As a school-based social worker for over eight years, I know firsthand how punitive discipline practices impact students both in the short and long term. In the short term, students are often harshly punished—missing valuable instructional hours and, more often that not, fast-tracked to special education services. I’ve also seen long-term impacts in which students begin to view themselves as bad, aggressive and hopeless.
Currently, school discipline policies encourage staff to move from “What’s wrong with this student?” to “What happened to this student?”. Many of our students come to us with traumatic experiences that often manifests in public behaviors. And while traumatic exposure is not an excuse for inappropriate behavior, it can set the stage for a conversation that works to support the whole child.
Like all skills, positive behavioral skills also need to be learned. In Chicago Public Schools (CPS), students learn these skills through evidence-based social and emotional learning techniques and restorative practices.
Beyond the need for students to learn these skills, it is imperative that we as educators check our own personal and professional biases as it relates to the students we serve.
While most people come to the profession with the desire to educate children, we often do not consider how our personal experiences shape how we approach children and their families. We may let assumptions, preconceived notions or even ignorance guide our engagement or instruction.
Speaking Truth to School Discipline at the Office for Civil Rights
Right before the new year, I, along with fellow Educators for Excellence, had the chance to share my experience on school discipline guidelines with Candice Jackson, the Acting Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
I had 4 minutes—and I poured my heart into each and every second.
While I didn’t feel like I represented the voice of all Black educators—or all educators for that matter—I was able tell my story, and share my experiences and hopes for how we discipline children of color.
I expressed hope that we would one day see the classroom as a shared space for learning and not one for adults to control children. I expressed faith in their leadership to continue to protect students through federal guidelines.
Lastly, I shared my greatest hope: that we as adults check our own biases and realize how they impact our work. While I understand that most teachers come into the profession wanting to teach children but as we should know by now you can’t teach them if you can’t reach them.
So I say to you fellow educators, your voice and story matters! As you grow in your profession, be open to having courageous conversations with colleagues and administrators about how we educate children. Reflect on your current practices, challenge yourself to be a student and allow yourself to learn from them. Seek to understand their traumas and adjust your approach accordingly.
I know none of this is easy and we may backslide in moments of frustration but you’re human and it’s OK. Just commit to being your best, and giving your best to your students. At the end of the day, our children are our future. So lets nurture them today.