Are Your Students Prisoners?

How educators talk about school climate can play an important role in how students feel about school.


As the coordinator for Mix It Up at Lunch Day—it’s around the corner on October 27!—I've been thinking a lot about school climate lately. For instance, in preparation for TT’s new Mix It Up webinar, I reflected on our school climate-related Twitter chat and was reminded of an exchange about non-instructional time. In it, some interesting language cropped up.

Students were described as being “highly policed" when not in class, with teachers “stationed every few feet,” walkie-talkied administrators “on patrol,” and three to four school resource officers on duty. Someone mentioned that students are allowed to "run free" during non-instructional time. Still another participant explained that "all hands are on deck" when students are in the halls. It led me to wonder: If educators feel like guards on patrol, how does that make students feel? If the rhetoric is truly reflective of the school’s culture, then it’s likely that the students feel like prisoners.

It's worth considering the language used when talking about students and the school’s environment. Even if that language isn't meant to be oppressive, language is one of many factors that play a role in determining school climate. English teacher Allison Ricket conveys the dangers of conflict-laden language in schools in her blog post “Teachers Aren’t Warriors.” Referring specifically to the war metaphors often used in schools—like working “in the trenches” and “fighting the good fight”—she writes, “The violent imagery evoked by these war metaphors fails to put teachers in right relationship with students.” Her elaboration on the potential effects of this language is particularly insightful:

But I worry that these war metaphors perpetuate a culture of violence and a reductionist view of the issues surrounding education. In war, armies oversimplify the enemy by using dehumanizing stereotypes to justify firing the shots. When we use war metaphors to discuss the classroom, we run the risk of creating a hostile school environment where neither teachers nor students are seen for who they really are. Narratives based on violence and conflict can lead teachers to conceptualize their interactions with students as a zero-sum game. This dynamic cannot foster the interdependence and mutual respect needed to arrive at transformative change.

Students are indeed partners in education with the adults in the building. So the interdependence and mutual respect Ricket points to can only be bolstered by re-examining the words used to describe students, interactions with them and the environment in which you all work and learn together.

Here's an idea: Try spending a week keeping track of the language you hear at school—from teachers, administrators, other staff and students—to determine what kind of messages are circulating about the school’s atmosphere and how students in particular perceive it.

This might open up a whole range of considerations about how everyday school occurrences actually serve to “imprison” students. As former TT advisory board member Darnell Fine puts it in a reflection about laughter in the classroom, “Schools are often places that children see as the antithesis of freedom. For me, the worst thing to hear as a teacher is a student asking for ‘free time.’ Implicit in this request is that what I’m doing is oppressive.” And what about dress codes? How might their language and enforcement result in a kind of oppression?

It is absolutely necessary to take measures to ensure students’ safety and cultivate an environment that is conducive to learning. But it’s also important to help students know and feel that they are valued, contributing members of a positive, healthy school community—not inmates on the brink of nefarious activity. Mix It Up is one fun, simple step toward such a community. Changing the way educators talk about that community is another.

Bell is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance. She is also the coordinator for Mix It Up at Lunch Day.

Add to an Existing Learning Plan
    "Learning for Justice new fall issue out now."

    Read the Newest Issue of ‘Learning for Justice’ Magazine!

    In promoting diversity and fighting racism, inclusive education programs forged pathways toward building equitable societies. Now, as our nation confronts multiple assaults on democratic values, we hold firm in the fight to protect—and to expand—democracy through social justice education.

    Read Now!