Proceeding Beyond Polarity

Type: Article
Topics: Communications & Public Relations, Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

November 01, 2023

A man gesturing in front of a Powerpoint presentation with a microphone. It says
John Malloy, superintendent in San Ramon, Calif., says community tensions can sometimes hinder educators’ ability to serve stu-dents well. PHOTO BY JAMES MINICHELLO

In education, this is a time of intense paradoxes. There seems to be little common ground in the voices that fill our schools and boardrooms. These paradoxes and the polarizing debates they fuel can negatively impact relationships, divide communities and cause significant tension and harm.

Ultimately, they can, and often do, hinder our ability to serve our students well. Examples of such polarizing debates include disagreements about the role of parents in relationship to the role of educators; concerns about if and how we approach issues of race, gender and orientation; thinking differently about the concept of equity; whether social emotional learning is a valid educational outcome; and whether schools should concentrate on teaching “the basics” or something more in a rapidly changing world.

Behavioral Challenges

One polarity that tests our leadership on an almost daily basis in the school districts we lead, serve and support in California and Ontario involves how we deal with challenges around student behavior — specifically, the tension between restorative justice and traditional disciplinary approaches.

Districts across North America have seen unprecedented and unpredictable trends in student behavior since schools reopened to in-person learning. The real and perceived fears of violence in and around schools has reignited calls for stricter penalties and zero-tolerance approaches to student discipline. Everyone agrees that student safety is the foremost priority, but there is no agreement on how to ensure it.

For many, the choice is clear and simple: Suspend and expel. Others point to the data and evidence that show suspensions and expulsions do not always achieve the outcomes required. For racialized students, Indigenous boys and those with special education needs, zero-tolerance approaches to school safety come at a very high cost: their education and life chances.

Over the years, some schools and systems have adopted restorative approaches that work to repair harm, transform relationships and rebuild communities using strategies that affirm and acknowledge the importance of our social identities in the process of restoration. But for many, there is a tension around the use of restorative justice strategies in favor of disciplinary punishment.

Insidious Biases

In working to navigate this and similar polarities, we look to organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s reminder in his 2021 book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know that most of us will oscillate between thinking like Preachers (I need them to believe what I believe); Politicians (I need them to approve of me); and Prosecutors (I need to attack the ideas of others so that I win).

In these various roles, a narrative ensues that replaces the question of “How do I know I’m right?” with the statement, “I know I’m right!” And from here, two insidious cognitive biases then take hold. The binary bias, developed by Steven Katz and Evelyn Giannopoulos in their summer 2022 article for Principal Connections, a publication of the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario, fuels polarity thinking. If “I’m right,” then “you’re wrong.” So we retreat to the poles of our positions and dig in.

From there, the confirmation bias, explained by Katz and Lisa Dack, co-authors of Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Professional Practice, places us into like-minded echo chambers as we seek out other voices that confirm and affirm what we already think, believe, know and do. Our positions become even more entrenched because instead of seeking to “stress test” them and remain open-minded, we work to solidify them.

Collective Know-how

So how then are we to proceed? Our collective experiences have pointed to five key ideas that can help us lead through these polarities. We’ve applied them to the tension between restorative practices and traditional disciplinary approaches.

Develop and apply guiding principles.

When navigating decisions around discipline, we always keep the following guiding principles in mind.

Because we are all about education, students are supported to take responsibility for their actions, which is at the heart of restorative practices. Engaging those who have been harmed the most is our priority, remembering that underserved communities often have been most harmed by traditional discipline systems. And when restorative approaches are not working or when the students who have been harmed are not ready or willing to engage in a restorative process, then we work with everyone to find a positive way forward.

Drawing on our experiences, when a conflict emerges around how to approach a difficult discipline matter, we’ve seen emotions emerge from all involved. Anger may arise over what has happened and fear may linger that the aberrant behavior may happen again. There may be little trust that the school or district will handle the matter properly and, in some cases, all involved might feel like victims. As education leaders work through this complex matter, our actions must remain fixed on the guiding principles that allow us to focus on the students and to work toward resolution.

