Cody is a pseudonym to protect the student’s privacy.
T he realization hit me like a rusty, yellow school bus: I have not issued a single demerit.
Since March, I have reimagined my pedagogy from the ground up. I rebuilt entire units from scratch, filmed video lessons to help kids learn asynchronously, and spent countless hours debating with colleagues about how to provide support through a laptop screen. In all that time, despite the high stakes and constant stress, I have not issued a single behavioral consequence to my students.
At each school I’ve taught in, I learned new protocols for addressing behavioral challenges, from clip charts to family phone calls to individual behavior plans and whole-class rubrics. Though unique in practice, these strategies all nominally shared similar objectives: to maintain high expectations, to promote a safe community, and to ensure consistency in holding kids accountable when they cause harm. Even when I felt at odds with their design, I felt assured by their underlying goals. As the keeper of our classroom culture, the responsibility and authority to punish bad behaviors rested with me.
I started teaching sixth grade at my current school in the fall of 2019, seven months before the pandemic hit. At that time, teachers were given a simple system for punishing misbehaviors. Any action that disrupted the flow of class would earn a “demerit," logged into an online tracker that all teachers could access. When a student earned three demerits, they were held for an hour after school to reflect on their actions with our Dean of Students. Every Monday, the program reset so students could start each week with a clean slate.
The objective of this three-strike system was clearly defensible: demerits would disincentivize kids from disrupting the learning process or hurting the classroom community. The simplicity of this method ensured that teachers would not waste excessive time in class addressing individual behaviors at the expense of group instruction. Given its noble intentions, I felt empowered to maintain the system regardless of its impacts.
Then, I met Cody.
Cody was an eleven-year-old with the gravelly voice of a chain-smoking 1950s ad executive. His unkempt hair gave the illusion of wisps of flame shooting from his head, appropriate given his fiery personality. He loved the Red Sox, Marvel movies, and Takis. His ebbing and flowing energy was a barometer for that of his whole cohort. On days when Cody shot into my room, I would brace myself for a high-octane lesson. Other days, when he plodded in with sullen eyes, I would turn up my charms to chase the clouds away.
Despite my instant investment in Cody’s well-being, we did not start out the year on good footing. From the first day of class, he challenged my authority. If I reminded him to take his seat, he would dart across the room the second I turned around. If I asked him not to bounce his soccer ball, he would thump on it defiantly. On one occasion, he turned my packet of post-it notes into a suit of flimsy, pastel armor covering his face and arms.
In my class, Cody earned demerits like he was chasing after Halloween candy. I tried bargaining with him, pulling him into the hallway to check in, calling his mom, moving his assigned seat. Yet, with each step, the situation only worsened. We fell into a vicious spiral: his behavior led me to issue consequences which upset him and worsened his behavior. Each time I logged another demerit for him, I felt like I was fooling myself. Who was truly at fault in this endless cycle of punishment and crime?
I took a seminar on negotiations in graduate school. In one class, the professor asked us to turn to a partner, put an elbow down, lock hands, close our eyes, and try to touch each others' forearms to the desk as many times as possible in thirty seconds. Instantly recognizing this game as arm wrestling, I tightened my muscles and pressed back against my partner. He and I stayed locked in place for the entirety of the allotted time.
When we opened our eyes, the professor asked if any folks had been able to score thirty points during the game. To my surprise, a few hands shot up. One of my peers mentioned that the rules of the game did not explicitly ask us to arm wrestle. The key to the exercise was not to push back on one another but to cooperate. If both partners in the game viewed each other as collaborators rather than competitors, then they could move each others' arms back and forth with ease, avoiding the pain and strain of pressing into one another at full force.
Fast forward to a Tuesday this past February. Cody had a rough morning and earned his third demerit of the day just minutes after stepping into class. Overwhelmed and unsure how to course correct, I sent him to visit the Dean of Students. Later that afternoon, his advisor asked him to come back to me to have a conversation. Selfishly, I opened my door expecting an apology from him. Instead, I found him crouching on the ground, arms crossed, nostrils flared, eyes brimming with tears.
“Why do you hate me?” Cody asked.
“Hate you? Cody, I could never hate you,” I replied.
“You’re always out to get me. You give me more demerits than anyone.”
“To be clear, you earn demerits through your behavior. I don’t give them to you.”
“IT’S NOT FAIR. Other kids do the same things I do and you never even…”
“Cody,” I cut him off. “What do you want?”
“I want you to take back the demerits you gave me this morning.”
“I can’t do that, but tomorrow is a new day. What can we do to make tomorrow’s class better?”
“YOU’RE RUINING MY LIFE. I HATE YOU. I’M NEVER DOING WORK FOR YOUR CLASS AGAIN.”
“I’m sorry you feel hurt. Is there something I can do to better support you?”
“I don’t care anymore. Leave me alone.”
As I walked back into my classroom, leaving Cody sprawled out on the floor of the hallway, I became aware of my own smugness. My calm demeanor in the conversation allowed me to maintain some moral high ground while a young person with a still-developing frontal cortex melted down in front of me. As my arms tensed up, a terrible thought occurred: I was viewing Cody as my opponent, not my collaborator. We were locked in an arm-wrestling match that neither of us could win.
