Throughout the coursework and interactions with other students, I have grown in my awareness of schools and school policy that shape the conversation on race in the United States. It was meaningful to have a very practical, closer look at the codes of conduct for schools in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area. It gave me a deeper sense of the community, especially Ypsilanti. I have a lot of affection for both cities, and have always felt that way since moving here. I had some understanding of Ypsi’s history and relationship with Ann Arbor and Detroit, but had never considered the schools in the area and how they support the community (mostly because I don’t have school aged kids). Sometimes it can be challenging hearing about all the need within schools, especially knowing the working conditions of many teachers and how they have to navigate the system. The work can be very demanding, and when you are in a large public school, making time for relational conversation with students can be exhausting. Putting on additional demands can seem like asking a lot (these feelings have a lot to do with hearing about the pains of a first year teacher). Change needs to happen at all levels, from administration and structures, to teachers and student networks. A presentation in another class about “White Supremacy in Schools” felt particularly interconnected with the school-to-prison pipeline. Who defines “insubordinate” behavior, and what does respect and disrespect look like? What are the cultural elements at play that impact human relationships and interactions with authority? Where do we begin?
When I think about the scale of change that needs to happen in the US, I get overwhelmed. I have to step back and remember that I only have the power in my one person to do so much. We need to partner, to reach out, to seek areas and opportunities, find an area or areas of focus and do those things to the best of our ability. This has been a theme in Communities and Social Systems. Fostering healthy, thriving interdependence takes hard work but, truthfully, it reaps an abundant reward.
Who are the people committed to that and what do these communities look like? We don’t want to create new unjust systems after upending old ones, and I honestly don’t believe humanity has the ability to create systems that are fully sustainable, non-oppressive, fair, equitable and last forever. Because eventually, we’re going to screw up, or the power gets to our heads, or we get greedy and step on other people to get ahead. If we never acted from our own self-interest, always looked to other people’s interests before our own, were never vain or envious, were quick to forgive, were always perfectly loving, patient, kind, we could sustain the “perfect” system. But is this who we are? Because we’re not perfect (all the time), we have systems of accountability, of “checks and balances”, to keep us moving forward in ways that help each other. And as I said earlier, I think we were meant to do our best and live life to the fullest. I also believe there’s grace, mercy and compassion even when we do screw up.
In the statement made by the National Education Association, punitive practices in schools disproportionately impact students of color, including at the intersection of LGBTQ+ identities, disability, and for English Language Learners. Changing disciplinary policies such as incorporating Restorative Practices has the potential to shift the narrative and promote healthier relationships, especially in the midst of our differences. It’s not a perfect system, and as the document states, is meant to ameliorate current systems such as responsive classroom practices/social emotional learning and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). I see all three of these systems at the Boggs School, and also know that sometimes more punitive measures are necessary, such as in-school suspensions. But when these measures are taken when the student is continuously affirmed that they are valued and cared for, discipline is wholesome. Restorative practice is discipline, not just a squishy conversation that lets the wrongdoing slide, but actually positions a student or students to confront the harm or action they’ve caused and own the impact of it. That’s character growth, and strengthens communities.
But returning to structures, we need to shift how we do school so that students are also getting the social and emotional learning that they need to thrive, alongside the academic. In crowded public schools with poor administration, pain is going to continue to perpetuate unless people go to those places and act. Policy change is important, and is incredibly powerful when partnered with strong leadership on the ground. As students of social work (and social justice work), we have a wealth of knowledge, skills and perspective that build community through our commitment to inclusive society. We just have to keep going, day by day.