Empowerment Starts Here

This site is dedicated to the professional and academic work of Dr. Angela Dye.

Let’s Talk about Discipline

In a space where African American students make up 32% of the student population and 71% of office referrals, I think it is reasonable to ask the question, “Why?” What is it about the students, the space, or even the African American experience that would rationalize such gross disproportionality? This question about disproportionality drives today’s reflection but before getting to it, let’s first talk a little about office referrals.

An office referral is when a student is sent out for misbehaving. The student performs an infraction (a breach in behavior) and the teacher sends the child to the office with an immediate or pending write up. Sometimes the infractions are fights but mostly, they fall in the category of insubordination. This means, the student acts in a way that does not respect the teacher’s authority.

  • Teacher asks student to move his seat and the student refuses.
  • Teacher asks student why she was late to class and the student retorts back aggressively. “Don’t talk to me. “
  • Teacher asks student to stop talking during a lesson and the student keeps talking except now more loudly.
  • Teacher calls the student’s name and the student rolls her eyes and smacks her lips as a way of dismissing him.

In that 80% of the teacher force is comprised of white women; that there has been a 40% decrease of black teachers within the past 10 years; and most importantly, that racialized (“minority”) students now make up the majority in America’s public schools, black students should not be deemed “insubordinate” by a class of people who hold social power and have historically harmed others with such power.

For a child who has little to no political capital due to being a minor, any behavior that does not reinforce the power that the teacher (an adult) holds will, by default, be deemed insubordinate. This political capital is a double disadvantage for black students (and others from marginalized communities). Their race and age (and gender, and class, and sexuality, and ability) make them vulnerable to the needs of their teachers to socially remain in power. With this compounded disadvantage in mind, insubordination should never be an allowed category to explain student infractions.

Black students are being deemed insubordinate by a class of people who hold social power and have historically harmed others with such power.

I once asked an all white staff (which admittedly included one African American certified teacher and one biracial black paraprofessional) to abstain from immediate classroom removals except for fights. I wasn’t asking teachers to absorb disruptive behavior. I was asking them to address them differently.

Prior to my arrival, removals were reactive, absent of a process, punishment driven and void of parental input. While student disruptions are problematic for deep learning and positive classroom culture, student removals are problematic for those exact same reasons… deep learning and positive classroom culture. When we remove students without their agency, they can no longer trust the process, the classroom feels unsafe, and they begin to fight for power (as it is easily detected that power is concentrated in the hands of the teacher).

It is this issue of choice that is at the heart of discipline and eventually at the heart of teachers’ outrage when I required a process. Let’s behonest, any educator that has a care for students knows that behavior is communication… that disruptions are almost always students’ way of expressing unmet needs. When teachers remove students from the classroom without engaging and probing to learn more about those unmet needs, then administration not only becomes the primary tool for classroom discipline. For students, it becomes the primary tool for classroom self- care. Even, or especially, if that care is handled as a removal, students know that it’s at the administrative level that their voice and choice have a greater chance to be enacted.

So, to remedy this disruption to learning and culture, I (as the school’s leader) asked teachers to devise a removal process and to ensure that process was progressive and predictive. It was my commitment and promise to them that all removals that followed a progressive and predictive model would be 100% backed by administration with disciplinary outcomes. Now, it is important to delineate discipline from punishment but with this delineation was an absolute guarantee that students would be held accountable for their choices.

Any educator that has a care for students knows that behavior is communication… that disruptions are almost always students’ way of expressing unmet needs.

So exactly what is a progressive and predictive removal model? To protect students’ choice and agency (yes even when they are being “disciplined”), a progressive and predictive removal plan shares power with them.

Enacting the progressive principle is ultimately about teachers. It ensures that discipline is about learning outcomes and not about teachers’ emotions. When teachers’ emotions are centered, discipline is a function of those emotions, situating classroom removals as a release and not as an act of restoration. This release (versus restoration) usually happens when teachers are at a tipping point and a student’s behavior takes them over the edge. The problem with this tipping point is that it isn’t always about that specific child or even his specific behavior. It’s about the teacher’s emotions, feeling fed up and needing to gain some sense of control. The real problem to this teacher-centered (emotional) approach to discipline is that it creates an uncertain space for the learner, moving him into a state of fight or flight as a way to manage this unpredictable and unstable environment.

When the removal process is progressive, the student can trust that the removal is about his learning (not just about his behavior). In a progressive discipline model, students get a warning where those warnings create a sense of belonging. A student will feel safe knowing that he will not be removed simply because his teacher is fed up. For those behaviors that impede learning, he can count on being brought in. And now, he is better able to accept that a removal was the result of not coming in after the invitation was repeatedly provided. The student can trust that he has a spot in that classroom and only through his persistent refusal to not be a part of it, a removal will occur… and not because his teacher was experiencing some type of emotional intolerance.

