The student entering my thoughts today is John. [His name has been changed for privacy.] John was in my intervention reading class. When I think of John, I usually picture him hunched over in his desk, one leg crossed over the other, reading Bud, Not Buddy. It’s the best book he’s ever read, and the fact that he told me that makes me so proud. But today, I’m picturing John a little differently. This time, he’s hunched over at his desk playing on his phone. From across the room, I ask John to put his phone away, and I continue my conversation with a different student. A few minutes later, as I make my way to John’s side of the room, I see that he is on his phone again. My typical response to a student’s second offense to having their phone out is to take it from them, set it by my computer, and return it at the end of class. Most students appreciate the fact that I don’t turn it into the office for the whole day, which makes them more likely to cough it up without a fight. But not John. When I quietly reached out my hand, palm out, he responded, “I’ll put it away.”
Now, the rest of the story pains me to tell. Because, by all means, John responded appropriately. I was upset that he was distracted by his phone and not completing his work. He was willing to put the phone away and rid himself of the distraction. I should have stopped here, said thank you, and moved on. But I didn’t.
In Act I, Chana Joffe-Walt discusses the school-to-prison pipeline and the idea that the discipline that schools use (such as suspension) actually teaches students to believe that they are bad. And it starts as early as preschool.
When we assign consequences to students that don’t acknowledge the root cause of the behaviors and don’t provide students an avenue to grow, we are labeling them as bad. By defining students simply through their (bad) behavior, we defeat their self-esteem and potentially set them up for interactions with the criminal justice system.
A major study in Texas found that students who were suspended from school were almost three times more likely to have an interaction with the criminal justice system in the following year.
Additionally, as you may have heard in the media over the last few years, our school-discipline system is racially biased. According to the Texas study, black and Hispanic students are more likely to have discipline violations than white students. A study from Yale also found that preschool teachers displayed implicit bias when expecting bad behavior from black students. According to US Department of Education, black students are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than white students in K-12, and 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool.
This research has led a lot of schools to institute “restorative justice,” including mine. Restorative justice is “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour” that focuses on including all affected parties, examining the problem from all sides, repairing the harm, and returning to the environment (Centre for Justice and Reconciliation).
At my school, this means we ask five questions when a student displays unacceptable behavior.
- What happened? What is going on? How did we get here?
- How do you feel about it?
- Who was affected/harmed, both facts/feelings?
- What part of this situation can you take responsibility for?
- How can this be fixed? What can you do to make this right with those affected?
After John refused to hand me his phone, I sent him to the office. This moment is so CRINGE-WORTHY to me now. I kicked a kid out, who by all real-world definitions, had been respectful. He was willing to change his behavior, but he wasn’t willing to completely give up his personal power.
On that day - I responded to a "misbehaving student" with power and discipline. My response to John came from the inherent power dynamics that are present in the classroom. In the moment, I felt like the situation was getting out of control. (And I really like for all the things to be in control. All the things. I’m working on it.) I also subconsciously felt the need to assert my power over John. I think deep down I was concerned with the image I would portray if I “let” him “disobey” an “order.” In the podcast, Joffe-Walt discusses with teachers the idea that teachers are scared: first, of losing control of class, but also scared for the student’s future.
I wish that I could go back to that moment and whisper to myself: power or purpose? I want to remind myself to take a gut-check moment and make sure that I’m not responding to students from a place of power, but instead responding with purpose. My purpose with John was to remove the distraction and refocus his learning, which could have easily been achieved if he had put his phone into his pocket.
What do teachers do when students behave? I think we start by defining the PURPOSE of the behavior we are looking for. We might surprise ourselves with the answer.