Kim Colbert (ISI 2010) Shares Her Perspective with this Piece, Featured in American Educator

Where Discipline and Racial Equity Intersect

By Kimberly Colbert

Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2015-2016 issue of American Educator, the quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.

It was the second hour of the school day. Students filled with early morning energy darted through the halls in the mass rush to class. Dylan stood in front of me, eyes cast down, with Mr. D., an administrative intern in a training program to be a principal, at his side. "Dylan wanted to come and apologize for his behavior," Mr. D. explained.

After a prior confrontation, I had enlisted Mr. D.'s help in finding Dylan. Though I was not one of his classroom teachers, I knew he was a ninth-grader with a reputation. They approached me in the hall as I made my way to a meeting with colleagues.

"I'm sorry for the other day," Dylan said, extending his hand. As I studied his face, he appeared to be a different child than he was during our recent encounter.

It is said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Hate requires you to see another, whereas indifference renders the other nonexistent. I believe Dylan's attitude changed when he realized that he was not invisible. I had identified him, and I had asked Mr. D. to help Dylan process his conflict with me. This desire to be seen, to exist, is at the heart of restorative practices. We begin to act and live restoratively when we prove to our students that they are worth the effort to make negative situations right.

Five days earlier, Dylan had been one of several students congregating in the hall near the stairwell. The bell had rung, and I was making my way to my classroom. The teenage energy was palpable, as it always is between classes. There were clusters of animated conversations and varying levels of swagger and silliness on display. I said to no one in particular, "The bell has rung. Please go to class." Most of the students moved along without incident, including Chris and John, two amiable hall "regulars" at whom I shot a playful "you heard me" look.

I then turned to Dylan, who seemed glued to the wall. "Somebody better get this [expletive] teacher out of my face," he said, surveying the corridor and purposely not making eye contact. His words hit me hard. I looked directly at him and said calmly, "I said please." As he turned and moved down the hallway as slowly as humanly possible, he repeated what he had just said.

I don't consider myself unusual when it comes to behavioral expectations. At 55 years of age, I can tell you that teachers, whether longtime veterans like me or novices of any age, take great offense when students swear at them. I was raised in a bicultural family—my mother is Japanese American, my late father was African American—and my parents communicated clear, consistent, and strict standards about how one interacts with adults. Their different cultural contexts had taught them the same two things: First, that elders and authority figures are to be respected. Second, that racism forces us, as people of color, to prove our equal worth to white society through our "good" behavior—what author Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, calls the "politics of respectability."

In that moment, Dylan's behavior had contradicted my learned set of values. His response pushed my buttons, and I was angry.

Where We Get Stuck

The 2014–2015 school year felt like the toughest, in terms of student discipline, my school, Central High School, had ever experienced. In the Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) district in Minnesota, as in many districts across the nation, discipline issues are synonymous with equity issues. We have the same racially predictable outcomes as other districts, with African American students (particularly African American males like Dylan) experiencing the highest rate of disciplinary actions. At Central, as in many SPPS schools, we continually grapple with what causes the discrepancy.

SPPS has sought to improve its approach to school discipline in a couple specific ways. About four years ago, the district hired Glenn Singleton's Pacific Educational Group to provide "Courageous Conversations" workshops to teachers charged with training colleagues in how to talk about racism with students and with each other and how to do something about it. Such professional development around equity issues often includes personal reflection and discussion with colleagues about the role of institutional racism in public education, in the hopes of changing the system.

In 2013, to bolster this work, the Saint Paul school board approved a racial equity policy, which "acknowledges that complex societal and historical factors contribute to the inequity within our school district." It further states that "rather than perpetuating the resulting disparities, SPPS must address and overcome this inequity and institutional racism, providing all students with the support and opportunity to succeed."

At school board meetings, in the mainstream media, and on social media, this policy has become the topic of contentious discussion among educators, parents, and community members. Most agree that racial equity is imperative to have successful, vibrant public schools that effectively serve students. But a divide exists between those who view the policy and subsequent racial equity training as ineffective in resolving school discipline issues and those who believe that discipline disparities can be resolved only by acknowledging the intersectionality of racial equity and school discipline.

As an Afro-Asian teacher with 23 years of experience in education, I applaud the racial equity policy and support the training. I do not disagree, however, that over the last few years, our district has had some very serious challenges with successfully communicating and instituting a clear, consistent, and culturally relevant discipline policy. Thus, the intersection between student discipline and achieving racial equity is where we in SPPS—and, I would wager, in many other school districts as well—seem to get stuck.

