Teaching Opinion

The Mirror, Not the Measuring Stick: Treat Students With Respect

By Christina Torres — November 04, 2015 2 min read
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The assault at Spring Valley High School has led many of us to question our role as educators (Chris Lehmann and José Vilson wrote about this excellently).

It has led some, though, to start asking what we do about “those students.” I’ve seen a flurry of posts about “classroom management” and “defiant behavior” over the past week. Teachers have been asked what they would do in their classrooms or in this situation.

I understand that. As a teacher (especially as a new teacher), one of my biggest fears was what I would do if students just refused. If they said no, or if they even got in my face. I get why some teachers want to use this as a way to get some concrete discussions going on around classroom management.

Still, I think it’s important to look past that concrete help and remember that “defiant behavior” should not be what we focus on about the assault at Spring Valley High School. We should focus on what led to a student being unnecessarily mistreated in a space that should value and support her.

What happened at Spring Valley and what continues to happen in schools across the nation is so much more than an individual incident. It stems from a deeply rooted belief that students need to be controlled and that students of color must be criminalized in to get them “on the right path,” as the New York Times reports.

The thing is, many of us understand that just doesn’t work. Dr. Andre Perry writes about this in his aptly titled piece, “Treat students like future teachers - not criminals":

Zero-tolerance policies never work. Police officers are not teachers. Good teaching and classroom management solves problems in the classroom. Leaning on police is a telltale sign the teacher is ineffective. When an officer is called to a classroom, one of two things happens: Either the student is either sent home via suspension or expulsion, or the student is sent to jail. The kind of learning that propels students to college and keeps them out of prison demands that students stay in school. Out of school time isn't educational. Again, police are not teachers. Schools are not holding cells.

When we begin the relationship seeing our children as future criminals instead of giving them the respect they deserve as future leaders, it can influence how we speak them, treat them, and the way we help guide them to reach their full potential. We are so quick to look at these students and see them as “not enough” or “defiant,” that we run the risk of also failing to see them as human.

Yes, we want to challenge our students. Of course, we want them to have high expectations of themselves. We want to help kids hold themselves accountable. Challenging students does not have to come at the expense of their humanity. We shouldn’t gain “success” by asking students to give up agency, or rob them of the important opportunity to be children, make mistakes and learn from them.

Teachers are called on to educate, to challenge, but overall to be compassionate. In reading Dr. Perry’s piece, I was reminded of this TEDxTalk from Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries.

You don't hold up the bar and ask anybody to measure up, you just show up. You hold the mirror up and you tell people the truth: you are exactly what God had in mind when God made you. And then you watch people become that truth. You watch them inhabit that truth. And no bullet can pierce it. No four prison walls can keep that out, and death can't touch it... but sometimes you have to reach in and dismantle messages of shame and disgrace that get in the way, so that the soul can feel its worth." (11:35)

Beyond our own beliefs, we know that we are called on to not just push our students, but we are also called on to care about them. That means that we must respect, accept, and maybe even love them, just as they are, in their occasionally imperfect perfection.

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in 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.