Her name is Alexandra. She was a student in a school where I used to work and she was one of those kids who challenges you, causes her share of trouble, and comes to appreciate and love you deeply when you’ve earned her trust. Oh, she steals your heart too. To this day, a letter she wrote me on my birthday in 2012 sits in the drawer of my nightstand. It said a lot but most importantly, she wanted me to know how much it meant to her that I believed in her. And given her a chance. And helped her to see that she had the power to make different—and better choices—as a student and as a young woman. I think of Alexandra often, especially when I watch debates about school discipline unfold on Twitter or Facebook or wherever else education pundits and partisans are sparring over Obama-era discipline guidance.
The Problem ChildAlexandra’s mother was not in her life. Her father, an immigrant from Nigeria, was struggling to raise her and her brother and while her brother shined in school and in life, as Alexandra told it, she was the problem child. And in many ways, she was also a problem child at school. Explosive anger. Disruptive behavior in class. Rudeness. A fight or flight response that was on a different level than most, if not all, of the suburban students I had taught the decade before. But she quickly became one of the most important and best parts of my day. She would wait for me to get in just so she could swing over for a quick hug, or laugh, or venting session about whatever had already gone wrong that morning. She was no fan of country music but she kind of became one when I started singing the Steve Holy song “Good Morning Beautiful” to her all the time. She would sing it too. Alexandra knew suspensions well. She would lose her cool with teachers and get in occasional fights with other students. Her father didn’t have a car so for him, a suspension for the rest of the day meant he had to leave work early and take a city bus or walk to come pick up his daughter. I still remember the two of them walking out of the building together, in silence, to catch a bus. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that image still hurts my heart. Alexandra was the quintessential example of a student who escalates and loses control, usually of her words. I would watch interactions between her and staff members that would start over a minor infraction: her phone sticking out of her back pocket, a dress code violation. The staff member would raise the issue and a back and forth would inevitably ensue. But that back and forth would quickly go off the rails as the staff member would either not notice or choose to ignore the escalation—and her best efforts to contain it—in Alexandra’s face and voice. I could see it and I would tense up as if I was literally watching gasoline poured out over a burning fire. I knew what was coming. Why didn’t they? And then BOOM. The f-word would fly, usually about how much she hated this school but sometimes about how much she hated the teacher. And she didn’t hate the teacher. But she was in fight or flight mode so she would fight just enough and then run. I remember doors almost flying off their hinges as she’d leave the room. The teacher would demand she be sent home. Suspended. Her disrespect and profanity was unacceptable and there needed to be a consequence. I agreed with most of that. But I didn’t suspend her.
I Couldn’t Justify Sending Her HomeUsually, by the time I was done talking to the teacher, I’d find Alexandra in my office, already much calmer than just a few moments ago. Often she’d have her headphones in, books open, and be doing school work. She liked to be in my office, near me, even when we were each doing our own work. I liked having her there too. She knew she had blown up. She would ask why the teacher had been “all up in her face like that.” I’d remind that her that when the conversation started out, the teacher was right. She knew the rule and she had chosen to break it. She’d come back at me with all the times he, and other staff members, had ignored when other students did the same thing. She wasn’t wrong. Alexandra was a student who drew attention to herself, for positive and negative reasons, and her chances of getting away with rule breaking were slimmer than most. She wasn’t that kid who slips through the cracks; she was the one who blew the cracks wide open. As most educators in charge of behavior and discipline can likely attest, there is often pressure from teachers and staff to administer a sufficiently harsh punishment and it isn’t easy to do the opposite of what your colleague—and perhaps friend—wants. But sometimes it’s the right thing to do for the student. Alexandra had caused a break in the relationship with her teacher. But her relationships with her other teachers were intact that day and I couldn’t justify—in my head or my heart—the decision to pull her Dad from work and send her home on a city bus, or on foot, when the best place for her to be was in school. How would it serve her to miss her remaining classes because of an incident with one teacher earlier in the day? I decided she needed to stay. The day wrapped up without incident and before I knew it, I was walking in to school the next day. One of my first orders of business was to remind Alexandra that she needed to make things right with Mr. Wright. When I saw her just moments after walking into the building and I reminded her of her unfinished business, she responded matter of factly, “I already put a note in his mailbox saying I was sorry.” A victory. There was a time when Alexandra would not have taken the initiative on her own to make things right with a teacher she had disrespected the day before. She was growing and maturing as a young woman and as a student in how she managed the consequences of her anger. She had internalized the work we had been doing in school and had accepted that she had a responsibility to ‘restore’ the relationship she had fractured the day before. This was a moment of success. I was so proud of her. The teacher confirmed with a smile that he had received the note. It was a new day and Alexandra had started it with a clean slate. I’m confident I made the right call in not suspending her. But that was one day, one incident, one student.
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...