So, faced with more than 35 kids in each class, a mountain of responsibilities and a mandate for behavior management, I bought a three-ring binder I called the Accountability Book. In it, I noted every student who spoke out of turn or harassed a peer. Within weeks, my Accountability Book was running out of pages.
In my training program, I’d been told to create a “culturally responsive” classroom, where a teacher tries to consider outside social factors that shape a child’s progress in school. Is this student acting out because he is hungry? Is she sleeping in class because — and this wasn’t uncommon — gunshots in her neighborhood kept her up all night?
But, days into my first-ever full-time job, my training clashed with reality. My administration told me to make a strong, strict first impression. New teachers want to be loved, but they need to be respected. (Many are told: “Don’t smile until November.”) So I rapidly became a disciplinarian. As a White person, I trusted the system to solve problems (unlike many of my students, who distrusted authority with good reason). In my first months teaching in 2013, I sent dozens of students to the principal’s office — more than any other instructor in the building that year — resulting in several being expelled. For Black and Latino children, over-discipline at school can quickly spiral, leading to their first encounter with the criminal justice system, and potentially police run-ins, probation or incarceration. This is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. I had become a cog in the wheel of systemic racism.
Black children suffer disproportionately from “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies under which they are suspended and expelled. (So do low-income students and those with special needs.) Black boys are three times as likely to be suspended as White boys. And children who are suspended or expelled are three times as likely to become entwined in the justice system.
Even during the pandemic, children of color have faced overly harsh punishments. A 15-year-old girl in Detroit, for instance, was incarcerated last year for failing to complete her online homework. Disturbing stories like this are commonplace as children in poverty struggle to attend remote classes, impeded by Internet issues or stuck taking care of younger siblings. Last spring, a Massachusetts school district disproportionately reported families of Black and Latino students who were chronically absent from their online classes to state social workers for possible neglect charges.
I’m not proud of my actions. But if White people want to help the push for racial equity in education, they need to own their role in perpetuating racist practices.
I was not equipped for my job when I first entered my 10th-12th grade classroom at one of the poorest high schools in Memphis. I struggled to keep up with hours of grading each day, write new lesson plans in the evenings and maintain a productive classroom culture — drowning in competing priorities. In the span of a single minute I had to deliver instructions, while providing a special-needs child with a modified version of an assignment, while also fielding questions from a straight-A student in the front row, while reminding another in the back to keep his eyes on his own work. Each moment of each day, I did what I felt I needed to do to eliminate chaos and disorder from my classroom.
It’s not like strictness is the only solution on the table for educators. Teachers can encourage students who do well and “redirect” those who struggle, as experts say, with a few neutral words. (“Eyes are on the board right now.” “Please put away the cellphones.”) But as my difficulties compounded and I became increasingly overwhelmed, I became militant about my three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. Often, students sent from my classroom to the principal’s office received suspensions. Continued infractions would mean expulsion.
My students resented me for being so severe; I learned that they complained about me to their other teachers. Once, my overuse of discipline elicited a revolt: After I’d sent an 11th-grader to the principal’s office for talking over me repeatedly, the rest of the class put their heads face down on their desks, tossed their pencils to the floor and refused to carry on with the lesson in solidarity with their classmate. They knew I had gone too far.
In hindsight, I wish I’d visited my most challenging pupils at their homes and gotten to know their lives outside the classroom. (The benefits of home visits are well-documented and include better student performance and behavior.)
A few months into my first year of teaching, Black Lives Matter came to dominate the news cycle, and by early 2014, conversations about systemic inequality were growing louder. I read pivotal works by Black writers, like “The New Jim Crow” and “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” I started to see that my actions in the classroom were directly related to racism.
I threw away my Accountability Book. I stopped referring teenagers to the principal’s office for minor disruptions. Confusingly, the same administration that had encouraged me to document every behavioral infraction now praised me for slashing my office referrals. I sought out the wisdom of experienced Black colleagues at my school and learned about restorative practices to build a more positive classroom environment, like de-escalating conflicts with students before they exploded, or calling their parents instead of filing a referral that could become a suspension. It’s not rocket science; these are common techniques in low-income schools. But at last I caught on, and I became a better educator.
Eventually, I reached an equilibrium with my students. I now understood the reasons they acted out — whether they had been bullied in their last class or were stressed about a sick parent at home — and as my patience grew, so did their trust in me. Now, we listened, joked and teased one another. Not every day went smoothly, but occasionally I experienced those golden moments all teachers crave, when a class goes perfectly. Teenagers started hanging around in my classroom at lunch and after school, asking me questions about my hometown, New York City, a place many of them had seen only on TV. By the end of my first year of teaching, not only were my students more cooperative, but I felt I was finally helping them enjoy school. At the start of my second year, I no longer held the record for issuing the most disciplinary referrals. That distinction went to the new first-year teacher in the building.
I wished I had learned my lesson sooner. I am haunted by the memories of students who ended up expelled because of my actions. Many other White educators have told me similar stories from their classrooms. We unintentionally perpetuated a broken system we had set out to dismantle.
Education reform experts believe that the Biden administration has an opportunity to close the school-to-prison pipeline. Teachers in the United States are, for the most part, White and female like me, and even well-meaning White educators can do more damage than good in the classroom. Federally mandated anti-racism training — incredibly important for White teachers who have limited understanding of the Black and Latino communities where they teach — can help them change course. At the same time, districts need to recruit more teachers of color who better understand the communities they serve. Black teachers are statistically more successful at nurturing and educating Black children than are White teachers. (Black children who are taught by at least one Black teacher early in life are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college). Yet White teachers make up a disproportionate share — 45 percent — of the staff at majority-non-White schools.
But the solution cannot involve only federal policy. The fate of far too many American children is still in the hands of inexperienced White educators who know no better than to uphold a system that lets people slip through the cracks. “Zero tolerance” disciplinary policies must be dismantled, and schools must rebuild such policies to be explicitly anti-racist. Meanwhile, for the rest of my life, I’ll dream of the look on my students’ faces right before they were expelled. They all wore the same recognition of deep-set injustice, the dawning realization that their futures were being taken from them before they even had a chance to graduate from high school.