It is often said that teachers are no longer able to actually “teach” their students, as they are being forced to “teach to the test.” This creates disconnected classrooms, disengaged students and faculty, frustrated parents, and apathetic administrators. With these conditions, a perfect storm brews that results in increased behavior issues, including office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions, which do nothing to rectify or resolve any of the presented issues. How can we get back to the basics of what it means to be a teacher? How can we restore a school climate that is welcoming and encouraging? The answer is simple: rebuild relationships.
The first step at rebuilding relationships is we have to know our students. Like, seriously, know them. This means we have a responsibility at understanding their background, their family structure, their funds of knowledge, and respecting their individuality. This also means establishing a connection with each and every one of them that makes them feel special, unique, and appreciated. There was a vira video of a teacher that had handshakes for each of his students. Several other similar videos made it through the waves of the internet, really expounding on the importance of this type of connectedness. If we expect students to perform at their best, we must understand that they have to feel as if they are an integral part of the learning environment.
Dr. Christopher Emdin calls this “cosmopolitanism,” or a socially and emotionally connectedness that allows the student to own their place in the classroom. We can also achieve this by being intentional on having culturally-responsive classrooms and schools. Diversity of student population should be matched with diversity of curriculum, to ensure equity and appropriate representation. Now, there may be some teachers who aren’t on board with getting to know their students or families; however, that shouldn’t be a model to adopt or replicate, but one to have as an anomaly. Our students and families should feel welcome and see themselves integrated into every aspect of the school’s operation.
The second step is to create healing spaces for students and families who have experienced traumatic events and haven’t had the opportunity to start the healing process. We know that students with chronic and consistent exposure to violence and systemic barriers can have disrupted development, which can result in poor academic progress, lack of attachment, rebelliousness, and other “socially unacceptable” behaviors. In order to have students reclaim their individual power and success, interrupting the traumatic impact, they must have the opportunity to start healing. Trauma-Informed Care is a popular movement across districts, shifting the narrative from, “What’s wrong with you?” to, “What happened to you?”
There has since been a further shift away from Trauma-Informed Care to Healing-Centered Engagement. An article came out this year by Dr. Shawn Ginwright, highlighting the difference between both approaches and focusing on why Healing-Centered Engagement is a more inclusive, supportive strategy and places the healing space on the collective community, rather than having the onus on the individual. Dr. Ginwright explains that this method focuses on the strengths and gifts of the person, asking not, “What happened to you?” but, “What’s right with you?” Also, “research shows that the ability to dream and imagine is an important factor to foster hopefulness, and optimism which both of which contributes to overall well-being (Snyder et al. 2003)” (Ginwright, 2018). Teachers are the gatekeepers for success in the classroom, the school, and the community. When equipped by the right tools, such as Healing-Centered strategies, their students are the direct beneficiaries of a supportive and encouraging classroom. This allows for the relationships to strengthen and the opportunity for restoration to thrive.
Finally, the last step is practicing a different approach to discipline, being intentional around restorative justice and moving away from conservative, punitive methodologies. When we examine the “why” of disruptive behaviors from students, there is usually more than meets the eye. Too often, teachers and educators simply respond by impulsive actions, such as removing the student from the classroom or by putting them out of the building. This does nothing to address the causal factors that led to the behavior in the first place. One way to implement restorative justice is to reduce the involvement of law enforcement, including school resource officers.
The presence of law enforcement officials in a school setting typically creates an antagonistic environment that can cause distrust between students and teachers. If teachers are able to handle behavior issues internally and with the help of other positive resources, it can create stronger rapport; which in turn, can lead to decreased disruptive behaviors. Another way to create restorative classrooms is to allow for classroom community accountability. Allowing peers to serve as influencers, mentors, and “leadership,” allows for a shared experience of holding each other accountable. Finally, by demonstrating audacious hope, students understand that their behavior, their pain, their struggles, are shared by everyone else, including the teacher. This strengthens the bond between students and teachers and can reconstruct a lens of, “We’re in this together!” When students know you are consistent, you care, and you are in it for the long haul, they tend to respect you more than someone who is just teaching for a check.
A 2018 VICE documentary on teacher strikes in Oklahoma was shared all across my Facebook timeline by teachers, educators, and community members who understood or sympathized with the pain conveyed through the individual stories. The raw emotions conveyed this feeling of despair across the field of teaching, which is understandable more now than ever in the “DeVos era.” But, this doesn’t have to be the final sentiment of the teaching profession. There is a light at the end of the tunnel; however, it is going to take a shifting of mindsets, some institutional resistance, and a lot of love.
We can do this by rebuilding the relationships that have been lost through the completion of ScanTrons and school letter grades. We can get to know our students, we can create spaces of healing for them, and we can show them hope in order to push through disruptive behaviors. We don’t have to continue having maxed out classrooms of strangers but move to a familiarity where everyone knows each other’s names. Cheers!
Guest columnist Brandon Randall, of Indianapolis, is the program manager for VOICES Corp Day Reporting program.