Over the past few years, school districts nationwide have drastically reduced the use of suspensions and expulsions. The catalyst to this has been recognizing exclusionary discipline’s pernicious effect on students’ life outcomes, as well as its disproportionate application on students of color, particularly black students. While many teachers believe in the intent behind these reforms, they feel the impact is increased leniency towards disruptive behaviors. They also feel unprepared to support students who previously had been frequently suspended or expelled. As a result, in many school districts, the decrease in suspension rates has meant an increase in teacher turnover.
Secondly, I encourage teachers to adopt a positive, growth-based mindset about students with challenging behaviors, a skill that I find fundamental to my own sustainability in this work. Even with strong classroom management skills, it can be easy to feel like you are failing when students consistently display oppositional behavior and struggle to meet classroom expectations. I want to help teachers not to take oppositional behavior personally and to recognize the gradual student progress that can be easy to overlook—something that I am working on as well. When teachers express to me that a student isn’t making any growth, I encourage them with data while also emphasizing the anecdotal positive effects that they are having on the student. In my experience, teachers are more supportive of inclusion, much slower to send out students for misbehavior, and happier overall when they feel like they are having a meaningful impact on a student’s development.
In the article on school discipline reform, Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, says: “It is easy to ban suspensions. It is much harder to do the real work so suspensions are no longer necessary.” I believe the Unconditional Education model has the potential to advance both. We want our school partners to minimize their use of suspensions and expulsions. However, unlike what is practiced at many of the schools cited in the article, we also attempt to build teachers’ capacity so that they can support students who now are in the classroom, instead of in the office or at home because of their behaviors. I am excited by the prospect of supporting teachers in this effort, both for their own sakes and, ultimately, for the wellbeing of our students.