“The Authority of Inscrutable…”

chris riddell

One constant, unrelenting message we educators hear is data are life. All are data. Data are all.*

And yet, I sense our fumblings and amateurish attempts to understand and analyze data fail us, and moreover, our students.

We are often told to ignore qualitative factors that any scientist worth her salt would question, annotate, and contextualize. In school, those reasonable questions might include what students are in honors classes, or block schedules, or are they suffering from depression, trauma, or discomfort of food or housing insecurities? Does the staff work in congruent cross-content, grade level teams with a cohort of students to care for, or is the staff independent silos that operate in a vacuum?

Recently we received our discipline data from our administration. There was an anonymous rank order of highest to lowest number of discipline referrals, and then in content-area PLCs, we were given envelopes with our own data number. The data was not segregated by type of discipline such as “repeated defiance or FYI’s” — just a number. For example, a teacher who might use the FYI as a way to track noticings about a student would receive the same number of a teacher who calls to have a student removed. The discussion was led with how to create relationships with our students, with the construct that the better the relationship the fewer referrals one has.

To say that it was embarrassing and degrading for many teachers is the truth: it also left us with more questions than answers. And human behavior consequence: if a teacher feels that he or she is “going to get in trouble” for a behavior that behavior stops. Teachers will not be as inclined to write up referrals if we believe our sins will be displayed by the whole staff, while some with fewer referrals feel…well, who knows what they’re feeling without all the information? Do we know as a staff which students received the most referrals? Is there a date for a meeting with parents?

I have a power of assessing on the down-low, a quiet way of listening to students’ conversations when they think I’m not there. For a large woman, I can walk up behind students without them noticing. It’s a skill that comes in handy. They talk about the teachers they “hate,” talk to each other, or think they’re hiding behind the many screens when they’re playing Roblox. Those relationships do matter, of course. But oftentimes I wonder if admin confuses ‘relationship’ with the student transforming complete personality reversals, or that it means “friend.”

It does not mean “friend.” I am a parent and a teacher. The last thing students need is friendship from adults: they need boundaries, constructive, transparent care, and the opportunity to come back in and out of grace. Today a student, who does not want to work with others, tried. It didn’t go well. I feel irresponsible for asking him to, but my evaluator wrote that on her observation. Something about making him a part of the “community.” But another teacher and I work with him, contact his father, and allow him time to work in our classrooms when we can. He doesn’t want to be part of a ‘community’ right now. And while I wish my classroom community looked like sunshine hilltops and fluffy bunny laughter, these are middle school kids, and I like the community just fine. I like those individual students can find their introverted niche while kids who like a partner find one. So far no one is left out or doesn’t have a say. Isn’t that what a functional community looks like?

When we are made to feel intimidated by the data, that we don’t understand it or are incapable of analyzing it, then the conversation sputters. I wish there was a follow-up on our most challenging students, so we can truly help. Until then, the numbers lie.



*I have a hard time with data being a plural noun.


One thought on ““The Authority of Inscrutable…”

  1. Sometimes students are too awkward or quirky to feel comfortable as part of a community. And some just take a long, long time to find their niche. We need to allow them the grace to work it out themselves, sometimes.


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