Teachers and students head back to class soon, but as another school year begins, it seems teachers are becoming more and more of an endangered species.
Many teachers-in-training find themselves struggling to master teaching demands with fewer resources; more students; technology to integrate; students’ mental, physical and learning challenges; and ever-increasing high-stakes testing and accountability. They also find they are ill-equipped to manage the classroom and student behaviors that hinder their ability to teach. Little wonder that many teachers flee the profession, creating a different kind of dropout problem, particularly among teachers in high-minority or low-income schools.
Eager teachers quickly learn that many of today’s students contend with unprecedented hardships. They arrive at school hungry, homeless or exhausted after caring for others, conditions that interfere with or even prohibit learning but clearly manifest in behavior and concentration. Teachers, working under pressure-cooker conditions, often have little time for students whose antisocial behaviors may provoke exclusionary punishment or arrest. Lacking specific training and skills in managing behavior issues, many teachers believe that youths, like themselves, should have the innate skills to manage their own conduct. Unfortunately, frequently used punitive measures send students spiraling toward suspensions, involvement in the juvenile justice system, and diminished motivation to engage in or finish school. Not surprising, student discipline correlates with dropout rates, and that’s particularly troubling in Texas where 25 percent of students fail to graduate.
But these patterns for teachers and students can be reversed, and it starts with a radically different approach to school discipline. It is called Restorative Discipline. Instead of asking: what rule was broken, who broke it and what should the punishment be, Restorative Discipline sees wrongdoing as a violation of relationship and asks: what happened, who has been affected, and what are we going to do to make things right? Using a variety of techniques, Restorative Discipline brings together the key players in an incident to learn what happened, listen to each person’s perspective, discover the motivation for the harm, and work to identify appropriate and agreed upon actions by which the student who caused the harm takes responsibility and is accountable for the breach of trust. The ultimate goal is to allow the responsible student, after making amends, to belong again as a welcomed, albeit chastened, member of the school community.
What’s ironic about the current approach is how we think about learning for both students and teachers. If children cannot multiply fractions, we don’t expect them to figure it out for themselves or stick them in detention to learn how. Yet with behavior, we assume that punishment or the concomitant suffering will teach students what they don’t know. We somehow believe that students will correct their behavior after a one-time instruction rather than recognizing that, like everything else, learning has to be delivered many times using many methods for it to take hold.
In the school districts where Restorative Discipline has been implemented, the evidence of its success is compelling. West Philadelphia High School, called a “persistently dangerous school” for the past six years, reduced violent acts and serious incidents by 52 percent in 2007-2008 and an additional 40 percent in 2008-2009. Students sampled in the Denver Public Schools showed a 30 percent improvement in school attendance and timeliness to school. In San Antonio, Texas, Ed White Middle School in its first year of implementation reduced out-of-school suspensions by 84 percent and in-school suspensions by 30 percent. In the latest Texas Education Agency report, Ed White Middle School received a star of distinction for student progress, ranking in the top 25 percent in the state, and number two when considering middle schools with the same demographics.
To achieve a lasting impact, we must take a much different and larger view of what we are really trying to accomplish changing a system to support kids and teachers. It’s been said, “When we don’t know what to do, we go to power.” Restorative Discipline offers an approach to wrongdoing where instead of defeating each other, teacher and student can engage in ways where both feel heard and respected. If we implement this reform across the board, we can take a major step to reduce the dropout rates for both students and teachers.
Marilyn Armour is the director of the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue, a professor of social work and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin. She has worked with school districts across the country in implementing a Restorative Discipline model.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Huffington Post, Houston Chronicle, Beaumont Enterprise and the Austin American Statesman.