encounter sympathetic and effective parents.

    • larrycuban

      Cathy, thanks for the thoughtful response to the novice teacher’s dilemma over Alberto. Dealing with Alberto and trying to help him while also considering the rights and need to learn of the rest of the class is the tough part of the situation and where different teachers will come down on one side or the other of that line. See Cal’s response, for example.

  8. BB

    When I was a teacher (many moons ago) it took me too long to realize that I was not an effective counselor of students with behavioral problems. Normal highjinks I could handle; persistent defiance I could not. That is what school counselors, social workers, and vice principals are for. I learned to enlist those specialists when faced with students like Alberto, especially when a sudden onset of bad behavior indicated a specific trauma or family dynamic.

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