Every new year is filled with audacious promises to better oneself. According to the Washington Post, 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. So there’s no surprise that January is also the typical time of year that educators make meaty plans to have better control over their classrooms, reset student behaviors, and establish stronger systems of compliance.
Ask me how I know.
When I was a principal, I remember spending my entire winter break reviewing plans, developed by teachers and climate specialists, to regain control over reoccurring behaviors. Whether it was needing to practice how students entered the hallways, or diving into the minute-by-minute morning arrival system for holes in our security, “resetting" was the focus. Rarely did we think to find out what our students thought was working for them?
The devil is in the details they’d say, so script out exactly what you want students to do and practice it to perfection. “Hands down by your side and mouths closed with eyes looking forward" seemed to be staples for transition etiquette, no matter where students were headed. With a teacher’s single hand-raised to the sky, students were to line up in their assigned spaces. If students became a bit restless and 100% compliance looked more like a 50% accuracy, we had to start over and practice again for 100%.
Although resetting helped some routines to improve, there were many challenges with this 100% compliance mindset. Teachers began obsessing over getting to 100% (which technically was the expectation), and in turn, were missing entire math lessons to practice walking in the hallway or entering the cafeteria. Significant time was wasted on controlling student behaviors as opposed to empowering students to own their actions.
Why was this such a priority in my earlier years of leadership?
The country’s leading school transformation experts said this was the blueprint for success. They held year-long institutes training new leaders in these strategies intended to fully crackdown on small intricate details in order for students to fall in line, and for leaders to rapidly transform their urban schools which were in desperate need of reform. This was part of the formula for creating a safe learning environment where students could achieve more. But, was it?
You see, I too fell victim to believing that putting these well-worn and draconian measures of compliance into urban schools, was the fix until I realized it wasn’t creating space for students to feel as though they belonged. It also didn’t feel like the kind of school I wanted my own kids to go to.
The (unstated) headliner for creating “safe” and “successful” urban schools was this: In order to transform your low performing, urban schools and make marked academic achievements, you needed to control Black and Latinx students’ every move and diminish their level of comfort to simply be themselves. You needed to break them out of their poor cultural norms and behavioral standards and give them new norms that were more widely accepted and valued by white-dominant mainstream culture.
Students of color needed to be controlled and held to a higher and unrealistic (100%) expectation—100% of the time, and when 100% compliance was not met, it resulted in more punishment and more practice. Sounds like a prison, right?
Here’s what else was confusing: In white affluent towns, kids were not being supervised in this way. They were free to prance through the hallways, say hi to friends, grab sips of water from the water fountain, or check their lockers to replenish needed materials.
White students inherited trust. They were deemed responsible and trustworthy having to earn it. They were seemingly given the benefit of the doubt simply because these were “good kids” and when good kids made mistakes, they were still “good kids”.
Ask me how I know. My own kids were attending school in these affluent, independent school communities.
This juxtaposition frightened me, and so when you know better, you do better.
There are two solutions to your behavioral problems:
Be culturally relevant in everything you do—lead your team to embody a vision of inclusivity, responsibility, and hope.
Build systems that inspire student leadership, so your students have a greater influence on your school’s cultural transformation.
Research has long supported that the key to student achievement is teachers understanding students’ cultural differences, bringing those cultures into the classroom, and dissolving the cultural disconnect to empower high achievement for all students. The achievement gaps in Black and Latinx students persist as a result of the educational learning environment not reflecting the primary value systems of Black and Latinx students.
Unfortunately, what further convolutes the achievement gap is that our current school system is predominately characterized by white, middle-class norms and culture.
There’s evidence as far back as 1865 of Black teachers empowering their students. They developed strong relationships with their students and were uniquely attuned to their emotional and social needs. Research notes that prior to desegregation, Black teachers understood the history of slavery, and they could empathize with the traumatic impact of how continued abuse and unfair treatment impacted student behaviors. Black teachers created intimate, family-focused classroom communities and held high expectations for learning. They took pride in connecting academic content to their students’ lived experiences, by changing negative messages of shame and blame, received from the larger society to messages of strength, bravery, creativity, and courage.
America’s education system, founded in white mainstream culture, ignores the Black experience altogether and gives very little value to the needs and perspectives of people of color. A continuation of any monolithic and stereotypical view of Black and Brown people is dangerous.
You and your staff must see Black and Latinx students and their cultural context, values, and lived experiences as prized capital that will create growth, evolution, and success of your community. This mindset shift requires relinquishing control and rethinking your school’s values and routines. Quit planning a reset each new year to further control your students’ behaviors, and start rethinking your classroom routines for stronger cultural connectedness.
I’ve developed a framework that will help you reimagine your school’s foundational systems. Inside Truly POC the Club, you’ll gain access to executive leadership coaching, resources, ongoing professional learning that will continue to drive change and innovation in your school.