Just listened to This American Life from a couple weeks ago about discipline in schools (linked here). They packed a lot into a one-hour podcast:

  • teachers debating how to deal with quietly defiant children
  • inequitable suspensions on the basis of race
  • heart-wrenching true stories that make parents/teachers question themselves
  • schools that represent the polar extremes of discipline, including:
    • charter schools that take “no excuses” absurdly far
    • a school based in restorative justice (that seems eerily similar to the one I currently teach in)

As a teacher, I’m most interested by the different approaches to discipline that schools take. It’s easy, I suppose, to see the issue in black and white: tight discipline or loose discipline; suspensions or restorative justice; save the kid or save the school (this last one was literally what was asked of each teacher at a school faculty meeting last year). I’m a believer in restorative justice and was one of the people in my school network who helped push us towards a restorative system (details here), and I know that the concept of suspensions is inane and backwards. Yet, on occasion, I’ve advocated for suspending kids in some circumstances, and will probably do so again in the future. I couldn’t answer the question in my faculty meeting. There’s gray area all over this issue, which is terribly unsettling and frustrating, but anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t worked in a school.

This American Life successfully resisted the urge to simplify the issue, first by sharing with us some (not particularly surprising) insights from those on the ground: students and teachers at “no excuses” charter schools bemoan the strictness and fun-killing nature of the school, but are grateful for the end result, at least for those kids who can hang on and make it. Students and teachers using a restorative justice system are grateful for a system that builds empathy, compassion and community while keeping kids at the school, but they worry that they’re enabling some behaviors that are potentially destructive and not preparing kids for how the real world works.

To really capture the tradeoffs, the program gets you to the point where ANY alternative to a suspension/expulsion system sounds good, and introduces you to a restorative justice school that clearly has done wonders for a lot of kids. Then, of course, things fall apart via an incident where a students get into a scuffle with a cop on a school trip, leading to arrests. The teachers say:

My immediate reaction was, oh, no. It’s our fault. We’ve allowed him to get away with too much. We should have been suspending him more. We should have been more black and white. We shouldn’t have turned away when he did these outrageous things. We should have held him more accountable. And we didn’t do any of that stuff. And so it’s our fault he’s done something now.

Because maybe if we were a different kind of school, they would not have acted that way on a trip.

So no one’s happy with their own system. When children act out or disobey, you can build empathy, community and compassion through “teachable moments” (and do the kid a disservice because the world doesn’t care about teachable moments) or you can punish them and crush their soul (which is also a disservice because who learns well with a crushed soul?). It’s a conundrum, and the answer clearly is somewhere in the gray middle.

Luckily, the podcast also offered up some valuable lessons and reminders for teachers, regardless of what discipline system they use, including: use your power as a teacher selectively and with purpose; kids acting out is a performance and is rarely personal; punishing kids over and over makes them hate school and solidify themselves as bad kids, which rarely works out well for anybody.

All in all, the podcast was gripping and heart-wrenching at times – terrific entertainment – and closed with a nice point about how, too often, schools aren’t even sure what the purpose of their discipline system is:

If talking in circles is not the way the world does things, then Lyons is failing to prepare kids for the world they live in. And if they’re not preparing kids for the world they live in, they’re not doing their job, right? Isn’t that their job? Is that their job? … What is the point of punishment in school?

If only there were an easy answer.