A warning from a teacher during a school visit: Don’t be offended if the students don’t acknowledge you if you say hi in the hallways. They’re on silent and know they’ll get a demerit if they acknowledge your presence.
The offense is not felt at the cold shoulder from these middle school students. They are, after all, only following the rules, and what are schools for if not rules?
The offense comes on behalf of these students. At a time in their lives when norms of socialization a forging connections with others is as salient and important a skills as anything they’re learning in math class, they’ve had their legs cut out from under them with the threat of a demerit if they practice these nascent and important skills.
The silence in this school is championed by adults who claim the rule keeps the students focused. They’re not wild, crazed adolescents when they get to class if they never get a chance to work themselves up.
The counter-argument (well, one counter-argument) is that these students will never know how to de-escalate themselves when they’re outside the restrictive confines of the school and find themselves upset, energized, or otherwise worked up by something in life.
The more important argument against such repressive policies as this and others similar to it in schools across the country that put on or could put on the “no excuses” moniker is what such rules teach students about themselves. The implied lessons of the rules and how they sustain cultural power structures are dangerous and dripping with thinly-veiled racism and classism. In this school, the vast majority of the students are Latino and African American. The teachers – white.
Looking around, no one seems aware of the implied message of dominance and submission that lives within the rule of silence. There’s likely no malevolence in the rule. These teachers, to a person, will likely profess their love of the children in their care, and could probably list myriad ways they’ve worked to help students become more successful.
Creating structures where students are silenced in any way as a replacement for the often difficult task of discussing social norms, answering difficult questions and having to repeatedly model what’s expected is a cop out of the highest order and it does, students, schools and teachers a monumental disservice.
Let’s imagine the school in our example as what it could have been. Rather than a multitude of rules posted at every turn, students and visitors are greeted by a sign upon entry that reads, “Welcome to our community of learning.”
What the visitors can’t see upon entry are the frequent conversations in homeroom, advisory or whatever the common community space is of these students that focus on helping students articulate what a community of learning means and what it means to be a member of that community.
Rather than warning away possible offense at not being acknowledged if we greet a student, our host encourages us to introduce ourselves to students and to let her know at the end of the day if we have any conversations that serve as particularly good models of participating in a community of learning so those students can be acknowledged for representing the school well.
Fostering this latter community is work, much more work, than the first example. It requires adults who see themselves as authorities on helping students build community and citizenship, and it means a curriculum stocked with explicit socio-emotional supports alonside academic content. At a foundational level, a school that sees itself as a community of learners must also be a place where the adults engage in frequent conversation reflecting on who they want to be and how well the school is doing at reaching this goal.
It is much more work, but it is work with an eye toward equity, community, and being the better versions of ourselves.