During my time as a principal in South Philadelphia, I made the same gimmicky mistakes that most leaders are guilty of when trying to control students and their behaviors.
Before I became its leader, my school was one of the only middle schools to make the state’s persistently dangerous list, which meant that in the previous year it had at least 20 reported physical assault offensives, along with incidents of weapons and drugs.
Therefore, I did what I was brought there to do: Get it off the persistently dangerous list and make it a safe school for learning.
Both of which I did, only to realize that my initial approach was all wrong. Even though I followed what top education leaders and reformers consider a formula for safety, I also created a culture of fear and intimidation.
I followed the well-worn path for making urban schools “safe” or “great” — ensuring that Black and Latinx students receive constant supervision with a culturally blind and no-excuses attitude toward student behavior — all in support of a hyperfocus on skills, devoid of cultural connections or relevancy.
Yet it was confusing: The kind of school I was creating was nothing like the one I wanted for my own children. I wanted mine at a school that encouraged them to learn who they are, with all their quirks and gifts. A place where they could develop and track meaningful goals, exercise academic choice and openly advocate for themselves.
Yet here I was running a middle school with more detention rooms, timeout rooms and in-school suspension rooms than I could count, a school where teachers judiciously monitored student behavior using color-coded behavior charts and where there were zero options for taking advanced courses.
Would I send my kids to my school? I would not.This juxtaposition haunted me. I knew my school had to change.
So I changed my approach. In my first year, my successful school turnaround was not without several mistakes and a lot of learning on my part. I did not inherit a school that functioned on its own, and there were times when student voices were not front and center.
I share this in transparency, hoping that you are able to reflect on the culture you’re creating in your own schools.
Ample studies show the challenges that Black students face in school and highlight the difficulty educators have in ensuring their academic and social success. Complicating these challenges are teachers’ who desire to control students and systemic beliefs that Black people are unintelligent and uneducable, fed by the stereotypical portrayals of Black youth as untrustworthy and wild, needing to be tamed, that have been propagated in media, politics and other popular discourse for generations.
Black people are no less impacted by what we repeatedly see and hear than everyone else. We, too, fall victim to co-signing the same stereotypes against our Black communities that we so vehemently fight against.
Complicating [Black students’] challenges are teachers’ who desire to control students and systemic beliefs that Black people are unintelligent and uneducable, fed by the stereotypical portrayals of Black youth as untrustworthy and wild, needing to be tamed, that have been propagated in media, politics and other popular discourse for generations.
For example, no matter how cute and innocent I thought my own kids would be, I knew their presence might threaten others for no reason at all. They might be told, even by friends, “to go back to Africa” in what would be meant as a joke. They’d likely be seen as “the problem” in school, and their physical presence — too big, too tall, too out-there and too Black — might intimidate teachers or make them feel uncomfortable.
Their natural emotional responses to hard things would likely be scrutinized and labeled as “at-risk,” “impulsive” or “in crisis.”
I knew from my experience as a school leader that they would be forced to question their hopes and dreams because of societal norms and the low expectations placed upon them, and that they’d see far fewer images of Black people holding powerful positions.
When we are influenced to believe negatives about Blackness, it breeds mistrust, fear and envy — even within our own communities. The labels, lies and misunderstandings about Black children attack our own truths.
However, something very important also happened during that first year as a principal. I learned about the art of culturally relevant pedagogy, being bicultural, the impact of teacher self-efficacy and social responsibility. Later, I’d teach others to implement these practices.
This had a profound impact on my life and ultimately changed my leadership lens altogether. I now believe we must rethink our responses to the behavior of Black and Latinx students. We must challenge ourselves to develop culturally and socially responsive programming that allows these students to have a voice, express their feelings and question leadership choices that aren’t meeting their needs.
Schools should be modeling, for students, what it looks like to self-advocate, and then allow students the space and grace to practice. Students of color must be taught how to argue for their needs, while also remaining conscious of the consequences when doing so in the real world. Educators must build their own sociopolitical awareness in order to help their students navigate mainstream culture.
It wasn’t until I reflected upon my maternal instincts and revisited the needs of my students by consulting with them that I learned what schools should look and feel like for them. That’s how I began creating a school that they could thrive in.
Allowing student leadership to impact our school community ultimately transformed our school and my leadership practice.
Taryn Fletcher is a former middle school principal and deputy superintendent of Camden, New Jersey schools. She is the founder and CEO of Truly POC Inc. and the author of “In All Lanes: Action Steps for New Leaders to Empower Black and Brown Students, Rethink School, and Transform Behavior.”
This story about school discipline was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.