Students in the classroom.

Addressing the School Discipline Crisis With Great Teaching

Teachers play an essential role in promoting equitable discipline practices for all students.


Thursday, May 24, 2018

In our nearly 30 years of existence Teach For America has learned a lot about what it takes for teachers and students to succeed together. Alongside academic achievement, we have continuously evolved and expanded our conception of success to include students’ socio-emotional and personal growth. We know that strong teachers can empower all students to make tremendous academic and personal growth even in a single school year, including students who face significant challenges associated with growing up in poverty.

This is why we, like many others, have long been troubled by studies showing wide variations in the rates at which schools take disciplinary action against certain groups of students. Data from schools across the country prove that schools are suspending students of color at much higher rates relative to their white peers, and that students with disabilities and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning (LGBTQ) are punished at alarming rates. The oft-discussed school-to-prison pipeline that endangers student futures begins where equity ends.


In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice, rightly alarmed by these findings, jointly published guidance for states, districts, and schools that sought to address this issue. The guidance reminded educators that federal law prohibits discriminatory school discipline practices and informed them that the Office of Civil Rights could investigate districts and schools that do not comply with those legal requirements. The department shared a toolkit of resources to support educators at the system and school levels, with the aim of shifting educator practices that lead to different discipline outcomes for students based on race, color, or national origin.

The guidance was an important start at addressing this crucial issue and pointing the way to a more equitable future. Though the guidance on its own was an insufficient intervention for a complex systems-level problem, it rightly shined the spotlight on the issue, called on educators to address these inequities, and provided practical tools to do so.

Today, however, this guidance is in danger of being rescinded by the current leadership of the Department of Education. At Teach For America, we have publicly supported the 2014 guidance and now oppose the department’s proposed withdrawal of this guidance for a simple reason: The crisis in school discipline is a dangerous roadblock to ensuring every student receives an equitable and excellent education. In fact, a report published just last month by the Government Accountability Office indicates that the impact of such suspensions was worse than previously understood; in the 2013-2014 school year, Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of public school students yet represented 39 percent of student suspensions.

Pause and consider: What would it mean for your child to miss one school day out of every 15 or 20 as a result of an in- or out-of-school suspension? This much time out of the classroom—whether in the principal’s office or at home—prevents students from accessing the education to which they are entitled, and it is unacceptable that we are disproportionately denying students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students this learning time, especially given the other ways in which we systemically disadvantage these children. Though not on its own sufficient to truly rectify the problem, the guidance has been a welcome and necessary reminder that all is not right in our schools—indeed, far from it—and that leaders committed to educational equity must take action to change this reality.

Strong teacher-student-parent relationships, engaging lessons that pull students into the wonder of a meaningful challenge, and awareness of and respect for cultural differences are essential components of strong teacher leadership.



Opposing the withdrawal of this guidance is not enough, however. This moment demands we consider and recommit to individual and system-level practices that complement such policy guidance—including how we disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline through our approach to teacher training and ongoing development. We must ensure teachers are prepared to lead classrooms in a manner that minimizes the need for disciplinary interventions and ensures the equitable use of these interventions when necessary. We must minimize punishment, and maximize learning.

What have we learned from teachers who are having a game-changing impact on students, and what more must we learn from them as we seek to reverse course on the school discipline crisis? Three aspects of their teacher leadership stand out.

First, transformational teachers build strong relationships with their students and with students’ parents or caregivers. Their deep care and love for their students make it impossible for them to see any child in their classroom as an “other,” as someone else’s child. They understand that learning is a relational act, one that requires trust, communication, and collaboration. They invest in learning about their students’ interests, background, culture, and learning profile, using what they learn to engage students and help them to feel both seen and safe in the classroom.

Second, they develop and execute effective high-quality learning experiences that lead to strong academic outcomes. With rigorous instructional goals in mind, these teachers facilitate learning in ways that engage students to explore, produce, and make sense of complex problems and texts. When the going gets tough, as it sometimes does, they don’t lower the bar for students; they uphold an abiding belief in students’ ability and desire to do challenging and meaningful work, and they find ways to support students to engage productively before taking disciplinary action.

Finally, these teachers commit to developing and deepening their own cultural competence, so that they can critically examine the ways in which their identity—especially racial and class identities—is impacting their classroom leadership, including how they perceive their students’ behavior and what behaviors they decide to reward or punish. Too often, teacher preparation focuses on building teachers’ technical skills without attending to this facet of leadership. Yet, like all humans, teachers carry implicit biases and stereotypes that shape their interactions and relationships with students, particularly students of color, and thus the extent to which their students learn. We must support teachers, especially those who do not share race and class backgrounds with their students, to productively navigate the cultural differences that arise and to explore with curiosity and compassion such differences.

Likewise, we must ensure that teachers in high-needs schools understand the ways in which trauma impacts children growing up in poverty and how trauma can manifest in children’s development and behavior. Equipped with this knowledge and motivated by deep care for and belief in the potential of their students, transformational teachers take a fundamentally different approach to engaging students and responding to challenging behaviors, one that seeks just and effective outcomes rather than mere punishment.


Strong teacher-student-parent relationships, engaging lessons that pull students into the wonder of a meaningful challenge, and awareness of and respect for cultural differences are essential components of strong teacher leadership. When these elements are in place, teachers create learning environments that students want to be in, heading off the types of minor behavioral challenges that can otherwise escalate into situations and patterns that lead to more severe discipline. And when these elements are in place, teachers and students can lean into the trust and mutual respect that exists between them to solve the problems that so often lie at the heart of students’ behavioral challenges.

Imagine a day when all students have this type of relationship with their teachers, a day when all teachers are positioned, via their training and ongoing support, to lead classrooms in this way. In pockets across the country, teachers and their students are showing us the way. We need to learn from them—to amplify their voices and spread their practices—so that collectively we can disrupt inequitable discipline practices that are holding our children back and having a lingering negative impact throughout their lifetimes. They deserve better, and, in this realm at least, we know how to do better.​

Hana Merkle is a vice president at Teach For America, where she leads the Teacher Preparation Team. 


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