Not too long ago, a colleague from the school in which we co-locate and I met to share our work. We first met earlier this year in a break-out session at a school board meeting about new learning spaces. I completely admired how my colleague described her classroom and the effort she made to create a welcoming space for all students. Once we realized we were in the same building and that I was already meeting regularly with one of her teammates, we made time to talk.
Hats became the topic of conversation. My colleague wondered why we allowed them – they were out, like gum, in her classroom, because they were a distraction whenever she asked a student to take off a hat.
I explained our philosophy about power struggles and our students’ shared needs for security and identity.
My colleague couldn’t see adopting our views in her school. What would happen, she wondered, if students found out they could get away with breaking one rule? What good would the others be then?
I sympathize with her fully in that it’s always difficult to be different in a large, traditional school.
Moreover, I don’t think I explained myself particularly well that day. It isn’t that we let our students break rules. It’s that we don’t set norms or rules that get in the way of our mission or encourage our students to push against us because of nothing but a rule.
Students can’t break rules that don’t exist.
Students don’t buy into rules that they don’t value. Kid don’t learn manners by taking off a hat or hood; they learn distrust.
Every year we do some work with norms and student-written contracts guiding behavior at school. Sometimes we resort to habit over our norms, but, all in all, we teach and learn in an environment students are frequently invited to shape.
I can’t tell you you how much more human it feels to compliment a kid on an awesome hat or fantastically designed hoodie than it does to tell him or her to get rid of it.
I unreservedly beg all of us to stop enforcing illegitimate and unnecessary rules at our schools that foster hostility and distrust between adults and children.
Are there places where items of clothing flag gang colors? Might it be legitimate to limit some forms of speech to maintain a safe environment for children in a school? By precedent – and by practicality – of course. But, universally in schools, there are rules we impose on kids that we would never impose on ourselves, and those rules are obstacles to discovering our shared humanity and the teaching and learning and understanding we could accomplish together therein.
When we adhere to these rules, not only are we disadvantaging the kids we target, but we’re training all the school-successful, rule-abiding kids we condition to please adults to look down on their peers and to consider their non-violent forms of expression to be criminal.
We shouldn’t be uncritical of ourselves; we shouldn’t be uncritical of the system or the harmful attitudes it accommodates even though we tacitly support the system through our attendance at the workplace; we shouldn’t be about the enforcement of illegitimate cosmetic edicts – even when they’re “legal” – when there’s so much more we genuinely, legitimately need to discuss with our kids.
The presumptions we bring to our rules – and the silence we enforce when they’re questioned – are much more dangeres things than a hat or hoodie.