The recent controversy around discipline at New York’s Success Academy has left many people with the impression that a school with a “no-excuses” mindset must equate to a zero-tolerance discipline strategy, even for its youngest pupils.
As the mother of a first grader at Chicago’s Namaste Charter School, I’m here to tell you that is not true. At Namaste, creating a peaceful school culture is a core value. I’ve been inside many schools over the past 20 years, both public and private, district- and charter-operated. But I’ve seen only a handful that could match Namaste’s depth of commitment to social-emotional learning and restorative justice. At Namaste, these values go hand-in-hand with high expectations for adult teaching skill, student learning and respectful interaction among the entire community.
Every so often, my daughter comes home with interesting diagrams in her backpack. In one, she drew and made notes of ways she could calm herself down when she was angry. We’ve used them at home, too. Another diagram used thermometers to show the ideal internal “temperature” for learning—not distracted or lethargic, nor over-excited, but calm and focused.
I appreciated this way of illustrating to children how our internal feelings can influence our external behaviors. And she’s learning skills to manage her feelings and her attention, skills I was never directly taught in the suburban elementary schools I attended as a child.
My elementary school experiences also included years of bullying that were never addressed, or even noticed, by teachers or school staff.
At Namaste, teachers and “coaches” (administrators, social workers and other staff who support social-emotional growth) have called me about the smallest interactions where my daughter might have felt hurt or unsafe. She has brought home letters of apology from peers. She has learned to take a pause after a mistake and write reflectively after misbehaving. I know that her class uses peace circles to address conflict and restore its sense of community. I’ve seen potential bullies become my daughter’s friends, and I’m delighted.
No place is perfect, and I’m sure that there will be times when my daughter faces challenging situations with her peers in school. Sooner or later, there may come a time when she does something she’s not supposed to do that warrants a call home. But I’m not worried that she or any of her classmates will be mistreated by adults or placed on a “Got-to-Go” list.
We don’t have to choose between zero tolerance or zero discipline in our schools. There are schools like Namaste that are showing the way to do better.