Last spring, when Teaching Tolerance released their feature article about the school-to-prison pipeline, I was right in the middle of one of the most professionally difficult years of my life. Our school had rolled out a new curriculum in the fall, and I believe my intense focus on that caused other aspects of my teaching to suffer.
Because I was learning a new curriculum and planning all new activities and lessons to go along with it, I was, admittedly, slacking on my classroom management. Instead of taking the time to talk with students and foster a safe space and an environment of mutual respect, every spare minute I had was devoted to preparing for the next class. It felt like being a first-year teacher all over again. My frustration and lack of time to deal with student behavior issues caused me to rely on the deans (my school’s disciplinarians) more than I usually did.
My zero-tolerance attitude wasn't doing anyone any favors. I thought I was showing students who was the boss and, therefore, keeping my classroom under control when, in fact, I was causing students to see me as irrational and unfair, making them more likely to lash out and less likely to do their work for my class.
When Teaching Tolerance hit my desk in the spring of last year, then, I was looking for something—anything—to help me get back on track. The information on the school-to-prison pipeline was exactly the catalyst I needed to begin to step back and question my classroom management policies: Was I doing everything I could to keep students in my classroom? Was I dealing with discipline in my room rather than involving authorities and putting kids in the system? Was I fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect and recognition for my students? Was I offering positive reinforcement rather than negative feedback?
I had to be honest with myself: The answer to all of these questions most of the time was no.
This was a rude awakening for me. I've always prided myself on being a good teacher. I love teaching and I want my students to succeed. I'm genuinely interested in my students' lives, and I want my classroom to be a positive place for my students rather than a negative one. Most importantly, I want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem when it comes to issues of school push-out. Once I began reading about the school-to-prison pipeline, I realized I was becoming more a part of the problem.
Even though my first thought was that it was too late in the year to turn it around, it really wasn't. Because we were studying current events in my English classes, I was able to share information about the school-to-prison pipeline with my students and ask their thoughts. I gave them the article from Teaching Tolerance along with a few articles about the prevalence of student arrests in Chicago from the local public radio station. Since my school is in a suburb of Chicago, I wanted to bring the issue closer to home for them. They read all of the articles and we discussed them in class. After our discussion, they wrote persuasive essays convincing local lawmakers to do something about this problem.
As we discussed and wrote, my students told me stories about teachers they had heard of or ones they had in the past who had not shown much understanding when it came to classroom management. Though none of my students mentioned it directly, I saw myself in some of their stories. Happily, after that, the rest of the year was better because I questioned my practices and changed what needed to be changed.
This year, I made sure to take the time to set up my classroom as a safe space at the beginning of the school year, and it has made such a difference. I can tell my students are already more open to discussion and sharing ideas than last year's students were. Granted, they are an entirely new group of kids, but I believe my new view on classroom management has something to do with it, too.
We teachers are not perfect. If we're doing it right, we learn and grow and change with the students. Just like the students, too, some years will be better than others. Sometimes, we just need another teacher to open our eyes to ways we can improve, which is truly the best form of collaboration there is. There will be years that, like me, teachers may lose sight of something going on in their classrooms. What's important is that we keep questioning ourselves and learning from our mistakes. If we can keep doing that, we make our classrooms, our students and ourselves just a little bit better each year.