A rising movement in American education, particularly in charter networks, promotes a “no excuses” approach to student support. The underlying theory suggests that school is meant to be a communal work environment with clear expectations, and, by entering, all members of the community consent to abide by them. As such, whatever experiences may be impacting a kid’s life outside of school are considered irrelevant to their behavior in the building. Educators who buy into this model believe schools should help kids learn how to control and compartmentalize their emotions so they will be prepared for the grueling, bootstrapping work of striving for success in a society that tends to value professional achievements over personal well-being.
In the faculty room after my clash with Cody, I sat with my conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it gutted me to hear a child say that I was ruining his life. On the other, I believed I was preventing him from making excuses for his behavior. Surely collaboration did not mean I needed to excuse his disruptive antics, right? Deep down, I knew that I could not resolve this tension on my own. Heart pounding, I walked down to the Dean’s office to check on Cody.
When he saw me enter, Cody walked toward me but kept his eyes averted. We went back to his advisory room. In hopes of seeing eye-to-eye both literally and figuratively, I sat on the floor while he plopped into a chair. I started by saying that I wanted us to better understand each other, and that I promised I would listen to him before I spoke.
As he shared his feelings with me, I realized that we had a common struggle. Like me, Cody had an absent father with disabilities who popped in and out of his life at random, inconvenient times. Recently, Cody's mom agreed to let him visit his dad on Tuesday afternoons. Because he had to stay after school that day, he missed his chance to see his dad for the week.
Suddenly, his outbursts made sense. I knew firsthand how it felt to grow up as a young man without my dad at home, and I knew how that absence informed my perception of other male authority figures. As a teenager, when male teachers would shoot me disapproving glances, waves of electricity flooded my brain. Predisposed toward self-loathing, I internalized these power surges as personal failures. With this recollection, I began to wonder what unintended consequences my presence as a disciplinarian had on Cody.
I sat with him for over an hour, the sharp edges of his face slowly blurring through my wet eyes. As the evening crept in, I thanked him for his honesty and walked him out to his bus stop. Before I sent him off, we promised we would work together to support each other moving forward. Reentering the building, I felt a new sort of electricity buzz through me.
Everyone who teaches was once a student. As adults, we often assume we know what children need simply because we were once young, too. The more I teach, though, the more flawed this belief seems. Beyond the changing generational context and the impact of technological advancements on human development, the pangs of pubescence are deeply personal and difficult to revisit once they have been overcome. This is why, as educators, we must actively exercise empathy for each new child in our classes. We must lean into their experiences curiously, without assuming that we understand. Every kid has a new area of expertise to teach us about: themselves.
A few weeks after my conversation with Cody, the pandemic exploded, thrusting our students and staff into virtual classrooms for the first time. The flaws of the “no excuses” model became glaring amidst the new reality of remote schooling. Some kids were in homes with food insecurity or unstable internet connections. Others had guardians who worked in essential fields. Many had relatives—like Cody’s dad—who faced dangerous pre-existing conditions. A few contracted the virus. One young man lost his mother. The differences in our kids’ lived experiences were unavoidable. As teachers, we had no excuse to ignore them.
Our team’s approach to support our students shifted from punishing behaviors we felt negatively impacted our community to promoting the well-being of each child in our classes. As a result of working in isolated bubbles, however, we lacked the capacity to unite our practices in the moment. The arrival of summer offered an important chance for us to regroup, reflect, and prepare for an uncertain future. As I considered the year, the challenges of virtual teaching, and my relationship with Cody, I finally recognized the shortcomings of punitive discipline and dedicated myself to seeking better ways to serve my kids.
With the new academic year, my school has echoed this commitment, rethinking the systems we have passively upheld for so long. We now recognize that punitive methods like demerits are more damaging than beneficial. Working together as teachers, administrators, students, and families to solve problems will strengthen our community. Mistakes are inevitable, but issuing punishments does not inherently lead to solutions. Under the weight of these lessons, the lopsided power structure of our classroom management system has toppled.
In its place, we have shifted to a fully restorative disciplinary model. As a teacher, I still hold the primary authority to maintain a positive class culture but when harm is caused, I am called to work directly with my students as co-workers in the process of resolving conflicts. In lieu of issuing demerits, I open conversations. Rather than sending kids to detention to reflect on their errors, I take time out of my day to listen to my students’ perspectives, share my own, and unpack the roots of our disagreements. When I feel challenged by students like Cody in the future, I will seek common ground instead of initiating a futile power struggle.
The rollout of the restorative disciplinary model has been generally well-received by staff and students alike, though many questions remain: how will such an approach look when we all finally return to the school building? How do we differentiate our responses to behaviors based on the type of harm caused? What happens when challenges persist after repeated interventions? Crucially, how will this model facilitate the multitude of new health and safety protocols that will accompany our return to in-person learning? Recognizing these areas of uncertainty, our school has convened a task force of students and teachers who will address them together. As with all aspects of service-based work, our new practices will evolve with time and experience.
If the past year has taught me one lesson as an educator, it is that we must never feel too comfortable in our work. Discomfort is a necessary precursor to change, and change is the antidote to our individual shortcomings, as well as the failures of the education system writ large. Supporting each other with an eye toward individual circumstances is essential to ensuring mutual growth and well-being. With communication, flexibility, courage, and resilience, teachers and students can rethink the rules of our shared work.
Arm in arm, we all can win.