By: Pat Austin
SHREVEPORT – I’ve been watching the new HBO series Vice Principals. As a twenty-year educator, I see a lot of people I “know” in the show; it’s a dark comedy about life in a large high school, but unlike other series that have been set in high schools, this one isn’t about the kids. It’s about the two Vice Principals who both wanted the newly available principal slot but instead ended up with an outsider. As much as the two guys hate each other, they band together to get rid of the new principal. This isn’t a review or analysis of the show however, (Variety hates it, for the record), but a point about our education system in general.
In the show, one of the new principal’s suggestions is to convert the In School Suspension room into a touchy-feely comfort zone with carpet squares, bean bag chairs, and a popcorn machine. When a student gets in trouble, rather than getting suspended, everyone involved sits down in a circle and talks out their feelings.
I laughed when I saw this, but apparently it is real.
The New York Times has a story about Leadership and Public Service High School in Manhattan’s Financial District which is practicing this same method of discipline and says it has turned their school around.
After national studies of school discipline showed that suspensions were strongly biased by race, the federal government encouraged districts to rethink suspension as a method of changing behavior and instead suggested something called “restorative justice”:
The federal guidelines suggested that educators consider, among other alternatives, an approach called restorative justice, which differs radically from zero tolerance. Restorative justice is built on values like community, empathy and responsibility; in its specifics, it asks students and teachers to strengthen connections and heal rifts by sitting on chairs in circles and allowing each participant to speak about how a given incident affected him or her.
This isn’t to say that kids at Leadership HS are never suspended – the NYT article points out that one was suspended for shooting a gun at a urinal and another for throwing a fire extinguisher during a fight that broke a teacher’s toe. But for most infractions (like throwing a desk across the room), the “restorative justice” method is attempted.
It’s working at their school: suspensions have been cut in half.
Will it work for every troubled school? I can’t say. I can say this, though. Teaching is about building relationships with kids; they can’t learn from someone they don’t like. That doesn’t mean that as a teacher you have to be their friend, but they do have to know that you care about them. I think as silly as sitting in circles on beanbag chairs (as in Vice Principals) sounds, in real-world practice, as at Leadership, talking things out might actually have merit. At the very least it is teaching kids how to work out conflict in the real world.
Is that too Kumbaya for some of us? Probably. When Leadership first enacted this practice they had a high turnover of faculty who just couldn’t buy into it. But, at the very least, its principles are sound – teaching is as much about relationships with your kids as it is about covering the syllabus.
Keeping kids in school is almost always better than kicking them out on the street. There are some that you won’t be able to save, but many of the ones we’ve given up on could have been saved. And to me, that’s why I’m still teaching.
Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.