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March 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 6

Confronting Inequity / Development Over Punishment

An unhealthy fixation on punishment hurts underserved students.

Classroom ManagementEquity
Several years ago, I was walking down a hallway in an urban elementary school in the Midwest when a teacher proclaimed to a group of students: "We are not moving until I see a straight line." I was stunned as I watched the 3rd graders, who were not terribly out of order in the first place, desperately try to figure out how to construct a line straight enough for the teacher so that they could "move." I wondered what kinds of other learning opportunities the students were missing as a result of this "lesson."
Sure, it's possible I was observing a situation that had frustrated this teacher for many days—weeks or months even. But this story is not unique. In some schools, teachers focus so much on rules and punitive practice that they sometimes forget they are working with human beings who are developing and grappling with a range of challenges. The students treated in this way are often those who are on the margins of learning—those whose first language is not English, those who live below the poverty line, those who are black or brown, those who have learning differences, among others.
While I have spent a lot of time in urban schools (from elementary to high), I have also visited and observed in affluent suburban and independent schools. I have learned that, regardless of the context, students behave in similar ways: They sometimes talk without raising their hands; they have conflicts with their classmates; they forget to complete their homework; they sometimes use profanity; and, yes, they even struggle to stand in a straight line. However, I've noticed a stark difference in the way teachers in suburban and independent schools tend to handle students' mistakes. In too many diverse urban schools, students are treated like prisoners who must be punished, while in suburban and independent schools, students are treated as individuals who are learning and developing. In some high-minority schools, students spend a lot of time learning how to follow rules—and being punished for not following them precisely enough. As a result, these students are provided fewer opportunities to develop their own academic, social, and political awareness. In this way, some urban and highly diverse schools are preparing their students for jobs that require one particular skill: to take orders. Suburban and independent schools are preparing them to solve problems (Anyon, 1980).

Improving Learning Environments

I'm not suggesting that teachers (as well as other educators in schools) shouldn't help students understand rules and laws in society and schools. Rules are necessary for appropriate functioning of social groups. To be clear, punishment, not necessarily discipline, has to be reconsidered as practiced in some schools (Duncan-Andrade, 2016). An obsessive focus on punishment—to the point where it becomes more important than helping students gain the knowledge and skills needed to enrich their lives—is problematic at best.
This isn't just, or even primarily, a teacher problem. In the school where I came upon the straight-line fixated teacher, I observed other interactions, instructional practices, and curriculum decisions that seemed to disregard the learning needs of the students. The problems clearly started with the leadership. Although everyone contributes to a school's culture, it is the school leader who sets the tone. The principal has the power to strongly influence whether a school honors student development over student restrictions.
In that spirit, here are some key steps that school leaders can take to make sure their schools don't develop an unhealthy focus on rules and punishment over student development:
  • Ensure teaches have opportunities to improve their classroom management and instructional practices for working with the students in front of them. This can help them engage students and avoid misunderstandings and reactive situations. Even veteran teachers have to understand that students' situations have changed in many ways and their practices must shift, too.
  • Enroll in an educational or coaching program to enhance instructional leadership skills. School leaders need to build stronger curriculum and instructional leadership identities; when a stronger focus on curriculum and instruction is in place, punishment referrals decrease.
  • Give families and community members meaningful opportunities to be involved. Leaders and educators can learn much about students' needs and interests from the people who know and love them most.
  • Set school objectives around helping students develop a love of learning and education, rather than a dread of schooling (Shujaa, 1994).
The answers to problems in schools can be found in the context of the situation (Freire, 1998). Principals have the potential to demonstrate their leadership by working with all school-community members—students, teachers, counselors, social workers, and guardians to construct an environment where students take risks, are inquisitive, and develop a love of learning. School climates can change when we see students as developing human beings capable of flourishing. But for students to thrive, adults who work in schools must improve, too. My challenge is for principals to help create spaces that honor development over punishment for all.
References

Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education, 162, 366–391.

Duncan-Andrade, J. (2016). Note to educators: Hope required when growing roses in concrete. Lecture at the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Shujaa, M. W. (Ed.). (1994). Too much schooling, too little education: A paradox of black life in white societies. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

H. Richard Milner IV is a professor of education and Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Racing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2015) and coauthor of "These Kids Are Out of Control": Why We Must Reimagine "Classroom Management" for Equity (Corwin Press, 2018).

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