Restoring Justice or Establishing Order?

UCLA's Civil Rights Project asks "Are We Closing the Discipline Gap?" in US schools.  One of the districts they studied was Syracuse.  I was there then as a turnaround principal.  Absurdly high suspensions were a problem for the district overall.  Dan Losen reported back to the Syracuse community that their data on excessive suspension should "shock the conscience."

In this post, I want to share reflections on the challenges and work that went on in that year of identifying the issues, planning for turnaround, and planting the seeds that could bear fruit later.  I am well aware that spending one year is nowhere near sufficient for a new culture to take hold.  Still, I hope that my reflections on that year could shed some light that others can use to go yet further down the road toward schools that are engaging, empowering, and just for young people.

When I came into the job, I spent months getting the lay of the land.  During one-on-one conversations with every faculty and staff member, I asked, "What should I get right right away?"  Almost universally, they reported that dealing with a disruptive school climate topped their list of priorities. Alarmingly frequent calls to the office--upwards of 5 per hour--to say that "Elvis has left the classroom" or "Elvis is trashing the classroom.  What do I do?"

When I asked for strengths of the school, they told me several versions of "We are a family," as in "We have each others' back," or "We'll do whatever it takes for one another."  It didn't take me long to see that the "we" in those sentences really meant "faculty and staff."  It rarely included students, and clearly excluded families, who were often cast as irresponsible and ineffective.

Rather than call out that tight circle, I instead encouraged us to enlarge the circle to include all.  We took fledgling steps to establish some restorative justice practices.  To take it further, we tried to build both restorative justice and compassionate schooling into the core of our turnaround plan. 

To plant seeds, we established replaced the former school mission--two page of the previous principal's ideas--with a pledge for kids and adults:

New vision Infographic-2.jpg

The new vision was student-centered, rather than curriculum-centered.  It moved us away from the overly broad ROARS (Respectful, Optimistic, Always Responsible, and Safe) slogan that had been scarcely translated into concrete teaching or learning.  

Enthusiastically, adults and kids would use the vision as a call and response with each other at school gatherings.  "We teach readers, rather than reading."  "We are readers!"

Kids and some faculty took immediately to being unconditionally encouraging.  That was clearly to be our biggest struggle.  

All in all, it felt like a well-planted seed in this design year for turnaround.  Where teachers had previously called for an orderly school as a precursor to being able to teach, we were beginning to see that establishing justice was more fundamental, and made a better place for all of us to come to every day.  


When love, urgency, and anger can be seen as weakness

When love, urgency, and anger can be seen as weakness

The net effect of the impending transfer was to inspire in the faculty a love for their circle of teachers, anger at the perceived injustice that they should bear the brunt of sacrifice in the turnaround, and an urgency to wax nostalgic for the school's better days. To be fair, better to label their response as fear than as love.  Of the three reptilian-brain responses to fear--fight, flight, and freeze--I saw most evidence of freezing.  It was nearly impossible to generate any meaningful engagement by the bulk of teachers.  They went into a state of playing possum instead, waiting it out to see if this transfer threat was real.

Pros and Cons

Pros and Cons

If you are a turnaround principal yourself, maybe you went through something similar.  If you are on track to become one soon, you may be about to weigh your options.  If you are the ally of a committed educator about to lead, you may be consulted.  I'm curious to read what others consider on the threshold of taking on the job of turnaround principal.