Who’s to blame?

Towards the end of the school year, I received an anonymous note from one of my students. However, the identity of the student was easily recognizable by the handwriting.

M, the student from whom the note was written, was one of my top students. She is not only naturally intelligent but hardworking, passionate and meticulously organized. If I missed a beat in my lesson, she was right there to help me fill in whatever sentence I was stumbling over. Which is why I was surprised by what she wrote.

In this note, M confided that she was feeling overwhelmed by the surmounting pressure concerning the upcoming end-of-year assessments. She expressed that she was not only nervous about taking the tests, but that she felt like she was going to let her family and teachers down if she did not do well.

I was troubled by this note for obvious reasons, but after careful deliberation I responded to M’s note. I told her that I was proud of her, that I was rooting for her, and to give it her best effort. My response seems trite.

I wanted to say more though; I wanted to reassure M and tell her not to worry. I couldn’t honestly say those things  because I was worried too.

Starting around the time we returned from winter break, I began to hear the terms “testing season” and “test prep” quite frequently. By February, we were discussing test preparation strategies that we could incorporate into our daily lessons.

In meetings, we would discuss such questions as, “How can we modify our lessons to prepare students for what we they will see on the test?”

In April, we set aside a whole two weeks strictly for remediation and test preparation. We analyzed our data for deficits and weak points and intentionally lesson planned to address these areas. We diligently worked to prepare our students, taking the time to painstakingly review prior tests and work through previously wrong answered questions.

Apparently, this wasn’t enough.

TNReady, part of Tennessee’s Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), released student test scores from the 2017-18 school year last Thursday, July 19, 2018. There were some areas of growth. Nevertheless, the overall results were not great—actually, far from it.

Elementary statewide proficiency in English/language arts went up to 35.7% from 33.9 in 2017; high school statewide proficiency in math went up to 22.5% from 21.5 percent in 2017. Across all other content areas and grade levels, scores either remained stagnant or went down.

It’s easy to attribute blame to large institutions; yet, if we indulge in a minute of introspection, we might be a little more hesitant to cast the first stone.

The school system is comprised of individuals—people like you and me. If we are not directly involved in the school system, we are involved indirectly—as parents, students, and at large—as members of our communities.

When I think of the challenges our school district and the public education system in general are facing, this quote by Walter Dyer from “The Richer Life” comes to mind:

“…and we endeavor to solve their problems en masse, by formulating a remedy for the ills of a group. The needs of an individual are lost sight of in contemplating the needs of society.”

We need to start being accountable in our individual roles as teachers, parents, students, policy makers, government representatives—heck, even Secretary of Education.

Rethinking School Discipline: Focusing on Student Needs


On Monday, July 9, 2018, a group of Memphis parents, educators, and education advocates gathered with Stand for Children to discuss the need to rethink school discipline policies to focus on student needs. The driving question posed was, “What skills do students in Memphis need to access the lives they deserve?” The goal was to focus on identifying not only the skills students need to have, but the skills we, as adults, need to internalize that will allow us to be proactive about student discipline. The idea is to achieve this by focusing on assets rather than on punitive measures and behaviors.

Fifteen states specifically allow schools to use of corporal punishment, while eight other states have no laws or regulations against it.  Tennessee is one of the states that still allows corporal punishment as a form of discipline within its schools, according to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments.

Tennessee’s law 49-6-4103 explicitly states, “Any teacher or school principal may use corporal punishment in a reasonable manner against any pupil in order to maintain discipline and order within the public schools.” Let’s be clear; however, corporal punishment is not allowed in all schools in Tennessee, only some.

For example, the Shelby County school district in Memphis does not have policies in place that allow corporal punishment. Public charter schools in SCS, though they may operate in accordance with many SCS policies, still maintain autonomy under their charter to implement practices—whether they be academic or behavioral—that they deem best suit the needs of their students.

Therefore, even though the Shelby County School Board of Education voted 13-2 in 2013 to repeal the corporal punishment policy, corporal punishment does still take place within SCS.

As suggested by the title of this gathering, the people in attendance were there because of the recognition of the fact that there is a huge gap between what we expect and anticipate for our students and how we are helping them get there. Across SCS, discipline is an issue that varies greatly and in extreme measures from school to school.

Cathy Emerson, a school psychologist, and Shanieka Smith, a school counselor joined us for the evening, prefacing the discussion with the story of a student who had been failed by the school system. Sadly, the story of this particular student sounded all too familiar

This student, called Quo* was significantly behind academically and although he had support from his family and school, he lacked the skills he needed to be successful without consistent guidance. Unfortunately, Quo became the status of the latter. While Quo was on the right track and progressing academically, he was still missing the fundamental skills to be able to cope with the rigor and various tensions of his environment. As a result, Quo found himself in a system far less (or maybe comparably) forgiving than the public-school system: the prison system.

During the meeting, an equity based protocol for rethinking school discipline was given:

Empathy and high expectations

Quality teaching

Understanding and personalization

Incident response

Team approach

You focused policy

Oftentimes, our schools focus so heavily on what students lack and reinforce these deficits through punitive measures. How might our schools be different if we focused on working with students to help them develop healthy emotional, physical, and cognitive practices that enabled them to better self-direct?

This is Part 1 in a series dedicated to rethinking school discipline.

*Name changed for protection