Enacting the predictive principle is similar to the progressive one. Admittedly, they are both about limiting impulsivity (the teacher’s), giving students a sense of belonging, and creating an environment focused on learning (rather than on behavior). The predictive principle, however, gives students power in the process, as it gives them some control. When removals are progressive only (and not progressive and predictive), teachers are ultimately in control. While the removals are not about emotions, they are still done through the teacher’s decisioning– deciding how to move that child through a series of warnings and redirections. When removals are progressive AND predictive, the student knows the pathways to removal and can partner with the teacher in such movement.

Without the predictive principle, a capricious condition of a teacher can go unchecked. Even though the progressive principle limits impulsivity, the teacher could still (without a predictive structure) randomly decide what and when behaviors are problematic (as in situationally). Having those rules pre-established and the progression model pre-negotiated will give a student access to the decision making process so that his removal (if or when it happens) is a byproduct of his agency (more so than his teacher’s).

Enacting the predictive principle is similar to the progressive one. They are both about limiting impulsivity (the teacher’s), giving students a sense of belonging, and creating an environment focused on learning (rather than on behavior).

In an environment where racialized students (i.e. black and brown) are disproportionately disciplined from their non-racialized peers AND discipline is impulsive and capricious, the perception of injustice ensues. It’s unfortunate, however, that in most cases, this perception is ignored. First it is ignored because power holders who have positionality are those who are usually benefactors of an unjust system. Just as we don’t allow organizations to audit themselves (singularly evaluating their own financial health), we shouldn’t depend on benefactors of oppression to evaluate if oppression is occurring. When we do, we get the inevitable. There is a denial of harm and, in some cases, there is an outrage that such an inquisition is underway.

Besides the fragile nature of the power holder, there is a second more salient, reason why the perception of injustice is ignored. It’s because students–our most prized data point– are pathologized; and thereby, their subjectivity is seen as a problem. Paulo Freire said to be human is to have a subjective experience. I’ve said many times before that a prime way to identify dehumanization is to pay attention to how one’s subjectivity is valued (or not). When we ignore the subjective experiences of students, we reduce their human status. We make it impossible for them to be data points for change.

I recently worked in a place where black students were reporting cases of racism at least weekly. In hindsight, I now sincerely regret that I didn’t respond in a way that was obvious. You see, I did believe their claims. And… I did take action. I just didn’t take the type of action that translated as obvious action– obvious, anti- racist action.

Specifically, the action that I took created channels for students to 1) report harm; 2) repair harm; and 3) minimize harm. Through a serious of policy changes, guard rails and exit ramps were put in place for students to navigate racism without me ever calling teachers or their actions racists. Through these actions, along with affirming their pain, I centered students’ subjectivity in my approach to eliminate gross states of disproportionality. My regret is that students may not have understood that I was not just keeping them instructionally safe… I was believing them and responding to their needs so that they could be racially safe as well.

My bottom line here is this… students should be trusted when they cry out and claim racism. They are on the front lines, they know when they are feeling terror, and they can see the ways they are not treated the same as their white- affluent (and affluent white- presenting) counterparts. This inconsistency in treatment is what should be understood most in our attempt to believe student claims of racism. They are our primary data point that policies are inconsistent and, as a result, their subjectivity should not be ignored.

When we ignore the subjective experience of students, we reduce their human status. We make it impossible for them to be data points for change.

So, let’s now return to the question that I presented at the start of this essay and talk about why– as in the why’s to the persistent disproportionality in America’s public schools. I believe, in short, it is because we haven’t confronted discipline as an act of teacher- power; we haven’t required discipline to be the result of a progressive and predictive classroom management model; and we haven’t come to terms with students’ human subjectivity as the data point we need to understand instructional racism.

This is your why. Any conversation about discipline that’s void of these points is about maintaining the status quo. As a new friend of mine likes to say when a conversation turns foolish, “Stop. It.” And that’s exactly what you need to say the next time people talk about discipline as though it is about student behaviors and not about the behaviors of the space called school. Just say “Stop it.” That is all. Stop it.


One comment on “Let’s Talk about Discipline

  1. caplee68
    October 18, 2022

    Excellent approach that empowers students. I always reminded teachers that the first step in non violent crisis intervention is supportive. That was step one. Correcting the behavior while allowing the student to be comfortable with the reality that the behavior is front and center, not the valve of the. student. This is especially effective with students who have suffered abuse in their homes. Since we don’t know who has been abused, this is step one for all.

    This, of course, was followed by step 2 which is directive etc The Crisis Prevention Institute CPI has good information on this. Your effort to empower students to be part of the decision making was well stated and indicative of thoughtful leadership.

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This entry was posted on October 7, 2022 by in Uncategorized.
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