I did a lot of reflecting this past week on ways I can use my white privilege to dissolve racial oppression and injustice in this country.
It’s a tall order and it’s not something I — or any one person — can do alone. It has to be systematic dismantling of inherently racist systems built on the backs of slaves, the acceptance of Jim Crow laws, and around white privilege.
One of the institutions we need to rebuild is the one I work for: education.
As an educator, I have an inherent responsibility to change the system I work in. professional development book club in my building read Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy & Responsibility Using Restorative Justice by Nathan Maynard and Brad Weinstein last fall.
I went through my reading notes on this book, the quotes I collected, and the discussions I had with colleagues. I felt like, if education really took these hacks to heart, we would be further than we are now in dismantling the inherent prejudices that exist in our school systems.
The authors open with a discussion of the school-to-prison pipeline, a path paved by education and criminal justice that funnels people of color through more than white people with inequitable justice. Maynard and Weinstein relate stacks of data illustrating that students who experience detentions, suspensions, expulsions, and other old-school discipline methods bias towards students of color and only work to increase the harm the student experiences, leading to a higher likelihood those students end up in prison.
“black students are suspended and expelled three times as often as white students, and students with disabilities are suspended twice as often as their non-disabled peers. Zero-tolerance policies, which deliver harsh, predetermined punishments, are a root cause of many suspensions and expulsions in schools to day, often affecting minority students the most”Maynard & Weinstein 9
If you know anything about how our criminal justice system works, you might know that mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes work often to disenfranchise and further limit people of color in this country. The system works as Michelle Alexander calls it, the “New Jim Crow” laws (a forthcoming post on her book in the future!).
Hacking School Discipline suggests multiple methods for schools boards, administrators, and educators to institute restorative justice in classrooms and schools. What they have to say about why these methods work and the methods themselves make so much sense.
They open each chapter by identifying the problems educators face: “students are not being heard,” “classroom issues aren’t being dealt with in the classroom,” “punitive consequences do not work,” “relying on rules doesn’t work,” “too many students maintain a fixed mindset,” “students lack self-awareness and regulation,” “students don’t speak the language of empathy,” “schoolwide policies are not enough,” and “we don’t know what we don’t know.”
For each of these problems, the authors offer a “hack”: let students talk and listen to them, circle up with students, repair the harm with them, throw out the rules, create growth mindsets, teach mindfulness, cultivate empathy, build restorative support, and create a “snapshot” of what’s going on with students.
I know. Easier said than done. It always is.
But, each chapter defines each hack, lays out a specific strategy you can try the very next day, a blueprint for full implementation, ways to overcome pushback, and specific examples collected from schools already using these hacks.
It’s not about letting students “off-the-hook” for negative behaviors, because that too causes harm. It’s about reframing how we understand these behaviors and how we as adults and educators respond to them.
“[restorative justice] does not mean we need to accept disrespect and other negative behaviors . . . combat them in another way”Maynard and Weinstein 13
“within every wrongdoing is a teachable moment . . . .take advantage of that moment rather than throwing it — and the student — out with the trash . . . . Every behavior is a form of communication”Maynard & Weinstein 10
That’s why this book is an excellent read for parents, too! Take what Maynard and Weinstein suggest, and apply it within your own homes.
Children and young people often behave in ways that are not appropriate because they have never learned how to otherwise handle the situation. This is true of adults too. Just because you had a mentor or parent in your life teaching you and providing you space to practice a behavior, does not mean everyone has that privilege.
“students are not inherently troubled. Something has happened to cause trouble”Maynard and Weinstein 11
“All humans are hardwired to connect. Just as we need food, shelter, and clothing, human beings also need strong and meaningful relationships to thrive”Maynard and Weinstein 11
If there is someone in your life behaving in a way you don’t like, the hacks in this book might help you better understand why they are acting that way and how you can most constructively respond. The authors speak directly to people in education, but aren’t we all teachers in some fashion or another?
If you are an educator, make it a top priority to read this book. Begin implementing strategies as soon as you can. Each chapter even has a section called “What You Can Do Tomorrow.” I tried the “Repair the Harm” hack the day after reading the chapter in early November 2019.
My American Studies Students were working on a collaborative compare and contrast paper in which they compared the experience of reading the text of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to watching a filmed performance of it. One of my pairs got into a tough spot. One of the partners wasn’t pulling their weight; their partner felt pressure to do well. Instead of confronting their partner about their lack of effort, they chose to plagiarize sections from an online source. When I discovered this (I always tell my students, “I can smell a good plagiarism job a mile away . . . and so far I have yet to see anyone do a good plagiarism job”), I used the first three hacks in this book: talk & listen, circle up, and repair the harm.
It wasn’t perfect, it went a little bumpy, but it ultimately ended for the best. My relationships with the students remained intact and they each took responsibility for their actions. They remained friends, too, which is what I was most happy about, I think. One of them was even our choice for the Honors Night recognition for our class because we appreciated the way they learned from their mistake and used what they learned to do better in the future.
Ultimately, using hacks like this one elevated the quality of learning in my classroom. At first, I wondered if spending the time these authors recommended would really be worth it. In the end, I realized that these practices save me time in preventing troubling behaviors down the road and from having to restart a harmed relationship with a student I disciplined from a zero-tolerance mindset.
“Time spent disciplining students takes away from the primary reason many of us went into teaching: to help kids learn and grow”Maynard and Weinstein 12
While the book club and I all had questions and varying levels of skepticism, I think it was clear to all of us that this is what schools and educators need to be implementing to strengthen relationships with students, teach students how to take responsibility for their actions, and to change the flawed system we have now.
This weekend, I started to wonder about a few things: Why aren’t these methods required of educators? Why aren’t we evaluated on this but 30% of my evaluation depends on standardized test scores (standardized tests are another tool of racial oppression, by the way)?
It seems like there might be something off in our priorities when it comes to education and justice in this country. There’s no time like the present to get to work! Reading this book is an excellent first step.
What other steps can educators take to ensure equity and justice in our schools? Leave me some comments!
Trigger Warnings: racial profiling; ableism