Two kindergarteners are poking each other with their pencils. What starts as a game soon gets out of hand. With one child bleeding, the teacher brings them to the principal’s office. Later, she finds out both kids were suspended and sent home.
It’s not an uncommon scenario in today’s public schools. But as activists draw attention to high rates of suspensions, racial disparities, and the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the political winds are shifting. Policymakers at the federal and district levels have begun to demand fewer suspensions, especially for minor rule-breaking.
It’s an issue where not all teachers see eye to eye. But a growing number of teachers and unions are rising to the challenge, pushing their school districts to back up suspension bans with the resources to make alternatives really work.
A better way
Elana Eisen-Markowitz, a 10-year teacher in New York City, is active in a campaign to introduce “restorative practices,” an alternative approach to solving student behavior problems.
The idea is that teachers and students meet to discuss the behavior and the root problems that might cause students to act out—such as stress, anxiety, or problems at home.
For instance, suppose a student yells and curses at a teacher in the hallway. Instead of removing the student from his next class or sending him home, the teacher would sit down with him. Both would explain their experiences of the incident. Often a parent or even a peer student joins the meeting, too.
This new approach requires a culture change. But in her experience, Eisen-Markowitz says, it’s more effective than punitive discipline.
“So rarely I’ve seen a suspension work, where a student returns feeling ready to learn,” she said. “I personally feel safer knowing I’ve had a face-to-face conversation, rather than [just] seeing them in the hall again and again.”
Eisen-Markowitz is pleased that New York has moved to limit suspensions for behavior issues and explore restorative practices—though she’s already questioning the city’s rollout. She stresses that teachers must have a say in planning and implementing a restorative practices program. It can’t be outsourced or dropped from headquarters.