In the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing more and more about “restorative justice” as an alternative philosophy to punitive discipline in schools. I have to do more of my own research on the topic, especially since a lot of folks speak the term without really having a firm grasp of the concept.

A few things. Like a lot of concepts or models, there are likely numerous different ways to implement restorative justice, so choosing an appropriate model or package will be important. Additionally, not going about this in a haphazard way will be essential for restorative models to function properly. There are numerous new structures that have to be put in place, new committees and/or student groups, and a new vocabulary through which teachers need to speak about matters of behavior in the schools.

Another matter is suspicion. Teachers should be rightly skeptical when any new program comes along and is therefore mandated. Everything comes with a mandate it seems. Nevertheless, there is an appreciable effort to keep suspension numbers down, or which I agree. Keeping suspension numbers down, however, cannot happen in isolation. It must be replaced with something. Replacing with restorative justice sounds great, but teachers and school leaders need to make sure that these efforts are followed through. Simply keeping suspension numbers down, or not suspending at all, is never important unless some other system is put in place. All it does is tell students, and teachers, that consequences do not exist.

Finally, what happens in non-diverse schools? Part of restorative justice is identifying unjust patterns in discipline. Who gets suspended most often? In relatively diverse schools, we read that students of color are most likely suspended. What about schools that are 100% students of color? Even in those schools, there must still be work to identify unjust patterns of discipline or suspension. Could it be students with special needs, or boys, perhaps?

I do, however, have some concern that there is, yet again, emphasis on the plight of “boys,” and now even boys of color. Boys are always in crisis. Boys have been in crisis since, hell, the 19th century. Just look up “boys crisis.” Yet, I think we should also make sure that we have the same concern for girls, and girls of color. Girls and young women are also populating our prisons, and I see plenty of girls get suspended for fighting, without adequate support for their needs. Justice programs must also include the same concern for girls and young women.   

I’m not conflating any issues here. What I am talking about is passion and emotion. This video of a Baltimore activist has popped up several times on my feed. I’ve watched it numerous times with great satisfaction. It’s not that I have any connection whatsoever to what is going on in Baltimore. But there is something infinitely gratifying when I see a local activist confronting a charlatan, an outsider. Not that I know the full story, but I went and read some background and context to their interaction.

This is how I feel about education activists and other officials who collude with the profiteers, the privatizers, who wield the instruments of oppression for the sake of compromise or dialogue. Rather than being polite, policing our tone, this is how I feel that teachers should react sometimes to outsiders, to the carpetbaggers among us, who feel they know better. To the ridiculous and sometimes dangerous ideas that we are forced to propagate. To the unabashed opportunists who hang around for a couple of years and disappear. To those that read a paragraph from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and grab the mike at rallies like they know something.

I don’t necessarily condone the dialogue here, and not that it really matters in the grand scheme of things. But I feel his anger, his genuine hurt from being exploited by those anointed by the elites as “safe.” This person is “safe” to talk to. This is a “safe” representative of an activist movement. And in the cocoon of safety, one can get attracted to proximity to power, to the point that one may forget who you’re fighting for the in first place.

I can feel his anger and frustration at walking and working in the trenches while others preach safely on the side, making private deals and working for themselves. I can’t say for certain that’s what’s going on here, but I sometimes, on occasion, want to say get out of our schools!

Like a lot of things in today’s pubic schools, the principal is a position that harks back to factory models of schooling. The building principal is a middle-level manager, a waypoint between the rank and file teacher and central management. In highly centralized and hierarchical school systems, perhaps in many urban school districts with highly recognized Superintendents, Mayors, or Chancellors (or all three), the building principal wields very little power within the system itself.

Oftentimes, as a result of implied but no real, explicit power, that disappointment in the realities of the position is visited upon teachers, the only objects of their very limited authority. And as long as the flow of power continues in only one direction, from the top down, centralized management is not interested in the deleterious effects of an over-reaching middle-level manager.

Many teachers, myself included, fancy themselves principals one day because, in some form or another, we’d like to implement regimes that are opposite to what so many of us have experienced. Even the term “regime” wouldn’t be appropriate to the teacher-oriented, open, honest, and democratic styles of leadership we promise that we’d implement. Notwithstanding the truthful realities of exercising power while we have it, these same teachers might be reluctant to divert their careers out of the classroom for the sake of administration. Administration often requires additional coursework and certification, and very rarely do you see administrators going back to the classroom.

But the classroom is where the real important work of schooling is done, and it is in my experience that the work of teachers is the first thing forgotten by building principals in their pursuit of leadership opportunities. They no longer think like teachers and instead adopt the full ideology and interests of management. How quickly one turns away from whence they came.

To adapt to more flexible and innovative models of schooling, I would propose that, like Department Chairs at the University level, building principals should be teachers who are elected to four-year terms. Spread the wealth and power. Encourage leadership to come from within rather than an outsider bearing down on teachers who’ve dedicated their time and expertise in that school for many years. Would this not encourage all teachers to develop their leadership skills and work with central administration?

