There has been a lot of talk about school discipline this year. Suspensions have come under greater scrutiny in many school districts, and rightly so. By pushing students out of school, they deny students the opportunity to engage, learn and grow. We know this.

One rebuttal that I hear again and again is something along the lines of, “When I was in school, students respected teachers under all circumstances because they’re authority figures. If you didn’t, you were punished, no questions asked.” It usually comes from someone who has not been a student in the public school system for 20+ years. Unfortunately, this downplays the role of empathy in the classroom, and the importance of strong relationships built on mutual respect.

Summarized, the argument goes like this: punishment leads to “appropriate” behavior which leads to classroom obedience. The issue is that obedience should not be the goal of education. It worries me that people in our community believe punitive measures are necessary to uphold this respect for teachers.

Do punitive approaches actually work? The evidence consistently points towards no. Research has shown that reliance on this kind of discipline has a severe impact on learning time, especially for our students who are already the most vulnerable. And as for the part of the argument that says “we have to remove kids for the sake of their peers”? These tactics even harm the education of students who do not misbehave. It’s clear that the old “that’s how it’s always been” argument  is not going to suffice anymore. Our students deserve better.

This argument needs to be flipped. Trust is something that often has to be built. If students feel a lack of respect from teachers, they will disconnect and behavior will spiral. If there is empathy between educators and students, the classroom can be an environment that thrives.

As Aretha Franklin so gracefully put it, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”

A study published by Stanford University found that teachers encouraged to adopt an empathic rather than punitive mindset about discipline—to value students’ perspectives and sustain positive relationships while encouraging better behavior—had the impact of cutting suspensions in half.

The findings showed that teachers that were given an opportunity to express their empathic values—to understand students’ perspectives and to sustain positive relationships with students when they misbehave—improved student-teacher relationships and discipline outcomes.

I’ve had a number of teachers tell me on the first day of class, “I don’t care if you like me, I’m here to teach you and if you don’t want to learn, you can leave.” This statement always confused me. Of course I want to learn. I also want to like my teacher. How am I supposed to enjoy learning if you’ve already discouraged the idea of developing an understanding relationship with one another?

For many students, a basic recognition of their humanity is enough to sustain a trusting relationship that can propel them to see education in a more positive light. These actions can be as small as refraining from publicly criticizing their work/behavior, connecting with them individually, learning how to correctly pronounce a student’s name or similarly, not confusing them with other students of the same race (something that happened to me frequently in high school). Small acts of affirmation go a long way to encourage participation, engagement and work ethic.

On the flip side, Stanford researchers found that many teachers view respect in terms of cooperation and compliance. Why can’t we have both?

The understanding of each other’s perspectives is critical. What’s important is that the respect and empathy is there. By no means is this a new concept but perhaps we can start seeing empathy as a key to academic success.


This blog was originally posted on the Solutions Not Suspensions blog.

Born and raised on the East Side of St. Paul, Angela Vang has been a part of the Saint Paul Public Schools community her whole life. Her interest in education equity started in early high school when she served as a teaching fellow with Breakthrough Twin Cities. Since then, she has completed fellowships with organizations such as Youthprise, Pollen Midwest, MinnCAN and was elected co-chair of Minnesota Youth Council’s Education Committee during the 2015-2016 session. Angela hopes to aid in efforts to close the opportunity gap, build bridges, and create culturally competent working/learning spaces. Along with education reform, she is passionate about reproductive justice, eliminating health stigmas within immigrant communities, and the intersections of policy as it relates to racial equity. She is a proud 2016 graduate of St. Paul Central High School and is currently attending The University of Minnesota, intending to major in journalism and political science.

The MinnCAN blogging fellowship allows Minnesota students, teachers, administrators and parents to share their thoughts on key education issues. MinnCAN supports fellows seeking to advance the conversation around public education, though fellows’ views and opinions are solely their own.

Angela is a 2016 MinnCAN blogging fellow.


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