Difficult Transitions

Teaching academic content while simultaneously ensuring that students possess the social and emotional skills needed to focus on learning and to engage with teachers and peers involves deeply personal interactions between educators and students. At Central, even with a supportive administration, the time and support that we and our students require to create these kinds of relationships are not there.

Many of our incoming ninth-graders hail from a middle school that was notorious for its discipline issues, chaotic environment, and history of challenged leadership. Parents, who had expressed repeated concerns about the behavior in that particular middle school, turned to my union, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT), after school district officials did not act. With the union's help, parents successfully advocated for more staff members skilled at engaging students and helping manage behavior.

Like many districts, ours has tended to underestimate the value of paraprofessionals, as evidenced by annual job cuts. These educators often develop meaningful relationships with students—relationships that large class sizes and heavy workloads sometimes prevent teachers from forming.

Unfortunately, Dylan and his classmates had already graduated from this middle school and did not benefit from the increase of adults in the building who would help build relationships. And so they experienced a difficult transition into high school.

Meanwhile, Central faced its own set of challenges. We had moved from a six- to seven-period day, which left us grossly understaffed. The result was much shorter class periods and more unstructured time. Also, the district's iPad initiative, which provided students iPads to use in class, put in play a whole new set of classroom management challenges. (Understandably, students became easily distracted by the technology.) To top it all off, the software used for our grading system experienced a major upgrade midyear, and it was the initial year of a new teacher evaluation system.

All these new efforts required separate trainings and were overwhelming. As a school with many programs, including AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), French immersion, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate Middle Years and Diploma programs, time seemed to move at warp speed. I was overwhelmed, and many of my colleagues (and even an administrator) shared that they felt the same way. It all made me feel ineffective and like I was not the teacher I wanted to be or that my students needed. I became so frustrated that at one point I told district administrators I was almost ready to leave the profession.

The climate continued to be challenging until the very end of the school year. Teachers in my English department collaborated on a plan to head off disruptive behavior by ensuring that the hallways remained clear after students changed classes. The plan would be positive: make Central the best it could be. Our encounters with students would be intentional and relational. My colleagues presented the plan at a staff meeting. Other departments agreed to participate.

Toward the last few weeks of school, other teachers engaged upperclassmen in discussions about school culture and what they wanted to see improve the following year. Our union was also involved in larger discussions around this issue. Contract language that SPFT had negotiated two years earlier resulted in training for School Climate Improvement Teams at each school. The teams consist of teachers and administrators and allow for parents and community members to join. Currently, my team is on the list to be trained.

In addition, to further disrupt racially predictable discipline trends, SPFT released a position paper this fall which outlines the history of SPPS discipline practices and lists changes that need to happen to establish a restorative culture throughout the district. The local has also proposed some new contract language around instituting restorative practices districtwide, in advance of its upcoming contract negotiations.

*  *  *

On a personal level, I believe the challenge to treat all students equitably, particularly when it comes to discipline for nonviolent issues, is to refrain from making these behaviors about me. It is not easy, especially in the high-energy, high-stress environment of a school. I have often failed. And when I do, I have to remind myself that as the adult, I have the emotional and intellectual maturity to steer a nonviolent situation in a direction that is restorative rather than punitive. Students can't always make that happen. But to do this, I need support; educators need support. Unfortunately, we must often seek it out on our own. Becoming active in one's local union, taking a leadership role, and encouraging local leaders to organize around the issue of school discipline are all good places to start.

I would also recommend reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, which I mentioned earlier. It is factual and thoroughly unpacks the history of institutional racism. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is also worth reading. This eloquently written narrative can help educators understand that institutional racism is real and can inform their efforts to disrupt it.

When I reflect on the day of Dylan's confrontation with me, I especially remember his face: his expression was hard, his eyes angry. On the day he apologized to me, however, I noticed that his jaw was relaxed, his eyes soft. He was having a good day, said Mr. D.

"Sometimes I get mad. And when I do, I get mad at everybody," Dylan explained.

In addition to teaching subject matter, educators must navigate the complexities of human relationships. My encounter with Dylan exemplified such complexity. His explanation took me straight to the place where discipline and racial equity intersect. And so I took a deep breath.