There would likely be flaws in this system. I’d have to think about this a bit longer to point them out. But for now, this feels like a good thing, a less expensive innovation perhaps. Offer teachers a stipend beyond their conventional salary, get them out of the classroom for a few years to develop additional skills. Perhaps they keep getting elected, perhaps not. At the very least, this may turn the principal from a position of aspiration to one more dedicated to the rank and file, and ultimately the students.

When working with children from high-poverty backgrounds, the argument for their style of education largely goes as follows, and I paraphrase:

By the early grades, they’re already behind, so we need to play catch-up. There’s really no time for childhood shenanigans. We need to build that strong academic foundation, double down and double does those phonics and word attack skills early. Pour that knowledge in because they’re not getting it at home. 

Yes, it all sounds very sensible. The school tries to provide what the family does not. However, “culturally responsive” teaching has somehow evolved to this myopic, data-obsessed, all-academic approach. That is, these students are poor students of color, and are therefore from a “different” culture. We must be “responsive” to their culture, which does not seem to value words or reading, talks less, and all of that highly dubious poverty claptrap. This all means that we largely ignore any semblance of childhood and developmentally appropriate practice in favor of a drill and kill, highly scripted, and academically accelerated education, all to make up for lost time.

This doesn’t sound culturally responsive to me. It sounds lazy.

I’ve done my best, as a Kindergarten teacher, to implement free play, additional outside time, and to empower my students to take risks and feel like they have some control over their learning environment. I offer them a good amount of autonomy, choice, and ensure that they are happy with what they are doing. When they’re more free and happier, they’ll no doubt learn more, and be excited to learn in the future.

But my approach, which I’ve learned from numerous and very skilled early childhood educators, is seen as something derogatory and inappropriate. It’s something “we” simply don’t have time for, never mind that, regardless of our priorities, children will learn when they’re damn well ready to learn it. Never mind that I can’t crack open their skulls and simply poor letter sounds and nonsense words right into those empty vessels.

Who exits a teacher or administrative preparation program with this perspective? Who works with children, especially poor children, for several years and maintains this mythological notion that poor children of color don’t deserve a childhood despite whatever deficiencies with which they arrive?

I posted this yesterday, roughly based on my experience with “specialists” in schools. The results have been mixed in terms of opposition to the concept and the contrary, that there is some room for analysis of the work that specialists do. Let me add some details to my perspective here. And if the reader finds complete and total inaccuracy with my claims, then by all means share with me your positive experiences in the comments.

I returned to the classroom a few years ago after eight years in higher education. While in academe, I became a forceful advocate for the preservation of a free and open public system of education. During my first four years as a graduate student, I had no idea what “education reform” actually meant. Then, as an assistant professor, I started to get the idea as I observed its impacts on student teachers. I became an active participant in the conversation surrounding education reform.

Now I’m putting my formerly activist money (or lack thereof) where my mouth is, doing the most difficult work that I’ve ever done. Teaching in a low-income, high-needs, inner-city school, one that co-locates with a charter, has changed me considerably. Even though I oppose nearly every tenet of education reform, I am no longer an unabashed booster for the public system. It deserves some measure of critique. And those like myself who’ve been so focused on opposition and refusal over the years must now shift some of our energies on creating an alternative vision.

I’ve been frustrated with many aspects of the system in recent years, one of which being the exceptional levels of scrutiny heaped upon classroom teachers, who are expected to work miracles in a broken system, and in very challenged communities. As a teacher, I’m somehow expected to teach at unreasonably high levels in schools with skeleton crews, skeleton budgets. My success is then measured by test scores, or other objective data points, whose most valid assessment is of the community resources available to students, and not my performance as an educator.

As I work very hard to perform my job to the best of my ability each and every day, with great impact on my personal life and finances (since I feel the need to subsidize our school’s sh*tty budget), I do see some truth to the scrutiny that we receive. There is some room and need for accountability. I don’t know what form it will take, but there actually needs to be something.

There needs to be accountability for educators who refuse to work with children and instead hunker down in offices, spending hours and hours and hours tacking sticky notes to a data wall. We need accountability for those who refuse to show up for their posted duty schedules so teachers can “enjoy” their measly 30 minutes for lunch. We need it for the special educators who refer to some students as “retarded.” And as I’ve stated before, we need it for the teachers who refer to their students as future “murderers” and “bankrobbers.” I need some kind of guarantee that if I’m going to have to put up with the observations and the scoring and the value-added that we are ALL going to be held accountable to those same measures.

If I only sit here and share the feel good stories, and ignore the very real work that we need to do to improve our profession, then what the hell good is all this resistance? I get it. Hold off on critique until the “battle” is over. Then, we can do the work of improving ourselves once we’ve overcome our opponents. There is some very real and very important work that we as educators need to do. There are educators out there, I’ve met them, who absolutely give reasons for TFA and other reformist organizations to exist. I’m not saying they’re the majority or even a significant slice of the minority. But we have to take charge of the circumstances that we can control, and maybe it’s calling out some of our colleagues for not fulfilling their end of the bargain.