“I decided to become a teacher so I could become the adult for students that I needed when I was a kid.” – Sound Discipline educator participant
Educators universally share a sense of purpose and hope for the good they can do in the world. Sometimes, however, they lose sight of that vision. Educators’ jobs are challenging, misunderstood, and burdened with competing demands. As they work with us, educators talk about reconnecting with that sense of purpose and loving their jobs again, even while navigating all these complex challenges. Wanting to be that adult we needed for our students is one thing. It’s quite another to translate that goal to practices that are relational, student-centered, and culturally responsive.
Often, we must start by unlearning practices and setting aside ways of thinking and being that we’ve picked up from our formal training, from our upbringing, even from our ancestors. Perhaps we experience these old ways of thinking as “our personality.” Over time, however, we find that what we call “being me” is learned, often reactive behavior, sometimes seeded by trauma. Much of how we show up as adults (depending on the day) can be about defending ourselves against a sense of threat, or, relatedly, ensuring our position in a power structure (a poor substitute for real belonging). This is not a personal flaw, just how we are built.
Collectively, individual adaptive behaviors like this shape and reinforce group behavior and even institutional dynamics. We call this culture. Cultures get embedded into systems where they get stuck, in some cases frozen in place for decades or centuries. For example, some educator training (dating back to the early 20th century) frames the educator role as management of the classroom, versus co-leadership. An effective teacher, these old models posit, knows how to control students — i.e., rewards and punishment – to preserve the teacher’s position and quell unwanted behavior. These kinds of management philosophies and methods are the crux of punitive discipline policies which, though they vary by degree, are consistent across education, criminal justice, industrial management, and the military.
As an individual, wading into the downstream force of this roaring river of culture is difficult and exhausting. Learning new ways to lead and facilitate connected classrooms is wonderful and useful, and if your classroom practices are at odds with the rest of your colleagues’ and building-wide culture, it’s a set up for burnout and isolation. This is especially true when you and your students are experiencing cultural marginalization for being who they are.
LGBTQ+ educators know this well. My oldest brother Greg, a gay man and lifelong educator risked his job in the 1990s, sponsoring a student club called “The Olive Society,” a safe place for students who identified as LGBTQ to share their journeys and support one another.
Teachers of color feel this weight as well. Being the educator that students of color need in a school culture that is targeting means carrying toxic levels of stress. This is one reason we struggle as a nation to retain educators of color.
According to The Education Trust, while students of color are more than 50% of the population, less than 20% of educators nationally are of color. In Washington State, less than 10% of our state’s educators are of color. This disparity shows up in many facets of Black and Brown teacher experience, and takes a huge toll on both teachers and students.
Around the country, various initiatives are in the works to support and retain educators of color. Here in Washington State, the Puget Sound Education Service District (PSESD) established an initiative called Educators of Color Leadership Community (ECLC) which convenes educator affinity groups and learning opportunities to promote recruitment, retention, and thriving of Black, Indigenous, of color, and multilingual educators.
No matter how effective these initiatives, it’s all our job to build equitable learning cultures at our schools that support educators to be the adults our young people need. For our Sound Discipline program participants, the goal is just this – a collective, building-wide culture that reflects our vision and values and builds in the structural support for all adults – everyone from the bus driver to the classroom teacher to the paraprofessionals on the playground — to practice social emotional practices that are trauma-informed, restorative, and student centered.
Andrea John-Smith is the Executive Director at Sound Discipline
Sound Discipline is working for a a future where everyone thrives because they know they matter and belong.
We build equitable communities that center the dignity, voice, and agency of young people. We do this partnering with schools and organizations to transform the ways adults teach, parent, and care for youth, by bringing together science-based, trauma-informed, restorative, and social emotional learning practices.
We facilitate school leaders and educators to build classroom communities and model an inclusive culture school-wide that promotes student agency and well-being.
Equitable School Systems:
We coach administrators and educators to use data to identify and implement solutions that address damaging systemic patterns of inequity that target Black and brown students.
We train and coach families and caregivers in a child’s life to apply solution-oriented practices that instill critical social emotional life skills.