Maybe We All Just Need a Hug

My mother taught at the same high school that I graduated from, in Shenandoah Junction, WV. I was fortunate never to have her as my English teacher (my youngest sister was far less fortunate). As a teacher, my mom was tough. She was a “no excuses” teacher before such a label existed in education reform (though for the record, my mom would never call herself an ed reformer EVER). She held all of her students to high standards, and she expected the best they could bring.

It was true in how she taught American literature, and it was true in the behaviors she expected in her classroom and in the hallways. On more than one occasion, she jumped in the middle of a fight to break it up. On more than one occasion, I saw her, all five-feet-nothing of her, get into the face of a football player or other student who towered over her, demanding said student respect the school and respect the rules.

When she got into the scrum on a fight between a couple of guys, they pically stopped as soon as they saw her in the mix. But at least once, when she tried to break up two fightin’ girls, they weren’t so quick to get to their respective corners. But it never stopped Mrs. Riccards from seeking the discipline her schools demanded. And she taught in all types, urban, rural, and suburban.

So when I read Eva Moskowitz’ piece this week in the Wall Street Journal on changes to the NYC schools’ discipline policies, I was at first amused, and then a little troubled. In it, she writes of the introduction of “restorative circles” as a key component to discipline in our nation’s largest public school system.

And what are “restorative circles?” As Moskowitz writes: “It’s a ‘community process for supporting those in conflict [that] brings together the three parties to a conflict—those who have acted, those directly impacted and the wider community—within an intentional systemic context, to dialogue as equals.'”

Is this really where we have gone, where school discipline has devolved into a group hug, where the person throwing the punch and the person getting hit are considered equals and equally wronged in the process? Where a bully and the bullied need to come together with the larger community to understand why one feels the need to terrorize or attack a fellow student? Where we need to explore, understand, and feel empathetic toward the aggressor?

Shaking my old man fist, in my day, there was no need for restorative circles or kumbaya moments in the disciplinary process. You start a fight or throw a punch, there are consequences. You get caught cheating or skipping school, you get disciplined. There was no “systemic context” to understand. Break the rules, get punished. No excuses, no exceptions.

Should we really be endorsing bad behavior as long as one has a good reason for it? If so, we are telling our kids that our discipline policy is no discipline at all. Forget accountability, all we need a good hug.

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