As a charter school leader of color, I have learned that many people who weigh in on school discipline don’t know what they’re talking about.
I’ve listened to countless folks expound on theories, rarely capturing what it takes to create a learning environment that protects students’ humanity and pushes them towards excellence.
There are many parents and students who seek a well-structured school with discipline, and yet I’ve seen them dismissed as “so oppressed they don’t know they’re being oppressed.”
On the other hand, I’ve also seen folks who, in pursuit of “discipline,” implement oppressive strategies that they wouldn’t want for their own children.
I’ve seen educators enamored with the idea of love, not fully (or even partially) grasping that a part of love is ensuring students’ success. I’ve seen educators who adroitly avoid accountability—for themselves and their charges, but profess the love they have for them. Miss me and my neighborhood with that.
I have witnessed countless educators proudly boast of the high bar they have for their biological children, and yet, simultaneously they stubbornly and firmly grasp staggeringly low expectations for other folks’ kids—both in behavior and academics.
As usual, it is far more complicated than what many of the pundits claim, and, yet simple.
Black Parents Want Love, Discipline and Success
Last year, I had the opportunity to sit and listen to a room of Black parents in Chicago. These parents echoed what I learned as a child: Black families want self-discipline and structure for their children in an environment of respect and love. This should be the foundation of every single classroom and school, but our parents (and students) know it is hard to achieve that in the sea of chaos that plagues many schools.
In addition, these parents want those who lead their child’s classroom and school to be utterly devoted to their child’s success. It takes both: love and outcomes. Singularly, either one will not yield the results that our children and youth deserve.
That said, we also have to acknowledge that there is a distinct disparity in punitive measures taken against Black and Brown children in the name of safety, order and achievement.
When it comes to violent, serious incidents, both Black students and White students are suspended (albeit, White kids may be treated less harshly even when it comes to serious offenses. But there is a well-documented, oppressive discrepancy that occurs when we look at non-violent, “nuisance” behaviors. That’s where White students are looked at as children to be guided and Black and Brown kids are looked at as miscreants deserving of punishment.
What began as “zero tolerance” for weapons and drugs quickly evolved into an unequivocal reaction to any behavior deemed deemed inconsistent with whatever the school supposedly stood for. Mix implicit (and, at times, explicit) racial bias with subjectivity, a trend will quickly emerge.
Parents have expressed concern from both sides of the aisle and have called for a clear vision that communicates safety and demonstrate love for all our students; parents want their children’s schools to have love and clear, and fair structures.
For example, I am against suspensions for kids in kindergarten. The pattern of Black kids experiencing being pushed out of school begins as early as four years old. And, solving this will necessitate conversations with families as well.
For example, if my four year old daughter was being bitten by a classmate, I’d want to know that the school was vigilantly protecting my child but I’d also need to check my own frustrations and not demand an overly punitive response from the school.
Hell, my blood pressure shot up once when my daughter was in kindergarten and a boy kissed her. While some folks may be hypothetically against punitive discipline when the victim is not their own child, others are consistent in their stance against overly punitive discipline, especially for non-violent behavior.
Excellence. No Excuses.
Educators should be in relentless pursuit of displaying a deep love for the community they serve and for the outcomes that their students deserve. It takes patience, yet an unwavering internal and external bar to establish the structures necessary to create a school with a nurturing, yet demanding culture.
As I have said before, as well as my fellow blogger Dirk Tillotson, the demand for excellence and the no excuses starts and ends with adults. Dirk described no excuses framework in schools as what must be a reciprocal promise:
As a school there is no excuse for us not to figure out how to serve you, and as a student—once we remove these barriers and genuinely understand and support you—there is no excuse for you not to give your best.
No excuses must mean not shirking personal accountability, not making excuses, and not breaking promises made to families. We all know some educators who don’t make promises of achievement to families to avoid accountability. There are others who will make the promises and not create and nurture the environment necessary to deliver.
The Warm Demander
Just as children of color will need to know that they’ll need to double their efforts to even cover half of the distance that continues to be gobbled up by those who enjoy privilege, they also must know with surety that an undisciplined mind and undisciplined actions will not lead them towards their goals of self-determination.
A previous blog post on New York School Talk reminded me of Hilary Beard’s fantastic work around parents and teachers who were authoritative; warm demanders, who married high bars for academic and personal growth with high levels of love for their students. Here is a quote from the article that particularly resonated with me:
According to esteemed scholar Dr. Diedre Houchen, “warm demander” is a term given to teachers of students of color who consistently maintain high expectations, demonstrate care and concern, and [expertly] manage the classroom environment” (Ware, 2006).
First used as a term to describe effective teaching of Hawaiian students, “warm demander” captures a teacher’s ability to create a classroom environment and structure that is nurturing, safe, authoritative, and achievement-oriented (Bondy & Ross, 2008; Kleinfeld, 1975; Ross, Bondy, Gallingane, & Hambacher, 2008; Ware, 2006). Warm demanding pedagogy and culturally-relevant pedagogy also focus on expressions of teacher care and respect of students, their home communities, and their well-being.
The warm demander is relentless in both love and high expectations for themselves and for their students. And, warm demanders have deep care and love and are focused on outcomes. My Martial Arts teacher, Baba Changa, used to say, you can have excuses or outcomes, but not both.
At the end of the day, we all want safe learning environments where students spend a significant amount of their waking hours. Black families want structure, support, and discipline. But, they don’t want schools that are oppressive. They don’t believe authoritarian stances on every single issue will lead their children to success in the larger world. Families want to ensure that our schools both help students develop the self-discipline that they need and are consistently disciplined with the love they deserve.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.