On Compliance: Shifting the Narrative From Day 1

I just finished reading the book Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby. I cannot remember the last time I was so moved and impacted by a book about education. I mean, this book is about much more than education, but I read it primarily as an educator. I was drawn to the book by Val Brown and her Clear The Air conversations. What I found within the pages of this book, however, was more than I every could have expected.

One of the central themes of this book is how our schools thrive on compliance. How we demand it from our students. How we value compliance, conformity and blind-willingness to obey. And those who refuse. Those who will not change who they are in order to fit our demands, they become our troublemakers. And once they are identified as troublemakers, they are isolated and excluded in a myriad of ways. As teachers, we attempt to make these troublemakers invisible, to remove the problem so that our “good” students can thrive without interruption. And as we employ a wide variety of techniques to attempt to make these troublemakers invisible, they rise up and find more creative and more extreme strategies in order to attempt to be seen and heard and recognized in some way.

There is no way for me to do justice to this book in one blog post. All I can tell you is that it is a must read. I know that throughout the coming school year, I will be changed in yet unseen ways by the words that I have read in this book and I am eager to discuss those changes and my thinking with others.

For now, however, I am left with thoughts beginning to brew about how I can do better for my students. How I can start to work to make school work better for my students. And I am left, for today, with thoughts about the conversations that we will have on the very first day of school about rules.

For years, I have opted to skip the work of creating a list of rules with my students. Even when I had the students themselves come up with the rules, they were clearly only regurgitating the same list of rules that they had known since they first arrived in a shared learning space. For the past few years, instead, we have worked together in order to create a list of characteristics that describes the kind of classroom that they want to be a part of and the kind of teachers that might help them to learn best. We discussed that during the year, they would come to school every day and try their hardest to live up to the descriptions of the kind of classroom they want to be a part of and I would try my hardest to live up to the description of the kind of teacher that might help them to learn best. And I still think that this is important work and it is work that we will find time to do.

However, I do not want this to be our first conversation this year. Because it leaves out something important that I know that I need to teach my students and that I was reminded of while reading Troublemakers. 

One of the things that I loved most about the book is that Shalaby shows us what is possible when we stop simply looking at a child’s behavior as a problem to be solved with the right punishment or reward, but instead look at what we can learn about the toxicity of our own schools from the problems that it is causing in our children. In the chapter that describes one of the students, Sean, we see a problem of questioning authority that has become extreme and often times disruptive and even harmful to other students.

Many attempts are made to correct this behavior, but what Shalaby helps us to envision instead is a way for us to learn about the changes that WE can make in our classrooms instead. She writes, “Knowing when and how to challenge authority is a skill worth teaching and learning. Understanding the power of organized, collective dispute — as an alternative to vulnerable, individual dispute — is also a lesson worth teaching and learning. Questioning is a habit we should cultivate in young people not because of its value to any particular individual, but because it makes for an undoubtedly healthier and more robust democracy. Democracy requires dispute.”

I am particularly moved by this discussion of compliance because for the past few years, I have wrestled with our schools over-dependence on compliance. Perhaps this has come from watching my own child, who is a bit non-compliant in nature, enter into the school system and quickly learn that school is a place where a kid like herself does not easily fit. And it makes me worry about her future with school and it makes me worry about the message our schools are sending to students about who belongs in our classrooms and who belongs on the fringe of our classrooms, never fully feeling like school is a place for them.

And in a larger way, I worry that our over-dependence on compliance for our country’s children has led us to a world where many adults value compliance over justice.  I have watched as compliance has led this world to commit horrific acts in the name of holding others accountable for laws, without ever stopping to question if those laws are unfair or unjust.  And this is playing out, in this moment, in the must heart wrenching of ways.

We watch on our televisions as children are ripped away from their parents because their parents have dared to dream of a better and safer life and have fled horrific circumstances in other countries in order to make it to our country in the hopes of finding safety. And it is a real argument that people give where they say, “But they are breaking the law. If they didn’t want their children taken away then they shouldn’t have broken the laws. They should have come here legally.” People say this without stopping to question if the laws are fair, if the systems are just, they simply point to their noncompliance and claim that it is not the punishment that is problematic, but the noncompliance.

