On a Monday, it was a student in the back of the room on her cell phone. On another day, it was a student with his head down. And in that same week, a third student was dancing while hearing imaginary music. Throughout this year and last, when students were off-task or acting inappropriately, I found myself becoming very upset … at myself.
I constantly felt there was more that I needed to be doing to motivate them, engage them, and support them in making good decisions. All three instances resulted in the students having a “time out” in the hall to reflect, a follow-up discussion with me, and lunch detention. And while I was seeing incremental improvements in my students’ behaviors, I kept thinking ... Wasn’t I supposed to be using more forceful strategies to get quicker results? Shouldn’t I be raising my voice to make a point? Calling security to have them removed? Writing a referral for not following the rules?
So now I keep wondering ... When did I become a softie?
Regular feedback from my students also makes me think about this situation. I often have them write me letters of reflection so I can gain insight into how they feel class is going for them. Several students have told me they think I should throw more students out of class because of their disruptive behaviors. And I keep wondering ... Is having a phone out disruptive enough to remove you from class? When you are removed from class, what do you gain that day?
Definitely not any knowledge on a topic like DNA transcription that we were learning in class during the time you were gone. So you probably can’t do the homework. And when you come in the next day, you might be able to copy the notes, but they most likely won’t make any sense. And today, we’re only reviewing transcription for about 10 minutes before we go on to translation. So now this doesn’t make any sense to you. You are now two days behind and likely to continue falling behind. You can’t stay after school because you don’t have a ride. When will you ever catch up?
So I guess I became a softie when I realized that the “punishments” we use in schools were not only ineffective, but also dramatically more damaging than we might realize. I think my “softness” came after a useful session with the advocacy group America Achieves. We were looking at research about the importance of holding students accountable for their actions. We want to ensure that students see the impact of their choices. What we really want to do is to help students make the right choices.
But our traditional methods are NOT working. Sending kids out of class or out of school doesn’t set them up to be successful when they return. Those “punishments” knock them further down the ladder they are trying to climb.
The America Achieves session introduced the idea of restorative justice—an approach that aims to provide accountability, community safety, and competency development. We also heard about the amazing work of Jose Huerta at James A. Garfield High School in Los Angeles, where they have shifted suspension rates and seen the student-achievement and graduation numbers climb dramatically. Huerta was featured in an NPR article, and he says “The school’s attendance rates are in the 96th percentile, the graduation rate is higher than the district as a whole.” He then adds, “We just got word ... that 27 of our students were accepted to UCLA. That’s the highest of any high school in California.” The work required to make this happen is complex, challenging, and time-intensive, but possible.
So instead of sending a student to in-school suspension, restorative justice encourages educators to help students see how their behaviors are disruptive and damaging. This is why I chose to treat my student differently when he called out across the room. I suggested he spend some time separated from the class and then asked him to write a letter reflecting on why his behavior disturbed class. Once he felt focused enough to rejoin the class, the two of us shared a dialogue about his behavior. When I asked what he felt he should do to restore his responsibility, he suggested helping clean desks during class change.
If you need an example of why we should all be interested in restorative justice in our schools, look to the recent news. We are all closely following the situation at Spring Valley High in Columbia, S.C. While all of the details surrounding the incident have not been shared, it is shocking for many of us to see a student touched in such a manner. And what was even more shocking to me was that in one video, I saw adults standing there, allowing this to happen without any objections.
While I do not have a classroom full of robots that quietly sit and complete every assignment, I can make the following promises to my students. I will never let you be abused in my presence. I will never set up a system that makes it harder for you to be successful. I will always seek a way to help you make good decisions.
My heart may be soft, but my will to help my students succeed is strong.