Yes, there is another way. There is another way to engage and relate to students in your classroom. This way is not violent. Not adversarial. Not authoritarian. Not paternalistic. Not antagonistic. Not punitive. And it’s not about control or compliance with authority. This way, dear teacher, is about loving our kids. It’s about building intentional relationships. About fostering trust. About authentic caring, as Sonia Nieto would say (2008). It’s about community and your role as a builder. A nurturer. A supporter.
As members of a team that works to support schools and teachers in facilitating relationships and building community, we can honestly say we have come to be simultaneously shocked at the lack of humanity and caring, while also not entirely surprised to see another attack on one of our students. Ironically, it became public just before we observed this classroom in an urban high school where a teacher, like you, had to make a choice. A choice that would either escalate an interaction with a student in her care or de-escalate it. A choice that would reflect a willingness or lack of willingness to maintain safety for all the students in her class, but particularly one in that moment. A choice that would either demonstrate her effort to develop intentional and meaningful, supportive relationships with each of her students, or not. She made a different choice than you.
The setting is an urban high school history classroom. The lesson on Greek philosophers has already begun when Chris, a Latino boy, loudly enters the room saying, “I got a notebook!” The teacher, Mrs. Hines, a black woman, does not acknowledge Chris. She proceeds with her lesson, which by all accounts is not at all engaging or relatable to the lives of these kids in 2015. Nevertheless, they are following her lead, completing the tasks she asks of them. Chris has no pen. He leans over to Tracey, the girl seated next to him, and asks, “You got a pen?” Tracey says no and waves Chris off, turning to talk to Kevin on her other side. Mrs. Hines calls out Chris, “Chris, enough! Cut it out!” Chris is still in need of a pen. He does have a notebook today, after all. He turns to Ben asking for a pen. Mrs. Hines has had enough. “Chris, please step outside. I am not gonna have this in my room. You have to go talk to Mr. Jones.” Chris responds, “Naw, Miss. Don’t be snitchin’. I got my notebook. I’m just asking for a…” Mrs. Hines interrupts, “Chris, just come out in the hall and talk to me.” “Naw, Miss, I’m not fallin’ for that.” Chris gets up and moves all the way into the deepest corner of the classroom, positioning himself as far away from the door as he can. He mumbles, “Why you gotta snitch? I’m not goin’ anywhere.” Mrs. Hines gives up and ignores Chris the rest of the class. She proceeds with her lesson. After class, a number of students remain to finish working on their assignment. Chris finds his way over to the front of the room and says to Mrs. Hines, “You and me used to be cool last year. Why you actin’ funny?”
While we were so relieved that she did not allow the situation to escalate, in the way you did, dear teacher, we still believe there is another way. She didn’t allow her own frustration to feed into a power dynamic that pitted teacher versus student. Adult versus child. Anger versus innocence. No, she at least did not let her frustration win over. To rise to the level of physically removing a child who wanted to learn from the classroom. What she did though was send a very particular message to Chris. A message that communicated to him he was a disruption and the reasons for his disruption do not matter. Which offers another message…that he doesn’t matter. That whatever it was he needed in that moment was not as important as her need to get through this one lesson on this one day in this history class. And Chris’s reaction after class makes it abundantly clear he felt- in that moment- that she didn’t value a positive relationship with him.
So we have to push her thinking too. First of all, despite a lesson that was neither responsive nor interesting, her students were engaged. She also had a student- Chris- who excitedly entered her room, albeit late, with the materials he needed to learn. He further sought out the other materials he needed to fully engage. Not only did she not take the time to acknowledge his arrival or his preparedness, but she threatened to exclude him multiple times. Could she have given him a positive shout-out when he walked in with a notebook? Handed him a pen off her desk when he expressed a need? Asked him what he needed when she noticed him talking to 2 of his peers?
Now, dear teacher, the officer who attacked your student in your classroom has been fired. And the conversation about this latest attack on a child of color will likely fade away in a brief matter of time. That feeds right into the narrative that we only need to worry about individual racists, individual white supremacists. That, however, is not the whole story. Implicit bias and stereotyping widdles into our classrooms and our relationships everyday. Everyday race is the elephant in the room, impacting expectations, relationships, and culture. “Implicit bias held by adults with decision-making authority leads to harsher treatment of Blacks than Whites for similar behaviors.” (Skiba, 2002). Thousands of people have taken Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, the seminal test of racial bias, and of those people, 80% of Whites tested and 40% of Blacks tested show a pro-White bias. “They consistently implicitly associate Blacks with negative attitudes such as bad and unpleasant, and with negative stereotypes such as aggressive and lazy.” (Harvard Implicit Association Test, Kirwan Institute, 2015).
You see, we live in a world where approximately 19,000 students are suspended from school each day (Losen, 2015). In 2011-2012, 16.4% of Black students were suspended or expelled compared to 4.6% of White students (Losen, 2015). “In New York, the number of disciplinary cases involving black girls was more than 10 times more than those involving their white counterparts and the number of cases involving black boys was six times the number of those involving white boys, despite there being only twice as many black students as white students.” (Crenshaw, Ocen, & Nanda, 2015). This is also a world where we know there is precisely no evidence that exclusionary discipline has any positive effects (Losen, 2015). We, as educators, have to commit to disavowing power and control over our kids. You see, they are just that…kids. Kids who deserve love and trust and positivity. And kids, even on their rough days, are entitled to learn. Entitled to high-quality, relevant, responsive instruction (Kumar, Karabenick, & Burgoon, 2015).
Our closing thoughts for you, dear teacher, are really more questions for you to think about: What are 3 things you know about this student that have nothing to do with academics? What are 3 things you know about each of your other students that have nothing to do with academics? Take a minute to think about the students in your class who witnessed this violence. How do they feel? What has been lost with them? How do you repair? Rebuild? Did you consider that she wanted to stay in the classroom? What exactly would the harm in that have been? What would have been the benefit? Did you consider attempting to re-engage her? You see the thing about discipline is that it’s purpose is to reconnect students to learning when they have become disengaged (Noguera, 2008). How do you like them apples, teach? Could you seek out the adult in the school who has a positive, trusting relationship with her and try to learn more about what might be going on in her life outside of school at this moment? Have you considered how this knowledge might help you be a better teacher? Have you considered why this might not have mattered to you before? And probably most importantly, do you see now there was another way?