And the thing is, I have watched and listened as educators have argued against this logic. They have pushed back on the valuing of compliance over justice, they have fought against this without stopping for one second to realize how we are replicating this very same injustice in our schools and in our classrooms. We are raising our students to put compliance above justice, to follow blindly without asking if what they are following is fair or just. We are raising the humans that perpetuate these conditions.

But we do not have to. We can change that narrative. We can start to use our students’ noncompliance, not as a reason to punish, but as an opportunity to learn. To learn what we need to fix. I am not suggesting that we take away rules, I am not advocating for a free-for-all, but what I am suggesting is that we take our students natural desire to push boundaries and to question authority and we teach them to do those things in a productive way that will bring us closer to equity and justice.

So this year, I plan to do that from day one. This year, I plan to spend time on rules on the first day of school (something I have previously purposely NOT done). But here is how I am thinking of framing our conversation:

I will ask the students to put themselves into groups of 2 (or 3 if needed). Once settled, I want to start with this first question:

What is a rule? (I will tell them that I am looking for a definition, not examples).

After crafting a definition we can all agree with. I will ask students to turn back to their partner(s) and then I will ask the next question:

Should you follow rules? Why or why not?

After a moment, I will ask them the next question:

Should you follow every rule? Why or why not?

At this point, I will ask each pair to stand up and find another pair so that we will have groups of 4 or 5. Once settled, I will ask them to share with their new groups what they had discussed in their first pair or group of three. Then after they have had some time to share, I will continue with the next question that they can discuss in their new groups of 4 or 5:

Should you follow every rule even if you feel the rule treats you unfairly? Why or why not?

And then:

Should you follow every rule even if you feel the rule treats other people unfairly? Why or why not?

And then:

Is it worth getting into trouble for not following a rule that you feel treats you unfairly? Why or why not?

And then:

Is it worth getting into trouble for not following a rule that you feel treats other people unfairly? Why or why not?

And then:

When is it safe to not follow a rule that you feel treats you or other people unfairly? When it is NOT safe to not follow a rule that treats you or other people unfairly?

(***I want to put in a note about privilege here. I know that there are consequences for students who do not comply with rules. And I know that those consequences are unjustly different for different groups of students. And I feel a responsibility to acknowledge that with my students. So I will do that on this first day and I will do that again and again throughout the course of the year as we wrestle with these ideas together. Because I want my students with privilege to know that there are consequences that won’t be given to them as harshly or as quickly and that that gives them the opportunity to use that privilege to fight against unjust laws, even when they don’t directly affect them, in a ways that those who lack that privilege might not be able to do. We might not get there on day one, but we will get there.)

Again, at this point, I will ask each group of 4 or 5 to stand up and find another group of 4 or 5 so that, at this point, we will probably form into two large groups within our one class. I will ask the larger groups to share a bit of the conversations they had in their previous groups. After there has been time to share, I will move on to the next question:

What can you do if you are told by someone in power to follow a rule that you feel treats you or other people unfairly?

And then:

What can you do if you get into trouble for not following a rule that you believe treats you or other people unfairly?

And now, I will ask the whole class to come back together. I will ask students to share some of the things that came up in their discussions that feel important. And then I will ask the students one final question:

How should we handle rules in this classroom?

And then we will go from there. I do not know where that will lead us. I do not know where that will take us. It might not work at all, but it is a risk that I am willing to take. Because if nothing else, it will plant the seeds of a conversation that I believe will need to take place throughout the course of the year. Because I do not want my students to think that there are no rules, but even more importantly, I do not want them to think that they are powerless against the rules that will exist. That understanding will not happen within one lesson, that understanding needs to be built across time and across a trusted space. But I believe that how we start our year together, how we use our first moments as a classroom community, that impact will be felt across the year. And I want to be intentional and thoughtful about the impact that I will make.