Staring the School to Prison Pipeline in the Face
One of the reasons I find myself back in the classroom after leaving it for grad school with the intention of never returning is a newfound belief in the power of classroom teachers. I had left teaching with the hopes of "making a bigger difference" or something clichéd to that effect. But soon into my first semester, during a class focused policies surrounding teacher effectiveness, it dawned on me that the people who work directly with children each day wield more power than the policymakers. It's a different kind of power to be sure, but it seems more transformative to me.
As a classroom teacher, I consider myself on the front lines of some of the most pressing issues of school reform. One of those issues, or perhaps the all-encompassing issue, is the school to prison pipeline, explained by the New York Civil Liberties Union here:
The School to Prison Pipeline is a nationwide system of local, state and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system. This system disproportionately targets youth of color and youth with disabilities. Inequities in areas such as school discipline, policing practices, high-stakes testing and the prison industry contribute to the pipeline.The injustice of the school to prison pipeline is one of the driving motivations for me to be a better teacher. In the context of the school to prison pipeline, classroom management is no longer just a "domain of effective teaching" or a skill that can be deployed with a few masterful moves. It is a moral imperative.
As Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center dedicated to fighting prejudice and promoting equity in education, puts it:
The school-to-prison pipeline starts (or is best avoided) in the classroom. When combined with zero-tolerance policies, a teacher’s decision to refer students for punishment can mean they are pushed out of the classroom — and much more likely to be introduced into the criminal justice system.
This makes the challenge of working with a student who struggles in class that much more painful. Everyone who teaches knows that each year you'll have at least one student who tests your patience and requires your attention more than all the rest combined. This year that student in my class is "John".
John is a sweet, kid with a love of superheroes, WWE, and video games, i.e. he’s a pretty stereotypical third-grader. John gets into a lot of trouble however, because he also has a very low frustration tolerance and struggles to make friends. His main ways of interacting with his peers are through pushing or hitting. He also loves to stick the middle finger up whenever my attention is elsewhere.
When he is called out on this behavior by a peer he is as righteously indignant as can be. Talking him down while exhibiting fairness to his classmates is a tightrope walk that about 20% of the time ends with him just walking out of the classroom.
John, like all kids, is complicated so there are complicated reasons for his behavior. He has experienced trauma at a young age that would make many adults crumple, and yet he is resilient. And yet he struggles with creating positive, genuine relationships with his peers. So he’s inwardly lonely and insecure.
Understanding John and the reasons for his behavior however haven’t given me much success in helping him keep his hands to his self, follow directions, use respectful language toward peers and adults or generally manage his emotions in a healthy, productive way.
The “last straw” apparently finally came last week after many weeks of behavior that frustrated me, his other teachers, his peers and his family. Now the school is seeking an out-of-school suspension.
I'm left feeling frustrated, self-critical (as usual), and conflicted. I know that a suspension for a third grade boy is highly unlikely to yield a positive outcome. In fact it's almost certain to yield the opposite. To feel personally responsible for punching John's one-way ticket for the school to prison pipeline is a sickening feeling. And yet I also feel as if the school has run out of choices.
After multiple tries at individual behavior plans, counseling, parent-school conferences, John's classmates continue to feel harassed and unsafe. John continues to verbally and physically hurt others. Is there a chance that this sends a message to John and his family that enough is enough? Or am I being naive?
So what do we do? What do I do? As a teacher I know the power I have to help John. And I know the responsibility I have is not just to him, but to all my students. I just don't want to feel like I'm sacrificing John's future in the name of discipline.
And in all of this, it's important to remind myself that even as a teacher endowed with a great deal of power to discipline (or not) children, I also am working within constraints of a larger system. If New York City’s schools were funded more equitably, perhaps John (and all the students in need at my school) would have more regular access to counseling, not just as an after-the-fact intervention, but as a proactive support. If restorative justice was New York City Department of Education policy, or wider spread practice at least, or even practiced at my school, then I wouldn’t be facing this dilemma either.
I would love to wrap this up with something triumphant or positive, but the truth is this story is still unfinished. In the meantime I have this: We as educators to have a responsibility to examine our actions, interactions and classrooms in the context of the larger ecosystem we teach in. We may be "removed" from policymaking in some ways, but we are the practitioners who make policies and their inherent problems real. So sadly perhaps I can't keep John from suspension. But I can continue to advocate for him and if he's suspended, when he comes back I'll show him that I am here for him no matter what.