It takes time in the morning for me to become George, time to adjust to what is expected of George and how he is to behave. By the time I have dressed and put the final layer of polish on the now slightly stiff but quite perfect George I know fully what part I’m suppose to play.
I am a future teacher. How can I begin to break the pipeline for my students?
Kudos for your commitment to joining the ranks of the teaching profession! It is hard but incredibly meaningful work. If you are enrolled in a teacher certification program, in addition to your core classes and competencies around pedagogy and curriculum development, consider coursework in child development, child psychology and the neuroscience of learning. These courses should help you see beyond the what to the why. By that I mean instead of focusing on Emily’s outburst just before the read-aloud or Jason’s inability to establish friendships, consider what is developmentally appropriate versus warranting additional supports. Maybe Emily is anxious about having to read and needs more one-to-one support with phonics? Maybe Jason hasn’t yet found his social niche?
Learning the why is an important step to begin breaking the school-to-prison pipeline because when children are misunderstood, they are often mislabeled, misdiagnosed, marginalized and disproportionately punished. And when children are treated this way, from a young age they start to think that school is not for them. Then by middle school, many vote with their feet, right out the classroom door and into the dropout pipeline.
By contrast, if you get to know your students well and can understand what lies beneath their outbursts or lack of engagement; if you learn what triggers them and what they respond well to, you will be in a great position to support their cognitive, social and emotional development in a healthy way.
At Turnaround for Children, we train teachers in strategies to create caring classroom communities, to establish relational trust - both peer to peer and adult to student – and to defuse and manage disruptive behaviors. We also teach stress management skills, such as mindfulness meditation and the importance of a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset about intelligence. These skills set kids on a positive and productive path toward academic achievement rather than the path to prison.
You’ve already taken the important first step: becoming aware of the pipeline and committing to do something about it. Well done!
Ideally, the tools to bring about change should come from policymakers, top school officials themselves, and in cases like yours, teacher training programs - rather than leaving it up to teachers to take it upon themselves to tackle this issue. We need leaders to take on the responsibility of informing more educators about the school to prison pipeline – including how girls of color are affected by it; we also need more trainings on implicit bias and trauma, as well as strategies for making classrooms more gender-responsive, culturally competent, and trauma-informed. Futures Without Violence, among other groups, has recently piloted such a curriculum for schools (called “Changing Minds”); and the Trauma Learning and Policy Initiative in Massachusetts has resources available online that address the nuts and bolts of trauma-informed schools. If your program does not provide trainings on these and other relevant issues, you can begin making a dent in the pipeline by requesting that they be offered!
Change is harder to accomplish on the individual level, but you can make a difference. I would suggest starting by learning more about implicit bias and how to address it, as well as learning more about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and how students can express the trauma of those experiences in school through their behavior. Check out the online resource www.ACEsConnection.com . They have an “ACEs in Education” social network that you may want to consider joining; it addresses issues that will become important to you in disrupting the pipeline at your school.
Another great place to start is to read Dr. Monique Morris’ book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. Check it out for an accessible but profound read on how girls of color view their own experience in school, reasons why schools have failed girls of color, and how inappropriate discipline affects them.
Teachers play a critical role in creating a positive education environment and keeping young people out of the school to prison pipeline—and they need more support and resources to do this! First and foremost, creating a safe, trusting, and caring classroom, in which students feel valued, respected and listened to, is the cornerstone in interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. As well, working with students from an assets-based approach (i.e., building on the assets that students bring to the school experience), instead of a deficit-based lens (i.e., what they are lacking) can lead to increased student engagement. Another way of saying this is build on their strengths. Every one of us is capable of far more when we feel valued and respected for what we bring to the table.
While you’re in school and after, seek out training that will help you with classroom management and supporting students’ social and emotional learning alongside reading and math. These skills don’t always receive the emphasis they deserve. For example, a 2014 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that most teacher preparation programs did not provide sufficient training on behavior management. It’s also important to recognize that we all have hidden biases; as a teacher this could lead you to treat some students differently than others, even when you don’t intend to. Fortunately, there are many teacher-training programs in cultural competency that can help you to understand and counteract the influence of these hidden biases. Cultural competency focuses on the understanding and embracing of the experiences, culture, language, customs, and values of diverse groups. School administrators can also recognize the value of these forms of training and can support teachers in gaining training and in providing the programmatic and resource supports for effective implementation.