Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

I remember hearing this phrase in association with Marie-Antoinette. She didn’t say it, by the way — but it has become associated with her nonetheless. Basically, it is a simple, often thoughtless solution to a complex and real problem. People are starving for bread? Let them eat cake! The result of this disconnect is greater division and hatred. This has been weighing on me lately — this growing tide of disconnected and easy solutions to complex problems. I wonder if we have become a culture of quick fixes, platitudes, and lazy outrage. It is easy to apply disgust to current problems from the comfort of our living rooms and Twitter feed, but coming up with real solutions is harder. It takes looking at layers upon layers of good intentions, misapplied efforts, and swinging pendulums. And when there is a packaged, sweet fix sitting right in front of us, it is oh so easy to buy into it.

I am an educator, and for the last three years, I have been working to promote restorative practices to replace our disciplinary systems. It is a difficult process because discipline is tied to wider, commonly held beliefs about morality, punishment, and “what is fair.” Promoting ideas for discipline that are rooted in empathy, dignity, and community building is a hard sell because, at the moment when authority is challenged, those responses are counter-intuitive. Part of my job is to change the thinking and the culture of my school, and though it is filled with wonderful, well-intentioned people, changing mindsets is a big order change. As a result, I spend a lot of my time thinking about cultural responses to wrongdoing, authority structures, and conflict resolution.

This summer, I was deeply impacted by the Rayshard Brooks case. I couldn’t stop thinking about the connections between the BLM movement and the school to prison pipeline. The more I thought about it the more I saw this one connection: In policing AND in governing student behavior the end goal is to gain control. (*this observation is generalized and does not include the very real issue of racism within power structures.) Generally speaking, police need to control the situations they are in by exerting authority over people in those situations. They can begin with talking, but ultimately, if there is resistance, the police rely on the tools of their authority (guns, tasers, force) Likewise, teachers have all sorts of ways to produce a “controlled” classroom, but when there is defiance, they mainly fall back on the tools that will reinforce their authority. (referrals, detention, etc) In both cases, if the end game is to impose control, the result will be punitive (and often lose sight of the purpose.)

What exactly is the purpose? This is an interesting question. Where there is no vision, there is no destination, no target. As educators, we understand that targets are important. We look at state standards and plan our lessons to fulfill those expectations. We know we are successful if students understand and can demonstrate the standards we have taught. Yet, when it comes to discipline, we often neglect vision. Instead, we approach each case as unique. This allows us to use our relationships with students to navigate consequences.

But we are human, and our relationships are not always good, and we sometimes exercise bias. We police tone. We exchange grace for politeness. Some teachers are too kind. Some too harsh. Some administrators are quick to assign exclusionary punishments, some are not. But despite the difference in approach, the tools are the same: detention, referrals, ISS, OSS. As you can imagine, it is not an equitable system, and often leads to frustration for everyone involved. There is frustration because there is no vision for what discipline is actually accomplishing. With no common goal, the vision for discipline becomes highly individualized. For one teacher, the purpose of discipline might be to change behavior. For another, it may be a stern recognition of “right and wrong.” For the administrator, the purpose might be a break for the teacher. No one ends up feeling successful, and in fact, there is no benchmark to measure that success anyway.

For far too long, discipline in school has been driven by reaction rather than a relationship. Disciplinary reactions are rarely empathetic. They are motivated by an offense, rooted in expectations regarding roles, and are demonstrated by reinforcing power dynamics. If my understanding of discipline in my school is that it exists to reinforce the power structure I have established in my classroom, the chain of consequences for chronic behavior is going to escalate rather quickly. However, if my understanding of discipline at my school is that it exists to support students in their social and emotional growth, my response to a chronic behavior is going to be quite different. This is especially true if the tools the school provides are in line with its vision: for example, reset rooms, interventions, mediations, and other restorative approaches with the added benefit of adult training in regards to applying the values of empathy, dignity, and responsibility to conflict management. When I know that the vision of school discipline is to support social and emotional growth, I can respond to incidents with empathy. Empathetic responses are motivated by a genuine desire to understand. They are rooted in relationship and are demonstrated by a willingness to engage in conversation without judgment.

Without a clear vision for what discipline should look like, we are setting our teachers, administrators, and students up for mixed messages and frustrated attempts at problem-solving. We throw relationship-building programs into the mix of punitive ideologies and hope for the best, but they are rarely as powerful as intended because they are not reinforced by training, tools, or higher-level discipline strategies.

Schools are micro-communities and model to a large extent, what is seen in the larger community. So, where are we going? I can’t help but think that we are lacking vision as a country. What is the purpose of policing? Do the tools we provide our police serve the vision we hold? What is our vision for restoration? Do we have one? Without a vision, we will continue to provide the same destructive tools, justify the same acts of violence and inequity, and reinforce the feelings of disenfranchisement that are prevalent in every school and community nationwide. It is time for “top to bottom” thoughtful change that looks at the whole tangled mess and provides real and pervasive solutions.

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