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Education Opinion

To Make Communities Safer, Trust Students

By Sam Chaltain — April 16, 2013 5 min read
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Chapter 6 of the 10-part video series A Year at Mission Hill raises questions about what it takes to create safe learning communities. We’ve tried dress codes, metal detectors, police officers in schools, and zero-tolerance laws. Yet bullying and violence in our schools remain near the top of our list of national worries. What gives?

It might be worth examining whether the prevailing notion -- the one in which “adults make static rules and all youth must follow them” -- we use in so many of our schools is part of the problem. Students from Minneapolis and Milwaukee examined school safety issues in separate five-month projects facilitated by the Twin Cities-based Citizens League in 2008 and 2010. Both groups concluded that top-down, impersonal disciplinary approaches thwart students’ willingness to support a system that depends on their participation to keep schools safe.

Ramping up the enforcement of blanket rules with blanket consequences only gives a false sense of security, students said. They proposed that effective approaches will create conditions for adults and students to develop trusting relationships needed for students to feel comfortable reporting the information adults really need to keep students safe from bullying and violence.

Considering this context, it’s intriguing that, in their effort to create disciplined, safe, learning-focused communities, teachers at Mission Hill and other schools where teachers call the shots have decided to move away from dictating the rules and enforcing blanket consequences. They follow zero-tolerance laws, but otherwise these teachers -- who are responsible and accountable for their schools’ success -- embrace disciplinary strategies that earn students’ trust. These strategies include:

Opening discussions with students who misbehave. Teachers who call the shots choose to discipline via discussion with students and their families. Conversation helps teachers to identify when students need help and what kinds of support students need to realize their potential to be disciplined, focused learners. When teachers provide help and support to students, they earn trust. And, as Mission Hill teachers explain in Chapter 6, trust ensures they will get the cooperation, communication, and participation they need from students and families. As Mission Hill Principal Ayla Gavins explained in Trusting Teachers with School Success, “When student behavior needs discipline, we open a dialogue. We don’t assume anything about who was responsible, and we don’t have a consequence in mind. Instead we ask, ‘What happened?’ This opens up an opportunity for students to tell us what is going on with them. They don’t feel blamed. Instead they know they will be heard. So they will talk. Then we can ask them to take responsibility and find out if there are other [social or learning problems] affecting their behavior.”

Heightening adults’ tolerance for students’ behaviors and choices. Many teachers who call the shots say they’ve come to the realization that trying to control student behaviors that are not really disruptive to learning can be counterproductive. An overabundance of rules, and the requirement to enforce them, can easily become the real disruption, taking everyone’s focus off of learning and unnecessarily keeping teachers and students at odds for no good reason. These teachers find that their learning communities function better when they tolerate more and dictate less.

As Chris French of Baltimore’s Independence School Local 1 put it, “We offer a lot of leeway here compared to the way most schools in the district are going. We don’t send students home for dress code violations. We let them drink coffee and eat at their desks . . . We avoid allowing them any excuse to sit in ‘the office’ or go home. We’re teaching them real discipline: Stay and learn.”

Giving students real opportunities to co-define and co-enforce the community norms. In Chapter 6, we see a young Mission Hill student leading her peers in a discussion about the meaning and value of the community rules that the teachers and students created together. This is a common practice among students at elementary-level schools run by teachers.

In middle and high schools where teachers call the shots, students often gather in town-hall style meetings, or “circles.” Circles are made up of entire student bodies or subgroups coming together for team-building and problem solving. Teachers empower students to use circles to co-create school rules and influence school operations. In two schools, teachers have formalized students’ power, giving their entire student bodies a voting branch of school governance.

When teachers trust students with school governance responsibilities, they find that students are very effective at creating and enforcing rules. Plus, students follow the rules they create themselves. Having put hard work into creating the rules, students understand that their behavior can impact trust and safety within the school community.

At Avalon School in St. Paul, the students used their power to pass a bill tightening the school’s attendance policy so the attendance rate would increase. The students took it upon themselves to find ways to raise the school’s overall state ranking so the students would have a better chance at getting accepted into post-secondary schools and securing internships and jobs.

Avalon students also passed a bill with strict rules in order to get back an off-campus lunch privilege that had been taken away by teachers, and they continue to enforce their own rules vigilantly in order to keep the privilege. The teachers have observed that the students’ enforce the rules better than they ever could.

Avalon students are most proud that teachers trust them to continuously cultivate of a safe culture, which is highly tolerant of students’ differences. Teacher Kevin Ward said in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “We have to work at [our culture] every year, and we rely on students doing most of the heavy lifting to make our community welcoming and supportive to everyone who walks in the door.”

Teachers who give school governance responsibilities to students report that the practice is part of students’ learning at their schools; some even count it for civics credit. Students learn skills such as self-awareness, empathy, questioning, objectivity, analysis and synthesis, appreciation for differences, self-expression, collaboration, and compromise.

Teachers who call the shots are showing how we can design disciplinary practices to demonstrate to students that the adults in their schools respect them, want to listen to them and address their individual needs, and trust them with the responsibility of co-creating and co-enforcing community norms. If trusting relationships between adults and students are key to reducing bullying and violence in schools, as some students suggest they are, these teachers could be showing us the means to get the safe learning communities we so desire.

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent education policy consultant based in Orange County, CA and a Senior Associate with Education Evolving.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.