To Their Futures And Beyond (Part II of III)

Laura Bond

This article is part II of a three-part story adapted from Give Magazine Summer 2018. See a link at the end of the article to continue to Part III of this story from Give Summer 2018.

The 2017/18 school year got off to a rough start at Park Lane Elementary. Several new students brought serious behavioral issues that rattled teachers and Principal Duran. A chair was thrown. Teachers reported feeling unsafe and unsure how to handle these kids, who seemed mad at the world. 

“We have had kids who deal with all kinds of issues,” says Duran. “Social and emotional issues, trauma, different family issues. One of our students had a mom who was coming out of prison and was upset about that. When you have that kind of thing, it can impact the whole school.” 

Amid rising tension in the building, Duran called in five of the nonprofit organizations that partnered with Park Lane as part of the Common Sense Discipline initiative. She then invited six teachers who had struggled with the behaviors of students who needed support. The Denver Foundation provided resources to make the deep work possible, including materials, meals, and substitute teachers to cover classroom time. 

Throughout the school year, the group took Common Sense Discipline to an intense new level. Working with nonprofits RISE Colorado and the HEARTS program of Aurora Mental Health Center, the teachers thought about what had happened to students rather than what was wrong with them, one of the core principles of trauma-informed care. They learned to recognize trauma in their students and stress in themselves. 

With the Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC), which provides professional development to teachers, they planned lessons that were culturally responsive and relevant. With Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge, a national leader on classroom equity issues and teacher instruction, they tried to shift how they thought about what children bring with them to school each day. To reframe the influence and value of students’ lived experience. What if the hard-edged attitudes of some children, forged in survival, were seen as assets of personal resilience rather than behavioral liabilities? 

When Duran invited Lindsay Folker, who teaches fifth-grade literacy at Park Lane, to join the group working closely with Common Sense Discipline, Folker was deeply frustrated, close to burning out. She was sending lots of kids to the office and worried about losing control. 

“I was dealing with behaviors in my class—kids yelling, running, being disrespectful, with an unwillingness to work,” says Folker, who left law school to pursue teaching 13 years ago. “In response, you would hear me yelling, telling kids to get out. It was exhausting to never feel like I had a success, that I was failing the kids.

“There was a lot of student and family blaming,” she continues. “Like, ‘Obviously, this kid doesn’t care.’ Or, ‘Why don’t these parents show up?’ It didn’t occur to me then that I needed to build relationships with kids and their families; without the relationship, everything else is moot.” Folker and the other Park Lane teachers in the group, all of whom are white, were challenged to explore how their racial and cultural biases influenced what happened in the classroom. Did they harbor an unconscious belief or attitude that led them to punish students of color more frequently and more harshly than the students who looked more like them? What kinds of expectations did they have of each student’s ability to succeed, and how did that affect their teaching?

At first, the conversations were uncomfortable. Folker was already putting in 12- and 14-hour days. Now she was being asked to work on something she had never considered, that was never even mentioned as part of her teacher training: Racial bias.

“I was super defensive in the beginning. ‘How can you tell me I have this and this bias?’” Folker says. “They were scary conversations at first, but necessary. They helped me consider what privileges I have as a white, wealthy woman in the United States with a college education. How does that show up when I’m dealing with children who have racism in their faces all the time?

“Mary has created a safe space for us to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Folker says, “and she did it in a way that was always reflective of the needs of the kids. That was always first.”

Folker says that as teachers learned and applied what they learned about Common Sense Discipline, the tone at Park Lane changed. Kids who never spoke up felt heard. Behaviors calmed down. There was a feeling of respect, especially
among students. Her job got easier. 

“I’ve seen shifts in the school, in my classroom, and in myself. This work has made me a better teacher and person,” she says. “Honestly, if we hadn’t done this, I would have quit. I wouldn’t be a teacher anymore. That’s how meaningful it’s been.”

Over five years of Common Sense Discipline at Park Lane, disciplinary referrals have decreased by more than 90 percent. Students of color are still disciplined at higher rates than their white counterparts, however. Next year, Principal Duran will work with a new group of six teachers to explore equity through Common Sense Discipline, building on the momentum she feels in her building.

“We see it in the relationships between teachers and kids,” she says. “The way kids talk about learning. We see growth in proficiency and assessments. More parent involvement and family engagement. And we see it in kids being happy.”

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