I gave a student his third suspension; what he said next changed my life
This piece is a part of Camelback's Ruthless for Good series, sharing different ways that individuals embody the spirit of our manifesto and what they fight for.
Tyler Brewster is a 2017 Camelback Fellow and co-founder of Peer Connect.
He is not happy to see me.
And I can’t say I blame him either. It’s the first day back from a Superintendent’s Suspension. This time, it meant that Jermaine was out for 30 full days of school. The thing is that this is Jermaine’s* third Superintendent Level Suspension for the school year - and I am the dean who’s issued it to him. By this point, our relationship has been reduced to a flurry of back-and-forths over uniform policy, classroom removals, awkward parent phones calls and suspension conferences.
It was exactly 10 years ago that I began my journey as an educator. In June of 2007, I joined Cohort 14 of the New York City Teaching Fellows. Just three short months later, I found myself teaching Middle School Mathematics at a 6-12 school in the neighborhood I grew up in.
Though only minutes away from my childhood home, I’d never actually set foot in that school building prior to starting my teaching career. In fact, growing up I didn’t spend much time in or around the dozens of schools dotting my Crown Heights neighborhood. Instead, I spent several hours each week on public transportation, commuting back and forth to schools miles away from where I called home. I recognized pretty early on that there were stark differences between the school experience I was receiving and that of my friends who attended the neighborhood zone schools.
These differences extended well beyond the quality of academic instruction. I had access to counselors and coaches and opportunities to explore the world and my place in it. My peers were met with metal detectors and overcrowding and rigid instructions on what role they were expected to play in the world. The impact of these wide-ranging disparities was long-lasting and undoubtedly heavily influenced the trajectory of our individual life paths.
Bearing witness to the limiting effect that poor educational opportunities had on my community and people, a spark was ignited within me. It was then that I believe I was born to be a seeker of justice.
My early experience with public school education (and the disproportionalities within the system) largely motivated my decision to become a teacher -- specifically, a teacher at my neighborhood high school that had shirked the responsibility of educating my people. I made a deep commitment to ensuring that students who came from where I came from, wouldn’t be forced to leave their communities for a quality education.
After four years of teaching mathematics, I was offered the opportunity to become a Dean of Student Discipline for the school. Though my intentions were to find the balance of nurturing and firm guidance, what some might call tough love - I must admit that I sometimes fell short of the mark.
On that day, in my office with Jermaine, I found myself thinking about why we were in that room again. Reflecting on the time I spent with Jermaine, it was painstakingly clear that the punitive approaches were not making a positive impact - not on Jermaine’s behavior, our relationship or his education. Each time he returned from a removal, he was angrier, more jaded. On that day, it dawned on me: I needed to do something different…I was part of the problem.
For me it was one of those magical “aha!” moments, you know, the ones that we as educators so often seek to pull from our students.
I thought, why not have a conversation? Ask him about his needs, his goals in life. Help him develop a plan. A plan so that when he stumbled -- because that’s what students are supposed to do; we as educators would be there to pick him up—because that’s what educators are supposed to do. So I did, and it was one of the most powerful and positive experiences of my career. I could immediately sense he was shocked anyone had given him the time of day, much less me.
What he said next changed my life: “I’m used to being treated like a problem. It's all that anyone expects of me. So I act like one.”
While I’m certain it was not his intentions to inspire me, in that moment, I was forever changed by Jermaine’s matter-of-fact words. He had completely revolutionized my philosophy around school discipline.
With this lightning bolt epiphany, also came a heavy sense of regret and guilt. My instincts to use rules and regulations as the primary means for creating and maintaining an “orderly” and safe environment, had ultimately alienated Jermaine from our school community. I had convinced myself that my approaches were effective, and that it was just Jermaine - and several students like him - that needed to adjust to the program.
But it was me who needed to do the re-adjusting. How could I expect students to flourish as members of our community if, when they stumbled, they were asked to leave the community? Our current discipline system which heavily relied on suspensions, pushed students away during their most vulnerable moments, when we should have been pulling them closer. Ironically, I had unintentionally internalized and perpetuated the systems of oppressions I’d originally set out to dismantle.
For the next several years, I hungrily researched and learned more about restorative justice and the world of possibilities for school-based implementation. I revisited ideas of community healing and positive responses to discipline.
I’ve since expanded my definition of discipline to focus on teaching + learning, rather than solely focusing on punishment. I often wonder about Jermaine, where he is and how is he doing. I wonder how his life could be different if I’d learned this sooner. What could be if more educators learned this sooner? How many students, particularly youth of color, would not be a part of what has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline?
Unsurprisingly, it was actually seeing Dr. Angela Davis, who made it all click for me - I get the feeling she has that effect on a lot of people! It was a Friday night in Harlem and there were about 1,000 of us crammed into the auditorium at Columbia University. This was the first time I’d have the honor of hearing her speak. Dr. Davis had captured all of the eyes and ears in attendance. What she offered was an idea that had seemed to escape us as a society - yet it was so clear and spoke straight to my heart -- the existence and necessity of our criminal justice system was a display of the failures of other systems and institutions created to aide and support those communities who are most in need.
While I didn’t work directly within the penal system, a light bulb had gone off for me.
Solely using punitive measures as means for shifting behavior and culture simply further isolated an individual and grossly failed to identify and provide the supports necessary to address the root cause.
This was the exact model being replicated within our schools. For the next several years, I sought to deepen my knowledge and understanding of the history of restorative practices and the possibilities they presented for changing our schools.
With my newly found teachings, I went on to join a small transfer school community as the Restorative Practices Coordinator. During this time my dear friend and current business partner, Shana Louallen, and I put our heads together to conceive Peer Connect. We believed that every child deserved access to a nurturing and positive school community and wanted to create an option for meaningful education and training around Restorative Practices as a means for shifting school culture.
Joining the Camelback family this year has helped me find my wings. Within our tightly knit community, I have the support to expand my vision to create positive school communities and disrupting systems of oppression that feed the school-to-prison-pipeline.
120 months, 20-something job titles, 10 graduations, five principals, two schools and one leap of faith later - I am leaving the classroom. All in all, I’ve learned a lot. The most important lesson of all being that learning never stops.
As I enter this next chapter, I find myself standing at the start of one of the scariest yet most exhilarating moments in my life. But I am emboldened and encouraged by my passion for what it is that I do. I believe in this work and the future of education.
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If you’d like to learn more about restorative justice or the school-to-prison-pipeline, please read What is Restorative Justice/Restorative Practices? and Restorative Justice & The School-to-Prison Pipeline.
*Student name changed for privacy