"It's all right to be angry," I said to Dylan. "We all get angry. The problem happens when we take our anger out on others." I asked Dylan how he thought one should react to people on difficult days, and I suggested that when he was feeling particularly frustrated, he could seek out the help and counsel of adults in the building, even me. To my delight, he told me he understood the importance of having someone to talk to on bad days and would try to do so. In the end, we shook hands. As we parted, I made a commitment to myself that I would show him that he's not invisible. From that day on, whenever I saw him, I would greet him by name and ask how he was doing.

Kimberly Colbert teaches English to 10th- through 12th-graders at Central High School in the Saint Paul Public Schools district in Minnesota. She has been an educator for 23 years, first as a paraprofessional and later as a teacher. She currently serves as the secretary for the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers.

- See more at:

No More Locked Doors: Jamar Clark Was My Student

No More Locked Doors: Jamar Clark Was My Student

Note: For the sake of confidentiality, I’ve omitted some of the names of the subjects of this piece, including only what has already been reported elsewhere.

While I love teaching, there is, at times, an emotional weight that comes with it that I couldn’t even begin to try to describe to those outside of the profession. These last days of 2015 have produced grisly news headlines whose subjects intersected with my life as a direct result of me being an educator: this one murdered by police, that one beaten and hospitalized by his students, another charged with murder and aggravated robbery; the latest additions to a pile of similar headlines that have touched me over the years.

I began my career in education in the spring of 2005 working as a paraprofessional at Harrison Education Center, a federal setting IV facility for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities (E/BD). I was 27, a student at Metropolitan State University’s Urban Teacher Program, and eager to get my foot in the door in a public school.

I was also in completely over my head.

I figured I could handle the E/BD part — I was coming from a day program for adults with developmental disabilities where human bites were a hazard of the job — but this place was absolute mayhem.

The administrative style could best be described as laissez-faire, ill-advised under the best of circumstances.

These were not the best of circumstances.

A word about E/BD for the uninitiated, and please note, there is an awful lot of my own opinion seeping in here: E/BD is solely an educational disability, which is to say that you could receive the label of E/BD from a school but not be diagnosed with any sort of other real and actual medical disability. Ostensibly, the idea is that your inability to regulate your emotions (and subsequently your behavior) is a barrier to the education of yourself and/or your peers. It can look a lot of different ways, does often accompany actual disorders (Oppositional Defiant Disorder is a big one), is far more subjective than many would like to admit, and is, as a result, given disproportionately to African-American males.

As for the settings, setting IV means 100% of a student’s day is spent in special education, so a federal setting IV high school for students with an E/BD designation means a lot of locked doors, and a lot of students who were deemed unable to make it in a more mainstream setting.

It was, as I said, chaos.

I learned a lot, mostly about gangs, about how to and how not to talk to students when they are escalated, and about injustice. Sadly, the students weren’t learning anything. The worksheet was king, particularly the word find. I vowed in those years never to assign a word find for any reason. (So far, so good.)

The next year the head of special education for Minneapolis Public Schools took the school over. He restored order, relative to what it had been, and insisted that teachers actually teach. Things were better, functional even, though I’m pretty sure no one was ever asked to write a paper in the time that I was there.

During that time I met Jamar Clark. He must have been about sixteen, and while he did at times display an explosive temper, he was mostly quiet, with a mischievous sense of humor. As these things go, I only remember a handful of things about him really well: 1) I remember his face. He had an incredibly expressive face. A quick google image search of his name yields a lot of images that aren’t him, but the ones that are display a range of disparate emotions. 2) I remember he had a slight speech impediment. Or at least I think he did. 3) At the very least he would adopt this kind of funny voice when we’d get to one of Harrison’s many locked doors, saying “No more locked doors.” It’s loaded with meaning now, but at the time it was a funny quote from Next Friday (I had to look that up just now). 4) I remember sitting in the computer lab with Jamar and some other students. I was at the computer to the left of Jamar, who was so jazzed about the upcoming release of Li’l Wayne’s Tha Carter II. There was an innocence in how giddy he was that makes everything that happened since all the more tragic.

Or maybe it’s everything that happened before. Others have written better than I could about the conflicting forces pulling Jamar in different directions, using safe and unexamined phrases like “troubled past,” and that’s fine, but what are the forces outside of oneself that cause one to end up at a high school where no one is assigned any papers? Or, if we take that as our starting point, if we’re really honest with ourselves, what kind of outcomes do we expect for someone coming out of such a system?

Or, to really put all of my cards on the table, given the value that we as a society have (or have not) placed on this one life through our education system alone, why wouldn’t I expect that he would be murdered by police*?

