Today, a Twitter friend introduced me to Mark Oldman, who wrote an editorial in Tes Magazine, entitled Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean Forgetting Bad Behaviour, that grabbed me relentlessly with its honest opening line:
“When a pupil threatened to kill my newborn child, in a short instance I hated him, genuinely.”
Mr. Oldman writes from Leicester, in the UK, but I am sure readers from all corners of the US can relate situations just as shocking. When we consider the problems faced in schools, we must remember how universal the difficulties are. And I should correct myself on that point: it’s not the problems faced in schools. It’s the problems faced by our youth. Schools are simply the best place for many of them to get help.
Washington educator Nate Bowling brought up a key point later in the day that helps explain the why’s for their struggles, in my opinion. In response to another shooting here in the US today (not related to schools or youth), he commented, “Social contracts are fragile; I'm increasingly concerned ours is fraying.”
My take: Our youth are reacting to the social contracts fraying before their eyes wherever they look.
Social contracts are written or unwritten systems upon which we all rely on for mutual benefit. Think “give and take” and “cooperation”. If we all invest a little bit of something, we can all get something back at some point.
Connections with others don’t go right all the time. There are hiccups. Sometimes, there are huge and horrifying mistakes- ones we can’t believe ever existed. That student’s reaction, to threaten a child’s life, is somewhere on that spectrum. Mr. Oldman gives an amazing powerful outline for an extremely challenging, but fruitful, response.
Forgive, but don’t forget.
Rather than simply punish, forgive. Rather than ignore, choose to explore. Rather than throw away a life as faulty, teach, practice, and support a behavior system that fosters buy-in to the social contracts we want everyone to live by. With how often our children see (and experience) a lack of empathy, fear of “others” and destructive anger, they may not even understand there is (or should be) a vital connection between themselves and the rest of the world. As Mr. Oldman states so well:
“There will always be incidents in schools that are treated as if they are unforgivable, but they have to be forgiven, otherwise pupils can’t move on and social boundaries cannot be established or reinforced.”
This kind of change requires effort. It requires buy-in from the culture at large. It requires investment in teaching and support jobs and assets. However, unless we want our society to fray away to nothing, or to become one that’s truly unredeemable and unrecognizable, we must try.
Mr. Oldman didn’t succumb to his initial knee-jerk reaction. Neither should we. We are stronger together, and should seek opportunities to practice this whenever we can.