The Death Spiral (Or, When Consequences Don't Work)

At our school, we refer to it as the Death Spiral.

It's when you start passing out consequences like 99-cent beads at Mardi Gras. YOU get a demerit. And YOU get a demerit. And YOU get a demerit. EVERYBODY GETS A DEMERIT. Half of your class earns a one-way ticket to lunch detention during the entrance procedure. And the next thing you know, all of your students are defiantly refusing to do their work, and you're wondering why you ever got into teaching. That, my friends, is the nature of the Death Spiral. It makes students unhappy. It makes educators unhappy. We should all just avoid it.

Easier said than done.

The Death Spiral has become easier to get sucked into than ever before, thanks in part to the pursuit of High Expectations. You may be thinking: "But Victoria, are you saying that we shouldn't hold all of our students to high expectations?" Of course we should. If I didn't firmly believe that all students can become outstanding critical thinkers, I would never have become a teacher. However, I also believe that the High Expectations espoused by some education reformers are absurd. I'm talking about the High Expectations that require all students to sit in a cross-legged position with their backs ramrod straight. The High Expectations that expect middle school students to know what the word "expurgated" means. (A student asked me for the definition today on our quarterly exams. Thankfully, I was able to respond: "I can't tell you what it means. It's a test question." Because the alternative would have been: "My GRE Verbal score was in the top 10th percentile, and I have no fracking clue.") The High Expectations that spawned the extraordinarily flawed Lexile Framework. (Blaine Greteman's article on New Republic perfectly sums up the problem with the Lexile Framework, an educational tool which measures the complexity of a text solely based on the length of its words: "On my way to work I pass the House on Van Buren Street where Kurt Vonnegut began Slaughterhouse Five -- but with a score of only 870, this book is only a fourth-grade read. By these standards Mr. Popper's Penguins [weighing in at a respectable 910] is deemed more complex.")

At my school, there's a saying: "Purpose, not power." When you give a consequence, it's supposed to be in order to facilitate student achievement. You give a consequence to a student because he's distracting the class and pulling focus away from the learning objective. You give a consequence to a student because she's off-task (even after you've given her repeated redirections), and she needs to master the content to pass the New York State Tests. You give a consequence to a student because he keeps making belching noises during his quarterly exams and CAN YOU JUST STOP PLEASE? But giving a consequence to a student for not crossing his legs in Seated SLANT when he's on the floor? It's ridiculous -- but I've done it before. I still do it sometimes. And not because it's good teaching but because, coming from Teach For America, it's been ingrained in me that this is the defining mark of a disciplined classroom. Criss-cross applesauce and all that.


(Created by my eighth grade filmmaking class for their puppet movie. Currently wondering which of these unfinished puppets would earn a demerit for misbehavior first.)

It doesn't matter if that student in the back row (who's almost 6' tall, by the way) sits with his legs crossed, or he stretches them out in front of him. You put him in the row with the Even More Space seating because you knew that he'd need it. So why would you refuse to let him use it now? As long as he's doing the work, that's what matters. (If a student isn't doing the work, i.e. the one student who put her legs up on the cabinets and tried to fall asleep during testing yesterday, then that's an entirely different matter. Shut that down ASAP.) But if he's learning, then what's the rationale behind administering a consequence? That seems a whole lot like power, not purpose.

I recently read an article from Education Week Teacher entitled "Why I've 'Softened' My Classroom-Management Style." While I think that the author goes a bit overboard (like not giving consequences for students using cell phones during class), I appreciate her sentiment. She discusses the idea of Restorative Justice -- a form of classroom-management that encourages students to think about how their behaviors are affecting others, as well as problem-solving how they can better manage their emotions in the future. And that's essential work that needs to be done with every single student. (Even I, a notably well-behaved child in middle school, needed occasional interventions when I became stressed or frustrated.) But it's also really time-consuming. And sometimes, especially in the middle of a lecture, you just can't allocate that kind of time to an individual student. So maybe you create a reflection binder; you have students sit in the corner and write a letter about how their behavior negatively impacted the class. But there are always going to be students who breeze through those assignments without a moment of honest contemplation. So what do you do?


(This one will receive the first merit. For flawless style.)

Something that's worked well for me this year has been the "flexible consequence." When students enter the classroom, I make sure to give positive praise both to individuals and entire lines. ("I love Clarice's strong, still, silent posture while she's waiting to go to the cubbies." "The red row is showing me incredible facial expressions right now. Eyebrows are down, mouths are frowning.") But I also make sure to give demerits for minor misbehaviors, especially to students who typically struggle. I always preface and follow-up the demerits with the declaration: "You know that, in my class, you can always get rid of the demerit by following directions and being a leader for your classmates." Then I keep tabs on those students throughout the lesson. When they're misbehaving, I might go over and check in with them one-on-one: "Right now, you're not on-track to get rid of that demerit. Let's see if we can turn it around." At the end of class, I get to make announcements like: "I saw Miguel working really hard today and setting a great example for his classmates. Miguel, you've earned back your demerit."

This works for a couple of reasons. Students have a clear and tangible goal from the entrance procedure onwards. They want to get rid of that demerit. This motivates them to "do the right thing" -- and they know exactly what they have to do to ensure that they leave my classroom demerit-free. They have to follow the directions. They have to try their best during the activity. And they have to be a positive member of the community (i.e. not distracting or mocking their classmates). Most importantly, they know that it's possible to reach their goal. Every day, I wrap up the class by taking demerits off of the clipboard. They've seen it happen hundreds of times -- and if their classmates can do it, so can they.


(You just know that this one is trying to be all sneaky. Hey Puppet, just because your covering your mouth with a book doesn't mean that we don't know you're talking.)


(Have you ever seen a guiltier expression? Demerit.)

While Restorative Justice may be the ultimate goal, we have to be realistic about the limitations of being a single teacher in a classroom with 20-30 students. I've found that, for now, the "flexible consequence" helps get my students back on-track without being too punitive. At the same time, if they don't earn that demerit back (and yes, I definitely make them work for it), then the consequence stays on the clipboard. No Death Spiral necessary.

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