This morning in my spin class I overheard two moms talking about where their kids go to school. They both really like the same school. They praised it for its discipline policies and how well behaved the students are. They liked the teachers too. They said it is the best school in San Pedro. I know and love that school– it has some amazing teachers. It is a great public school.
I teach in this town too. Parents love our academic program and they love the teachers too, and we have a solid reputation in the community as a great school. But one of the perceptions also out there and even within our own walls is that our school lacks discipline– and that kids get away with bad behavior. In the world of public school competition, bad news travels faster than good.
The school the spin moms like is almost totally white, and mostly affluent, in this little suburb of Los Angeles, one of the most racially diverse cities in the country.
The school I teach in is a mixed bag of lots of different kinds of kids. Lots of different socio-economic groups.
And as I sat there, getting strapped onto the bike for my morning ride, I started thinking about what it means to love a school because kids are well-behaved. Who wins in this situation, and who loses? At my school, we work hard to help our students develop a sense of self-control and agency. Compliance is not our goal. But many parents see compliance and they see safety and order. Safety and order = good school.
Who is left out when compliance is our goal? It’s pretty obvious: kids who struggle to comply. How do they fit in? How do they find success? How do they develop the tools they need to function once they leave our safe little bubble with the clear boundaries?
Our school is incredibly diverse. We have families that advocate for their children boldly and consistently. We serve children whose families have read to them since they were in the womb, families who take their children to libraries and museums regularly, families who provide for their children in every way they can manage. A compliance-driven system can work for this population, but at what cost to individuality and healthy self-awareness?
And we also serve children whose parents can’t effectively advocate for them, for many, many, many different reasons. We work with families who can barely get their children to school. We work with parents who cannot parent their children and are at a loss of how to even try. We work with kids in deep pain, with entrenched patterns of negative behaviors, with living conditions and backstories that would challenge the most stable among us. How do they find their way in a compliance-driven system?
They don’t. Well, some do, they adapt and figure out how to comply– while pushing the pain deep down. But most do not. They act out. They push boundaries. They cause lots of trouble. Do we just suspend? Kick out? Label them as failures before they hit ten years of age? That isn’t just or humane.
I celebrate a school that endeavors to help each child– EVERY child that walks through our gates–to find a way to get through a day and develop their own compass, one that will help them navigate their way through life. And I celebrate that messy process. It is messy. We aren’t expert at it– yet. Maybe we will never get it exactly right. But we make huge strides with kids. Daily. And it works. In the long run, I believe, it is worth all of the talking, the patience, the hope against hope, the small kindnesses, the tears.
As I spun away, my legs and lungs crying out for mercy, I realized this: I worry that when we separate ourselves into these specially coded places– and ensure that OUR children will be safe and away from THOSE children– we are missing the big picture. We are part of a big and beautiful city. We have to find ways to be together in it. They are all children. Our children. Surely we can find ways to embrace them all, and help each of them find their way. Easy to say. Tough to do. And we can.