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This past year, I was a founding teacher at a charter high school. In Year 1, we started with 110 ninth grade students, 6 teachers and 1 administrator; we’ll grow by a grade each year until we are a full high school. This was the second time I’ve been a founding teacher in this exact way, and it felt much more familiar the second time around. That said, part of starting new schools is learning to expect the unexpected. Now for the second time, my mental list of what I thought would be our biggest challenges became useless early on in the year.

Discipline became a hot topic. Student culture was slipping; every adult knew it was important but there was wide disagreement about what to do next. Moving to a Restorative Justice system was brought up and seemed to have some support. I took this in, and met individually with every adult at the school and did some outside reading (mainly, The Restorative Practices Handbook and Restorative Circles in School). I came up with this one-pager that attempted to bridge the gap in our different discipline philosophies and set us up for a new discipline plan.

This year, student culture is our top priority. This year, we set the tone. The next three years, the eldest class sets the tone. As time goes on, culture gets more and more ingrained. Therefore, in terms of prioritizing, student culture is #1. If you are choosing between spending a little extra time on your lesson or sleeping a little more so you can be on top of student culture, choose student culture. If you are choosing between continuing your lesson or having an important conversation with the class or a student about student culture, choose student culture.

A strong student culture occurs when the expectations are high, clear, and predictable. Students feel capable of meeting this high bar because they know what’s expected of them. They have a good sense of what the boundaries are, and they know the consequences if they go beyond them. Though these boundaries may not be the same for every teacher nor the consequences the same for every student or every deviation from the high bar, things are consistent enough that students feel setup for success in living up to the high expectations, and they feel the system is fair.

Recognizing, celebrating and praising students who live up to the high bar is a great way to demonstrate the desired school culture. Highlighting model behavior should be a focus at our school, and doing so will result in most of the students striving to follow suit most of the time.

Even with all of the above in place, some students may fall short of our high expectations; some may actively rebel. When students behave in ways that show disrespect or harm to the community, logical consequences must result. This means emphasizing reflection, empathy and redemption.

[Note: I’m purposely staying away from the terms “conversation” and “punishment,” as these became loaded terms at my school. “Conversation” became a word that made some teachers worry about kids getting an easy out; the word “punishment” evoked feelings of a rigid, rules-based punitive system that bred distrust between adults and kids. In truth, “conversations” sometimes involve incredible reflection, empathy and/or redemption; other times, they involve none of these. “Punishment” is a completely subjective term, and whether a student interprets a logical consequence as a punishment or not is not a chief concern. We do not strive to punish, nor do we strive to converse, though one or both may occur. We strive for reflection, empathy and redemption.]

Emphasizing reflection, empathy and redemption requires patience. That said, there are techniques that we can use to help students progress in their development on this front. Perhaps the most impactful is ensuring that students hear and understand how their behavior affects others. This happens when people around them use “affective statements” and ask “affective questions” (that is, statements and questions that emphasize the effect that the behavior has). Oftentimes, when students are among those impacted, hearing from them can be the most powerful, for example in Restorative Circles.

Underlying all of this is the notion that interactions between students and teachers must come from a place of respect. This mutual respect is sacrosanct. Students must respect decisions that adults make; adults must separate the deed from the doer and avoid public shaming. A violation of this respect becomes the first thing that must be addressed and restored before other actions are taken.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts!

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