• Charles Williams

A Different Perspective on Student Discipline: Ditching Class

It was one of those rare moments during the school day. One during which I had just finished a building walkthrough where I check-in on classes and get a pulse of the building. Standing at front desk taking a moment to reflect on my observations, I was interrupted by a middle school teacher escorting one of her students into the office. Let’s call the student Mary.

As Mary attempted to make herself as small as possible in the furthest possible corner of the office bench, the teacher shared that the young lady had ditched her class ... a realization that was only made evident when the student arrived during the final minutes of class. Originally, the teacher thought Mary was absent. I assured the teacher that I would handle the situation and allowed her to return to her classroom (Note - each teacher has a TA so the kids were being monitored).

I initially reached for our Student Code of Conduct Handbook as I attempted to recall the infraction code for ditching class and the list of consequences associated with the behavior. But then I paused.

Our school had recently started delving into the concept of restorative practices and attempting to understand the underlying rationales for student behavior is a key component of that approach. Many times, traditional responses would be to simply issue a consequence and send the student back to class. What did this accomplish? Instead, I wanted to know why Mary ditched class. Furthermore, I was curious as to why she arrived during the final minutes of class. Knowing that this particular student has been working closely with our social worker, I asked him to come down and speak with her. A few minutes later he arrived and escorted Mary to his office.

I forgot about the incident until we touched base at the end of the day.

My social worker shared what I suspected. Mary was struggling with some issues stemming from home and did not want anyone in class to know that she was upset. Additionally, in typical middle school fashion, Mary started her day by arguing with one of her best friends who was now ignoring her. These things did not surprise me and did not justify Mary ditching class.

It was the next piece of information, however, that truly impacted me.

Mary shared, in her own words, that she was testing us. She wanted to see if anyone at the school would realize that she was not around. She wanted to know if we valued her presence. She purposefully returned to class to let us know that she was missing. In her eyes, we had failed.

I felt shame. I felt guilt. A few hours earlier I was about to reprimand a child for calling out for help in the only way that she knew how.

How many times has this student, or others like her, been penalized simply because we did not have enough time to stop and listen? How many times have students tried to get our attention … our assistance … by acting out only to be punished as a result?

Restorative approaches to student discipline are still evolving and thus are often convoluted and controversial. Adopting many of these practices is complex requiring a shift in mindsets, policies, and systems. While I do not claim to be an expert, I am a proponent. Maybe it's time we took a different perspective on student discipline.

Charles Williams is a professional educator with nearly 15 years of experience. Williams currently serves as a K-8 Principal in Chicago, IL. He is also a member of Great Expectations Mentoring and Men of Color in Education. Williams has presented at numerous conferences including the Statewide ESSA Conference, the Annual INCS Conference, and the CPS Leadership Institute. He has also started his own educational consulting firm, CW Consulting.