Take a minute to ruminate on your own K-12 academic experience. Was it a pleasant experience that left you with a love for lifelong learning? Or was it an exercise in drudgery that left you wishing every Monday was Friday?
I used to see this imbalance every day. When I was a first-year teacher to thirty 6th graders, I was excited and fully expecting the students to share my enthusiasm—but my students were there for safety, a hot meal, to see friends, and to have shelter for the day. Needless to say, the educational benefits of school were not the top priority for many of these students. Survival was their focus.
Some folks—such as those at “no excuses” schools—believe that an excellent teacher and zero tolerance for bad behavior are the only things that students need to be successful, and that success comes in the form of a college acceptance taking the child out of their offending environment. But the impact of this approach in Louisiana has yielded mixed academic results and disastrous results on disciplinary records, particularly for children of color and special education students. Last year alone, some 7,400 Louisiana students in grades K-3 were suspended—with the most frequently stated reason being aggressive behavior. The majority of these children are living in homes and neighborhoods where violence, poor education and poverty are the norm.
Through no fault of their own, these students have learned neither the communication skills, nor the behaviors to express themselves and their needs—what many these days refer to as social-emotional learning. All too often, these children are placed in classrooms where they do not have the skills to meet behavioral expectations; as a result, they feel blamed for things beyond their control. Without the tools to understand and express these emotions, they turn to anger, aggression and apathy—behaviors that create barriers to learning for themselves and their classmates.
To be clear, I believe that the no-excuses movement means different things to different people. To some, it means that there are “no excuses” for the adults in the building to fail at providing an excellent education to all students. To others, it means that students should not be excused from meeting the expectations of learning, regardless of the challenges they are facing outside of the school environment.
But here’s an important message: I believe that we can make a case for active compassion in the face of the no-excuses movement. Not only compassion for students, but for the adults as well.
So, how do we deliver education both compassionately and effectively? How do we build a culture of high academic and behavioral expectations, while also taking into consideration the challenges that students bring to the table?
At Noble Minds Institute for Whole Child Learning, we require that the adults managing our educational environment understand themselves, and know why they are engaged in this very difficult work. So, the first step is self-examination, a key step of restorative justice. In fact, we use a handout adapted from the Creating Restorative Culture organization to drive our professional development discussions. The handout addresses the six most crucial components of a restorative culture:
To ensure that our human capital pipeline is strong, we use this handout during the interview process, and throughout the duration of the school program. Restorative justice is part of teachers’ required discussion and examination almost daily.
Next, it’s vital to employ a comprehensive process for getting to know the students that you are educating. We often think of students as being one-dimensional, but we learn so much more about them when we invest in parts of their lives outside of the classroom. I routinely go to students’ birthday parties when invited, while my staff and I have lunch with our students daily, attend their sporting events and other extracurricular activities.
This accomplishes two things: The kids are happy to see me and feel really invested in by me, and I am able to learn infinitely more about them outside of the classroom environment—more than I ever would inside those four walls.
Resist the temptation to personalize students’ challenging behaviors—it’s not about you. Remember that one of the seven crucial components of a restorative culture is preserving the dignity of everyone involved in a disciplinary action—meaning both you and your student. Many power struggles happen in classrooms because the adult wants to win and prove they are in control. But truthfully, the minute you engage in a power struggle with a student, you lose your power.
There are three main motivations for a student’s challenging behavior—feelings of distraction, a desire for attention, or demonstration of a need. When you engage in a power struggles with them, you provide both distraction and attention, but you don’t meet that need—which means that that poor behavior will inevitably return.
Finally, compassion doesn’t mean that we are giving students or teachers a pass on providing an excellent education for all students. What it means is that we are employing more humane methods of bypassing the barriers that are legitimately impacting the educational environment.
Let’s be clear: I don’t assume that institutions are intentional bad actors. But I do believe that there is a lack of knowledge about how to be both effective and nurturing in an age where your survival as an institution is predicated on academic outcomes alone.
Students who complete college do so in part because they have learned to find value in and a love for education. You don’t get that from rote memorization, line-walking, zero tolerance and chants. You develop it from genuine, meaningful, loving interactions that build confidence and resilience through both accountability and compassion.