Co-Creating Your School’s Behavioral Expectations With Students Can Be a Giant Step Toward Equity

Everyone who’s ever worked in or attended a school knows that in the course of any school day adults create myriad small and large harms to their students, their peers and themselves. In every training that I’ve done with teachers, support staff, deans, principals and district personnel, everyone is in agreement: “Adults create harm in schools and we must be held accountable for what we do or not do!” 

But, now, we come up against the question of what behaviors or set of guidelines do we hold each other accountable to? Your school’s ‘Code of Conduct’ only applies to student behavior and was written 10 to 20 years ago by a group of adult staff with little to no student input?

And, to what standard do we hold staff accountable? The district’s ‘Teacher’s Handbook’? The Handbook will invariably warn pedagogues against corporal punishment of the verbal and physical variety and of sexual harassment of any kind. Of course, these standards are necessary and need to be explicitly stated and adhered to. But, do these handbooks safeguard against the daily affronts/microaggressions that occur multiple times a day in each of our buildings?

For example, teachers’ sarcastic remarks towards students or embarrassing students in front of their classmates? Do our professional handbooks help prevent staff from holding grudges against a youngster because they disrupted a class last week or prejudge someone because they have a bad rap? Do they prevent staff from choosing sides in a classroom dispute because they like one youngster more than the other? And, do they explicitly ensure that a teacher doesn’t spend more time teaching to one segment of a class because they are ‘easier to teach’ and less time with others who are ‘hard to teach?’. 

Unfortunately, in most cases, the answer is ‘NO’! Nowhere are our schools’ staff given guidance in how to respectfully treat the young people that we work with daily. And so, the ‘slings and arrows’ of the harms that are foisted upon our children each and every day go unaddressed until/when a student blows up in anger and then the call for the student to be “held accountable” for something triggered by an uncaring or clueless adult, goes out! And, we must add, that this stuff happens with adults and youth of all ethnicities, colors and genders. It’s not just a ‘white teacher-students of color’ issue. 

Adults are in the position of power in our schools and we liberally use it to run the school and to resolve conflicts in our favor. Agism manifests in these ways and more and is many times compounded by racism, sexism, class prejudice, heterosexism, etc. Whatever the toxic mix is in a particular situation, the rules are written to favor the adults and this must be changed if we are going to achieve ‘equity for all’ in our schools!

 So, what’s the way out of this morass? Is there a way to level the playing field and hold adults accountable without having our schools descend into the chaos that some adults fear might come to pass if their actions are allowed to be criticized by ‘the children’? Yes, there is; if we are mature enough to listen to our students and hear them—really hear how they experience the daily grind of school. Let’s open our ears and our hearts to understanding, at a whole other level, what school is like for our children. 

If we’re able to do this, then we can work with (as we do in all restorative justice practices), our students to define what we all need in order to feel respected and safe when we enter our buildings every day. If we are bold enough, we can co-create our school’s behavioral expectations with our young people. We can find out and recognize/uplift what everyone in our school needs in order to make it through the day with dignity.

And, what better time to begin this process than now?! We are all struggling for a sense of normalcy as we have come out of the isolation and alienation of the pandemic and returned to our buildings. Many of us, adults as well as children, don’t quite know how to feel and/or act. We are dysregulated. We are crying out for normalcy, regulation, patterns and clarity from each other and from our leaders. We are longing for the discipline (however flawed it was), and structure that our schools provided before COVID struck.

So, as we struggle to regain and reestablish a sense of daily and emotional regulation, what better way to do it than to invite everyone into the process of creating our new ways of living and working together? If we’ve come to realize that our old patterns of interaction were flawed and rife with inequity, let’s put our best inclusive and egalitarian feet forward and work together to create our new set of behavioral expectations. 

Let’s have young and old, all categories of workers and students, all genders, religions, nationalities and skin colors collaborate on defining what we need from each other in order to teach, learn and grow together. If we can do this and then hold everyone accountable, we can reestablish our schools as spaces grounded ‘in equity’ rather than reconstitute them as, once again, institutions firmly rooted in systemic inequities!

Matthew Guldin
Matthew Guldin is a consultant and a lead trainer and coach in restorative practices for the New York City Department of Education (NYDOE). He has spent more than 40 years serving New York City’s families as a history teacher, an assistant principal, and as dean of students. He is a veteran of all the progressive educational movements coming out of NYC since the 1960s. This work began with his ...

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