By T. Elijah Hawkes, School Principal
Adapted from “School Justice: Teaching Politically Fraught Topics,” in Teaching When
The World Is On Fire (2019, The New Press), edited by Lisa Delpit.
You are an educator troubled by the paradox. You believe in the creative and liberating
power of education, and yet you work in a system that has perfected regimentation and
confinement. You know the health of your society demands disruptive and youthful
critique, and yet your school can stand only so much youthful disruption. You strive to
empower young people to challenge the status quo, and yet any given day demands that
rules-as-they-are be followed. How do you negotiate these tensions?
I’m a school principal, but every couple of years I teach a class. A few years ago I co-
taught of a class focused on Restorative Justice. It was a year-long elective for high
school students grounded in the essential question: Do schools and courts treat people
My school’s own discipline practices were subject of our learning and work, as was the
criminal justice system that intersects with the lives of our students and families outside
of school. As a member of the school community with substantial positional power,
engaging with students in a study of how my power is wielded – often in ways that can
feel disempowering to others – was a way for me to both be in the paradox and wrestle
Our students kept journals and were asked to do an entry every one or two weeks. One
early prompt asked them to reflect on the essential question of the course and the topics
of interest that it brought to mind. (All student names are pseudonyms.)
Our class was a multi-grade group, diverse by age and, like the wider student body,
diverse by family background: parent profession, socio-economic status, and other
factors. Linda was a junior, a thoughtful observer of the world, hesitant and yet creative
in her expression. From an immigrant family from Eastern Europe, she came to school
for a partial program, homeschooling for several other subjects. In her journal entry she
discussed a topic that had come up in the early weeks of the class, recidivism and the
reintegration of people into their communities after incarceration:
I am especially interested in resettlement programs because it’s maybe
something our class could come back to pretty easily and be involved in in a
profound way. I’m also just really interested in it, there’s something intriguing to
me about the mental process that these people have to go through, and the way
that communities respond to their integration.
I’m also interested in a topic that Alice brought up about prison life in general,
and I think that’s something that kind of connects to resettlement programs in an
important way. Like, what is that change like for them psychologically? They are
coming from a very hard place, and they might be expecting the same world
when they come out, but things usually have changed pretty drastically.
Another student, Nelson, wrote about his interest in “the pipeline between the school and
Mostly how the school creates a segregation between students who will go on to
college and those who will not and how the school does this and makes these
kids left behind and how this creates the school to prison pipeline.
Another way is to look at certain statistics at schools, like suspensions to
imprisonment or expulsion or grades or maybe even tardies, to what happens to
these kids who have a lot of these after high school.
Another way of looking at this topic that I would be interested in is if the justice
system inside of schools works and is fair for all students…I think you could look
at statistics of the justice system of the schools by looking at the rules of schools
and compare them to ours and statistics of expulsion, suspension (in or out of
school), and what the suspensions and expulsions are for and if the graduation
rate has something to do with how many of these the schools gives out and how
well our school does compared to others schools.
We asked the students to turn their reflections into research projects and mini-lessons
through which they would teach the class what they’d learned. We developed a rubric
together to evaluate the project. The other teacher and I modeled the research and
lessons. I chose to do a presentation on white-collar crime, because there was much in
the local news about it at the time, and there was a seminar on the topic at a near-by
college that we were planning to attend. My colleague did his research and lesson on
the “war on drugs,” integrating resources we would return to later in the class: Michelle
Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ava DuVernay’s film, 13th.
In their end-of-semester reflections, students expressed appreciation for the way that
these research projects allowed them to educate themselves and their peers. And they
felt proud that their projects helped shape the future path our work would take during the
The research of two students, Alice and Karla, led them to hear Karla’s sister speak at a
presentation about her and other women’s experiences in prison. This prompted us to
later visit a correctional facility as a class to better understand what life is like prison.
Nelson’s research was particularly formative in the evolution of our work. He reached out
to the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union and acquired data with correlations
between special education status, drop-out rates, and the state’s prison population. This
was information the students would later use in efforts to persuade the faculty that
restorative practice was a necessary but missing ingredient in our disciplinary
That presentation to the faculty, which they made at the end of the first semester, was
persuasive. It included the ACLU data, analysis of six years of the school’s own
discipline data, as well as feedback from focus groups that the students had conducted
with others about what it’s like to be part of our school’s disciplinary processes. With the
support they gained from the teacher corps, we began doing more restorative practice in
our school that year, with students from the class as trained facilitators in many cases.
A Sense of Balance
Four years on, the course is a regular offering, now taught by other faculty. We have an
advisory system that lays a strong foundation in relationship-building and empathic
listening, our school’s discipline procedures have been formally revised to include
restorative process, and we’ve begun to reduce our mandatory minimum suspension
sentences through the use of restorative practice.
Teaching that course, engaging students in critical reflection on school discipline, and
integrating restorative practice into our interventions has been one way for me to find
paths through the often confusing contradictions of this job. I have a better sense of
balance now as I negotiate the unsettling paradox that I am responsible for both limiting
and liberating, for excluding and including, for both the healing of those who have been
hurt as well as the welfare of those harm.
About the author:
T. Elijah Hawkes has been a public school principal for fourteen years, currently at
Randolph Union in Central Vermont. He was founding principal of the James Baldwin
School in New York City. His writings about adolescence, public school and democracy
have appeared in various publications, including Teaching Tolerance, Ed Week,
Kappan, Schools: Studies in Education, and in two books published by Rethinking
Schools, The New Teacher Book (1st edition) and Rethinking Sexism, Gender and
Sexuality. This essay is adapted from a chapter in Teaching When The World Is On Fire
(2019, The New Press, Lisa Delpit, editor). Follow on Twitter @ElijahHawkes