Discerning What is Best for the Student

Discerning What is Best for the Student

My classroom frequently expresses, “It’s all about choices.”  If they bring in a mug with naked ladies taped all over the sides, they have decided to break a rule. If they made the choice, then it is on them if they have to suffer the consequences. It is not on me; I don’t allow them to put it on me. We don’t have to fuss and scream about it. We don’t have to argue about it. It is simple. It is tranquil. It is very peaceful. All I do is write it down, they sign it, and then we move on.

If I said nothing ever goes wrong, I’d be lying. I’d lie if I told you these guys never got on my nerves. Sometimes I want to scream! They can remind me of “mosquitoes.”  Sometimes, I can’t walk down the hall to go to the bathroom without several guys stopping me for one reason or another. As one of my favorite officers once said, “Sometimes I hate these guys! Nothing’s worse than a bunch of grown men acting like little bitches”! Of course, the men didn’t hear his comment, and I wouldn’t have worded it that way. But he sure hit the nail on the head. The trick is not letting them know they’re getting to me and to stick with the plan. On those days, it’s imperative to stay calm, smile, and remember to stay consistent.

Sometimes, though rarely, I have had to discern what is best for a student and have chosen not to follow up with progressive discipline. This is an example of the room for flexibility I referred to earlier. One afternoon, a student, Mr. Thomas*, was acting agitated and angry. I have taught enough special needs students to wonder if perhaps he was supposed to be on some medication. He was exhibiting what appeared to me as manic behavior.

The first problem was approaching Mr. Thomas without asking too many personal questions. I took him into the hall so we could speak privately. By the way, that is always a classroom joke. I’ll tell a student, “Step into my office,” and he’ll walk out into the hall. That way, not everybody hears the discussion because things can quickly escalate if they all listen to what transpires. Also, they usually cooperate better with me when they don’t have an audience.

After a few minutes, he stated he had bipolar disorder and only took his medications when he needed them. The ethical problem for me came when he told me he had stored his pills up and he had enough to overdose if he wanted to.

I knew the prison’s rules against an inmate having any prescription medications in his cell. It is always dangerous, and I was worried he was storing them up, maybe for suicidal purposes. The more likely possibility was he was selling them to another inmate, which is a serious offense. Another concern was that if I reported him, the other students or Mr. Thomas might accuse me of “ratting” him out. That put me in a precarious situation.

After thinking about all of this for a few minutes, I decided the most pressing issue was the possibility of a suicide plan by Mr. Thomas. He had mentioned his brother had committed suicide, which heightened my concern. I didn’t relay my thoughts to the student, but I was concerned he might have been contemplating suicide, which is a much more significant concern than if he was selling the pills. I asked his permission to call the psychiatrist on his behalf. He was skeptical that the doctor could help him but agreed to let me make the call.

Rather than get him in legal trouble and, therefore, also get him expelled from school, I decided the ethical thing to do was to call the psychiatrist. I immediately did so, and his office sent Mr. Thomas a pass for an emergency appointment.

I was never told the appointment results, but Mr. Thomas returned to school the following week, and he seemed much better. His behaviors were more leveled out.

Unfortunately, about two months later, Mr. Thomas again became very disruptive in my class, exhibiting behaviors indicating he either wasn’t taking his meds or he needed them adjusted. He was uncooperative with me this time, so I sent him back to his cell for the rest of the day.

I immediately went to the Director of Education and showed him my notes from the past month. We decided to have Mr. Thomas searched. He had six pills on him. Since then, he has moved to a different teacher. It wasn’t safe to keep him in my classroom, as he suspected my role in his “shakedown,” and he was upset with me. I never heard if he received any disciplinary consequences, but I may have stopped him from hurting himself.

Sometimes, one has to look at a situation and quickly discern what is best for the individual student, what is best for the classroom, and, thirdly, what is best for oneself. In that case, I thought the best option was first to try and help Mr. Thomas. When that didn’t work, we had to go ahead and confiscate his pills and move him out of my classroom.

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of each individual.

Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories of the challenges she has faced and the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest-risk students.