And the news cycle continues, and it isn’t long before a former colleague from another district is sent to the hospital after trying to break up a fight in the cafeteria. People ask me, “what’s going on over there?” and I opine, letting myself get fired up about how district policies that lack restorative practices create an unsafe environment for everyone. “The thing is,” I attempt, “I feel as badly for those kids as I do for that teacher.” They look at me aghast. “How do you get to a point where that’s okay? Where did we fail?” They don’t know. Neither do I.

And then another headline. Another former student, this time part of a violent crime spree one fall night that included credit card theft, home invasion, and murder. I remember this student well, too. His hands trembled and he had long fingernails. His attendance was terrible. He may have been on house arrest at one point and worn an electronic monitoring device on his ankle. I remember watching him flirt with a girl in the gym, calling her “Shawty,” smiling wryly. Better than his nickname, I suppose: “Poopy.” I remember we had to watch him closely in the gym, something to do with his heart.

I read a statement in the newspaper that he had given to the police when charged, stating that he “only intended to do robberies and that he was upset that people were getting killed,” and I guess I believe it. I also believe that it doesn’t matter, that his fate is sealed, and maybe was long before that night.

And the thing I absolutely don’t know how to explain to non-educators in my life is that, in truth, I have no idea what to do with any of this, but I move on because I have to. I write this post. I think about how I’ll supplement Native Son when I begin teaching it next month to include a challenge of privilege and a pedagogy of resistance. And I hope like hell that the news will give me a little peace, because I have plenty more Jamar Clarks I’m worried about.

*I want to acknowledge that it took me the better part of a week for my feelings to coalesce around this issue. Having written angry poetry in the wake of Treyvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Sandra Bland’s extrajudicial killings, I would have thought I’d know exactly how I felt if something like this happened in my city, to someone I knew. But I waffled. I offer that because our human reactions to things like this — things I suppose none of us should have to deal with — are very complex. The politics of proximity, I guess. The other day a friend referred to Jamar saying “sounds like he was a piece of work,” and I bristled, explaining that I’m too close to the situation to say that. But like so many of us, she was trying to make sense of the senseless, and that’s where she ended up. It’s complex.

NCTE's New Position Statement in Support of K-12 Ethnic Studies

Speaking of the National Council of Teachers of English, the group issued a position statement this month in support of ethnic studies as a part of an effective K-12 curriculum. In doing so, they cite scholarly research, provide tips, and lend the weight of their organization to the affirmation of what many of us committed to social justice and racial equity in education have been screaming about in our silos. 



Pearson Protested at NCTE in Minneapolis

Something funny happened at the National Council of Teachers of English national convention in Minneapolis the other day --  NCTE's Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education Programs staged a protest of Pearson (you're familiar with their work?) in the exhibit hall, a protest that gathered steam and was eventually comprised of dozens of educators. Link to article and video below -- as you click, consider -- what if I'm not the only educator who feels this way? What if we found our way to one another and gave voice to our concerns in unison? Would it look like this?

Pearson Protest



It is a Monday afternoon in October, brimming with everything that Mondays, afternoons, and October have to offer where education is concerned. The wax on the floors has faded, and we're solidly in the routine of a new school year, and if educators are beginning to feel a sense of fatigue, it's no doubt well-earned.

I offer that, I suppose, as context for this first post on the Minnesota Writing Project's Urban Sites Network's Social Justice Blog. If you'll allow the speculation, I'd bet that you found your way here because, despite (and maybe because of) everything, you believe that teaching can and should be a revolutionary act. Many of us feel that way, but because of the nature of our craft, we can sometimes feel a little bit isolated, wondering if we're fools to believe as much.

And so we need each other, because our students need us. One doesn't need to look far to see as much: racist (privatized) curriculum in Minneapolis Public Schools, the unchecked Islamophobia of a Columbia Heights Schoolboard member, racialized gaps in discipline and academic achievement, privilege as a predictor on standardized tests, standardized tests in the first place, etc.

These are issues that the Minnesota Writing Project's Urban Sites Network is committed to taking on. We believe in teachers. Where others see a top-down approach to education as the ideal model, we believe that teachers know best what is best for education, and desire to foster a bottom-up collective approach to solving the many challenges that face our students, communities, schools and colleagues.

Watch this space for calls to action, social justice curriculum (send it our way, especially if it's been field tested!), upcoming readings and events, and...other things. -Daniel Muro LaMere, MWP Urban Sites Leader