School to Prison Pipeline

If School Rules Aren’t Building a Sense of Community, Let’s Be Brave Enough to Rewrite Them

When I was in elementary school, my parents told me that when I had to go to the bathroom, I should ask my teacher for permission to leave the room. But they also told me that should my teacher not grant me permission, I should go to the bathroom anyway, and let her know that if she had questions or concerns, she should contact my parents. Their belief was that no one had the right to deny anyone else the ability to take care of their body’s needs. Thankfully, I never had to put that plan into action, but the empowerment I felt from my parents’ instructions stayed with me. They were my first teachers after all. Imagine the difficulty I experienced years later as a teacher, being expected to penalize students who were not dressed in uniform, who chewed gum or brought food into the classroom. I was told that my students were not allowed to be out of the classroom without a pass, and when I walked my students to and from their specials, they always had to walk in straight lines. I knew that it wasn’t like this at every school in every community, and the connection to the school-to-prison pipeline wasn’t lost on me.

Enforcing Rules Without Reason Can Be Roadblocks to Relationships

When I taught fifth grade, I had a student who was regularly out of uniform. Almost every day, she came into the room with a 24-ounce can of Arizona iced tea and a snack from the bodega she passed on her way to school. Although I felt challenged by her choices, it wasn’t because I cared about the school uniform policy or no food in the classroom rule. Personally, these things didn’t really matter much to me. I was concerned, however, about what would happen if someone came into my classroom to observe my instruction, and saw that I wasn’t enforcing the school’s rules. After I stopped focusing on what would happen to me if someone came in and saw her drinking her tea, and focused, instead, on solutions, my relationship with this student improved significantly. We spent more time on teaching and learning instead of arguing. Truth be told? She was one of my favorite students. One of the things I loved about her was how free she was. This challenge presented me with the opportunity to think about potential solutions. Thankfully, persuasive writing was part of the fifth-grade writing curriculum. Students brainstormed things they’d like to change, and those issues became the subjects of their persuasive essays. They made a case for having permission to go buy lunch from the shops across the street. Key points in their argument were the “nasty” school lunch offered, so unpleasant that teachers wouldn’t eat it. And if teachers could go get sandwiches from the bodega across the street, why not students? They also made a case to eliminate the school uniform policy. Am I saying that I didn’t believe in school rules? Not at all. I understood that some of these rules were important for safety reasons. If there was an emergency, I needed to know where all of my students were. But some of these rules felt unnecessary. I didn’t care what color or type of shirt my students wore, or if the shirt had a Peter Pan collar. I didn’t understand why students couldn’t chew gum in class or wear hats and hoodies indoors. If a student had to use the bathroom, and the passes were being used, I was not going to tell a student that they had to wait until someone came back. And no gum in class? Actually, I thought we’d have far less gum under desks and chairs if we told students they could chew gum as long as they threw it in the trash when they were done. Interestingly enough, chewing gum and eating candy in class became acceptable during standardized testing because it was believed that this could help students concentrate and boost their test scores. Our inconsistencies aren’t lost on students, and they erode their trust in us. To develop classroom rules and policies that create a welcoming, inclusive learning community, look no further than these great resources from Teaching Tolerance: And here's a resource from BetterLesson: We need to always be mindful of how and why our class and school rules came to exist. It’s important to observe whether our school and classroom rules give our students the sense of belonging in our learning community that they deserve, or enforce the message that compliance is more important than who they are and how they feel. If our rules aren’t building a sense of belonging, let’s be brave enough to rewrite them.
An original version of this piece appeared on BetterLesson.
Afrika Afeni Mills
Afrika Afeni Mills is Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with BetterLesson. She works with teachers, coaches and administrators to transform instructional practices and empower all students to thrive. A former teacher, administrator and prominent thought leader, she has been featured on podcasts discussing the school-to-prison pipeline and white fragility and co-presented Required ...

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