Zero Tolerance—What if the coin were flipped?
In many districts and schools across the nation we hear the phrase “zero tolerance” used to refer to policy and practices around student disciplinary infractions. For the most part, zero tolerance policies address publicly perceived egregious behaviors in a severe and enduring manner; often with expulsion or long-term suspension from school rather than a system of restorative justice. Sometimes these “zero tolerance” actions by schools and districts can be the first step to a perpetuity of educational and social exclusionism.
What if, for a moment, we flipped the coin? What if the assumption was made that it was the responsibility of the adults to fully engage and support the students with whom they are entrusted each day? What if we had “zero tolerance” on some of the faults educators make each day? What if we had “zero tolerance” on teachers and staff who:
- Lack empathy: Students who arrive to school late because their parent overslept after working a double shift are denied breakfast because “school has started” or the student is sent to the office for sleeping in class when it was their night for the floor in the motel that is their family of six’s current home are simple ways educators demonstrate a lack of empathy. Being empathetic towards students does not mean allowing mediocrity; but instead striving to understand and combat the barriers to learning with which some students enter the room each day.
- Fail to communicate: Handing back papers with a red F with no feedback on the specific errors the student made, not seeking input from home when a student’s work and behavior patterns have changed do not support effective communication patterns in the classroom or school. Two-way, ongoing, meaningful feedback and dialogue with students and parents are essential elements to success in a classroom.
- Have a fixed mindset: Telling a child that they are not expected to pass a test because they have struggled with the material or indicating that a general level math student should consider another career path because there is too much complexity to the math required in accounting. Ensuring that the language and actions being modeled in the classroom are those indicative of a growth mindset is essential. The adults that surround children must exhibit behaviors that are ripe with problem solving and forward momentum rather than static and rigid and focused only on conformity.
- Don’t value growth opportunities: “Why do I need to attend this training? I’ve been teaching for 15 years!,” or “This is a waste of my time, I’m going to just close my door and do things the way I’ve always done them” signify that professional growth and wrestling with meeting the ever-changing needs of students is not important. The children that enter our schools today have learning needs that are unique to their generation and for which many school personnel were never prepared. Displaying an attitude that acknowledges the value and need for professional learning and professional learning networks to constantly support the drive forward must be a fundamental trait of today’s educators.
If schools offered a model for both students and staff that exemplified the tenets of a restorative justice framework, personal and professional lapses would be accepted as an opportunity for development and collective accountability rather than disciplinary action. If schools and districts approached educators with a framework that was not tolerant of these behaviors and attitudes yet offered support for those in need, perhaps every classroom would be filled with a not just “highly qualified” teacher, but a “high quality” teacher; a teacher that believes not only is it their role to impart academic knowledge, but also to equip students with the social and emotional skills needed to be positive and productive citizens in our world.