Transformative Justice & the Broken Chair

Perhaps it is fitting that one of the areas about which I am most passionate in my work, is the area of school discipline since I suffered under its yoke quite a bit, particularly in junior high school, when I received dozens of detentions (often for foul language) and was once suspended for “gross disrespect.”  Having experienced a lot of school discipline first hand, I learned quite intimately how poorly applied school discipline only served to make me angry and taught me to disrespect those applying inane punishments (e.g., 1000x of writing “I will call my gym teacher Mr. Dressler.”).  Fortunately, I also learned when appropriate discipline served to teach me an important lesson, allowing the teacher the regain control of the classroom, assure safety, and earn my respect.

When I was in 4th grade, attending Dewey Elementary school, in Oak Park, Michigan, a lower-middle class predominantly Jewish suburb bordering Detroit, I had my first African-American teacher, Mrs. Blackmun.  She was an excellent teacher and I have many fond memories of that year.  However, I had one unfortunate habit which was leaning back on my chair. Despite Mrs. Blackmun’s repeated admonitions to stop doing that for fear that I might fall and hurt myself, I simply could not break my habit of leaning back, which of course resulted in periodic falls, thereby disrupting the class, with new warnings from Mrs. Blackmun.

Towards the end of that year, I fell backwards in my chair one last time.  On this occasion, the back of the wooden chair broke and left a rough wooden edge.  I knew that I was in trouble and meekly awaited my punishment.  At that moment, Mrs. Blackmun showed her utter brilliance by announcing that my punishment was simply that I would continue to sit in the broken chair for the rest of the year.  No suspension, no trip to the office to be scolded by the principal, no parent meeting to shame me, and no requirement to pay for a new chair, which obviously at that age, I could not afford.  Her punishment not only fit the crime, but it was truly transformative because due to the jagged edge, I simply could no longer lean back in my chair and potentially fall backwards, hurt myself and disrupt the class.  To Mrs. Blackmun, I owe my undying gratitude as her brilliant punishment taught me that it is possible to transform a misdeed into a life long lesson that I have carried with me ever since for nearly 45 years.

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A recent article discussing both restorative and transformative justice defined transformative justice as follows:

With the term transformative justice, it is more blatantly clear that we wish to not only provide restitution to the victim, but that we want to improve the overall situation for the victim, the offender, and the community.

With the schools to prison pipeline continuing to explode, more educators should heed Mrs. Blackmun’s lesson and seek to apply transformative justice in their schools and classrooms.  The chairs may not get repaired, but the students’ lives will be transformed in a positive manner.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

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