Design and implement effective processes.

Communication is key when navigating challenging discipline issues and our responses to them. That said, because of the sensitive nature of discipline issues that require privacy, as well as dynamics around social media that might communicate inaccurate or incomplete information rapidly, it is important that effective processes include: (a) clarity through policy and procedure regarding how we approach discipline issues; (b) understanding of when restorative approaches will be used and when they will not be used; (c) clear appeal processes for students and their families who are not satisfied with results; and (d) significant professional learning for staff members who administer discipline and restorative processes.

Assume an open-to-learning stance.

Because different perspectives on student safety and accountability can lead to significant conflict, it is important to be conscious of our own biases as we navigate these issues. We may believe strongly in a restorative approach. However, the perspectives of the person most harmed may cause us to think differently about next steps. Further, an analysis of every aspect of the situation is key so that we are addressing the immediate concern and evaluating any historical information pertinent to this situation, while never losing sight of systemic inequities that may be impacting our decisions as well.

We all have led situations where members of our school community, in private and public forums, shared a range of views on how we have handled disciplinary matters. The feedback sometimes feels like personal attacks toward us or members of our staff. Often, it may not include all pertinent information. The criticism might cause us to feel defensive.

We are not suggesting this is an optimal dynamic. Nor are we supportive of anyone feeling disrespected in a professional environment. However, as hard as it may be to receive feedback of this nature, there may be important insights being shared that will allow us to lead our community through the existing polarities. By being open to this learning, even when difficult, we can help our community get to a better place.

Lean in toward complexity.

Two women sitting at a table listening to a Black woman speak gesturing with her hands and wearing a white top
Colleen Russell-Rawlins is the director of education of the Toronto District School Board in Ontario, Canada. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE TORONTO DISTRICT SCHOOL BOARD IN ONTARIO, CANADA

As superintendents and district leaders, we are constantly listening to and engaging with our entire community, mediating difficult issues and supporting our staff to resolve discipline matters effectively.

A further challenge is that when significant behavioral issues cause harm, those involved may want the matter resolved in a specific way in short order. Due to legal realities and policy requirements, as well as the complexity that emerges when students have been hurt, relationships are broken and trust is eroded. We may be inclined to move too fast.

If our board of education has given clear direction regarding how to engage with discipline issues, if we are following our processes and if we are holding safety first and foremost, then “leaning into complexity” means we need to take the appropriate amount of time to resolve the situation. Leaning into complexity means we do not approach situations in a binary, either/or mindset. We do our best to create conditions in which most people are willing to remain in dialogue with one another.

Build diverse coalitions for change.

It is almost impossible to engage the community on matters of student safety and our approaches to discipline in the actual moments of a difficult and intense incident. Inviting our community to advance discussions around how we approach discipline and when we use restorative strategies and providing opportunities for our community to influence policy and procedure provide the foundation for how we deal with any situation when it arises.

When this process is informed by a diverse coalition that is willing to wrestle with these issues respectfully, our policies and practices are stronger. When polarized issues around student safety and discipline are impacting our community, this diverse coalition can help us engage everyone so that school district staff are not navigating the space alone.

Fulfilling Objectives

Public education can and should be life-changing. Providing learning environments for our students that support the successes of every one of them is our moral and professional imperative. Polarized thinking and the ensuing tensions have the potential to pull us off course. Effective leadership within this challenging space allows us to partner with families, collaborate with staff and engage our students in ways that help us to fulfill the core objectives of our work.

We enact this kind of leadership by consistently applying the key ideas we’ve learned as we continue to navigate our way forward in these challenging waters.

John Malloy is superintendent of San Ramon Valley Unified School District in San Ramon, Calif. Twitter: @malloy_john. Colleen Russell-Rawlins is director of education (superintendent) of the Toronto District School Board in Ontario, Canada. Steven Katz is an associate professor in the department of applied psychology and human development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.


John Malloy, Colleen Russell-Rawlins and Steven Katz

Superintendent, Director of Education and Associate Professor

San Ramon Valley Unified School District, Toronto District School Board and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto