Dogged Dilemmas in U.S. Classrooms

Over the past ten years I have blogged, I have written often about dilemmas facing teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members. These dilemmas (as distinguished from “problems”) have to be managed since they cannot be “solved.” That distinction goes against the cultural belief that Americans are “problem-solvers” who can–often through technology– figure out ways to end hunger, cure any disease, and iron out inequalities. But dilemmas differ from problems. This post explains the differences and gives a classroom instance familiar to many teachers.

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–what academics call “satisficing.”

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 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. You have to make a choice–you “satisfice.”

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 “satisficing” compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices between prized values.

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?



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

8 responses to “Dogged Dilemmas in U.S. Classrooms

  1. EB

    This is probably THE biggest dilemma faced by K-12 educators: try hard to keep disruptive students in the classroom so as to avoid stigmatizing them and possibly pushing them out of school altogether if they are teens; and at the same time try hard to maximize learning for the rest of the students. It’s clear to me that many disruptive students need what amounts to a therapeutic classroom, where there is major attention to their behavioral and emotional development. But the money (and political will) for that seems unavailable. So while this could be seen as a “problem,” in the sense that there is a theoretical solution, it remains a dilemma because we fear to take decisive action and to spend the money it would take to truly address disruptive students’ issues..

    Others might frame this as a different sort of dilemma: that schools have to cope with problems that students bring with them to school, while having no power to influence what goes on at home or in the community (or for that matter, inside the students’ heads).

    It’s clear that charter schools (and to a lesser extent private schools) gain purchase in many communities almost exclusively because they offer a calmer school climate.

  2. So Alberto is doing his work in class, and there’s no mention that he’s having difficulties in other classes. That’s information I’d need to fully decide whose problem this is. If Alberto is misbehaving in all classes, then it becomes the administrator and parents’ (plural) problem. If Alberto is only misbehaving in biology and the other teachers say Alberto is behaving properly, then it’s time to look at the teacher.

    But I’dI argue it is a problem, not a dilemma. There is no prized value here. Alberto is destroying the learning opportunities of all the other students, most of whom are also black or Hispanic. There is no competing educational need of Alberto that outweighs their needs.

    Teachers and administrators are legally mandated reporters. If they believe Alberto’s mother, then Alberto is physically at risk. Alberto’s mom’s desire to have the father work those two jobs and pay the bills does not outweigh Alberto’s safety.

    There are often genuine dilemmas, but I do believe that sometimes administrators and teachers violate the law and their educational priorities. Alberto is misbehaving in class. That can’t continue. The individual circumstances of Alberto’s family life and his mother’s wishes can’t outweigh the school’s responsibility to other students and indeed to Alberto himself.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, it would have helped if there were more information on Alberto in other classes. Because you highly prize the value of class discipline and interruptions that disturb other students harms that value, I do understand why you re-define it as a problem rather than a dilemma. The reframing that you do happens often. Thanks for making it clear.

      • Don’t get me wrong. You know I’d try to reach Alberto, too! My only point is that we need absolutes. Not everything is relative. And I do find it disturbing how often I hear teachers mention their concern that parents are engaging in abusive behavior and not report it.

      • larrycuban

        I did not get you wrong. And, yes, I understand what disturbs you.

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