Lessons learned?

Partnership for Change director Hal Colston wants my partner teacher and me to present again to the school board tomorrow night. The last time we did (or really, Suzy did) was in December, when she issued an appeal to the board members to come visit.

We believe that those people who are making budgetary and policy decisions for students ought to meet those students they are representing, and not just the ones they call “son” and “daughter.”

So we invited them. And Suzy tried to remove any barrier to a visit: Should we bring anything? Prepare anything? No. Just come. Should we give you notice? No. Just come. Do we have to stay the whole time? No. Just come.

We know life happens. We know that there was hiring processes going on for the superintendent position and that a lot of their time outside of the rest of their lives was spent doing that. But they voted on a budget that we still are not 100% clear on. Neither of the two budgets proposed by interim Superintendent Howard Smith was approved; unable to come to a meeting of the minds, they went down the middle. What does that mean? Cuts will happen. No one is sure where. Because the school board just knew they needed cuts.

I’m all for fiscal responsibility, but I also am for knowing your constituents. That’s why I’m never going to run for office. What I expect from elected officials is far more than I will ever get.

So anyway, to date, Ward 2 representative Brian Cina is the only one who has set an appointment to come to our class. He’ll be there on Wednesday. And we’re very happy. But we’re disappointed that others could not find time in their schedules even to pop by.

So now we are to address this group again.

And Hal wants us to talk about lessons learned, and we definitely have a message to deliver, but we are not quite sure how to do it without getting fired. But it’s important that we let people know how difficult it is to feel like we are the only voices in the storm. There are a few of us, but the hardliners are so deafening…

Ah, diplomacy is so elusive…

POINT NUMBER 1: Our population is changing, and we are not changing with it. 

This has been my mantra now for the past few weeks.

I went to talk to the school district’s multilingual liaisons just today to ask if they would talk to me about school, as Bisharo Kassim had. And then I told them my hypothesis: I believe that students have a different idea of school than we do. Teachers are far less involved here than they are in their home countries.

Those teachers lived with and among their students, going to temple/mosque/church with them, eating with them, playing with them outside school. We hear horror stories of how some (ok, many) teachers in their home countries beat students. But they knew the families and the problems, the strengths and weaknesses. They went to students’ homes to talk about issues that came up. Students also knew they could go to their teachers when something was troubling them.

We, on the other hand, are being told to keep students at arm’s length, as my teachers were told to do (when one of my teachers was accused of carrying on a relationship with me when she let me come in early to mark band music for her), and as I’m sure my parents’ teachers were. And for good reason. There are people who blur the lines, lose focus of their professional lens, as happened at our school just last year. And in trying to protect the school and the district from financial risk, we have been told not to call, text, IM, facebook or even hint at social relationships outside of school with students. I get it.

But our students need connections. And they are not getting them with us.

POINT NUMBER 2: We need to modernize and deal with the issue and not just treat the symptoms.

Instead of us meeting students halfway, between our cultural reality and theirs, we stick to our guns. It’s been this way for a hundred years or more. Why should it change? For some bratty kids who think they can get away with stuff?

And so our students walk out. Because, as they see it, if you don’t care about me, why should I care about this decontextualized algebra or history or health or art lesson you have playing out in front of me? Why do I need this? I can’t see any reason to be here. And also, keep in mind, that Vermont is a state that does not require all teachers to have any sort of ELL training, mostly because there are not many ELLs–yet–in other parts of the state. So how much of this could be chalked up to students simply not understanding and getting frustrated and wanting out?

And students likely are not only seeing this situation through a cultural lens of connectedness, but they also have teenage brains, not so well equipped for impulse control or decision making or even thinking beyond the present.

So they walk.

And then they are punished according to the same rules that you and I and my parents and likely their parents were held to, though I came of age when the paddle was going out of favor, after the principal had broken two over my brother’s back end… But honestly, is anybody asking why they are skipping? They skip a class, then they have detention. They skip detention, then they are assigned to Friday School (after school on Friday, when nobody else hangs around). They skip Friday School because they have to work, and they are assigned In-School Suspension on Monday, forcing them to miss even the classes they WOULD attend…

I have talked to administrators about this. They say that they have tried outreach again and again. Who? The same people doling out punishment who can’t remember the students’ names? I’m sure that worked really well. Why not try mentors? Why not find teachers who have been close to these students before to be the point person, the advocate? I was told that people had to take time to do this.

So what happens when we don’t?

I’ll tell you.

POINT NUMBER 3: We need to educate.
Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 7.10.56 PMWe disenroll these good-for-nothing students from the affected classes when it becomes clear that they have an iceberg’s chance in hell of passing. We tell them that they are not attending, so they are no longer welcome and need to leave campus as soon as they finish the courses they are allowed to keep.

So, yes. Please. Keep score.

  1. We fail to help them at the first sign of trouble.
  2. Instead, we punish. That doesn’t work.
  3. So they continue to behave badly.
  4. So we punish them more.

Get the picture?

Now, I will admit that I have not been part of the process. I was not invited. FERPA rules stipulate that student information only be given out on a “need-to-know” basis. Perhaps everything that could possibly be done was done before our students were assigned to ISS. Perhaps everything that could possibly be done was done before our students were disenrolled and instructed to leave campus as soon as the bell rings.


Not likely.

But perhaps.

POINT NUMBER 4: We must not be “One Size Fits All” because Fair is not Equal.

Equal-vs.-fair-300x203What I fear is more likely is that people started talking about how we can’t have special treatment for the special kids. And that’s not what I’m advocating.

I’m advocating that we take each where they are and we stop the “one size fits all” punishment policy.

We are looking (though stiflingly slowly) at Responsive Justice.

When I asked if we could look more closely at this, I was told it was a “systems change, not a case-by-case change.” Yes, it is a systems change. But on the other side, I beg to differ. This is from TransformingConflict.org:

When harm has been caused by inappropriate, sometimes thoughtless, negative behaviour then all sides need:

  • a chance to tell their side of the story and feel heard-
  • to understand better how the situation happened
  • to understand how it can be avoided another time-
  • to feel understood by the others involved
  • to find a way to move on and feel better about themselves

If conflicts and challenges are dealt with in a way that get these needs met then those involved can repair the damage done to their connections with the others involved, or even build connections where there were none previously. They feel fairly treated and respected, since they have been trusted to find solutions for themselves and put things right in their own way. Because they have been listened to, people in conflict are more ready to listen to others’ perspectives and emotional responses, and so empathy is developed. This can change the choices made in future situations, as mutual respect and consideration develop.

That’s pretty much what I’m looking for. A chance to be heard. A chance to build connections.

So I was asked what it looks like for skipping children to repair damages.

What it looks like is that students get chances to build bridges, to build connections. And YES, somebody has to sit on that board to facilitate those talks. And that takes time and commitment.

Sign me up.

And eventually, students must decide what they want when they keep doing the same thing expecting different results.

That’s the definition of insanity, right?

But isn’t insanity what we are playing at now? We punish, they misbehave, we punish, they misbehave, until each raises the stakes so high that there is nowhere else to turn…

But we need to try. Because no matter how many times we call them “young adults,” they are children. They are somebody’s children. And we need to raise them up rather than throw them to the community and make them someone else’s problem.

And then maybe we all wouldn’t feel so alone and beaten down. We became teachers to experience the joy. But it’s hard going to work when it feels like an uphill battle to let the kids in the door.

“The educator has the duty of not being neutral.”
Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change

2 thoughts on “Lessons learned?

  1. Thank you for writing this, Beth. This is a description of how I left school in the first months of 9th grade. My community did not catch me, either.


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