Tuesday, 29 September 2020

The Place of Justice in Schools - Principle 17

The 17th principle in my Framework for Christian Pedagogy in 'Education and Pedagogy for Life' is critical for all faith-based schools. A key question all schools and teachers should ask: "Is justice sought and modelled within your class and school community life?"



As I write in my book, God is just! What's more, his justice is an expression of his holiness. In the book of Micah in the Old Testament, God brings charges against his people for their failure to obey his word leading to wickedness and rebellion. God had acted justly with them and had repeatedly shown mercy, and yet they had failed to show justice and mercy in their lives.


He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God
(Micah 6:8).


Because our God, acts justly and shows mercy, we too must seek and demonstrate justice and mercy in the world (Mic 6:8). Is this demonstrated in the way justice is delivered within our schools? Or are we inconsistent in how punishment is distributed and rewards given? Does the curriculum and the attitude we display show a concern for a limited part of our world beyond? Do you we favouritism in life and teaching? For example, are we shocked and saddened when a famous celebrity dies, and barely notice when thousands die in distant nations from disease or violence?


Classrooms must be places turned towards the world and yet aware of the inequities and injustices within it. Our pedagogy must demonstrate a sense of justice and a broad concern for other people. But even if we as teachers might have compassionate hearts and a strong sense of justice, how do we develop these qualities in our students? And how do we encourage our students to demonstrate this to one another and also the stranger?


An important question for any teacher, and in fact, any school is, how do we show a love of and desire to seek justice? And as a follow up, how do we encourage empathy and respect for others? There is no doubt that what we teach, including our attitudes to and engagement with the world, will have an influence on our students. How are we preparing our students to love their neighbors? “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)?


I attended school as a student from 1956 to 1969! Many forms of the punishment used then would still be recognisable in 2020. Children are still kept in, lines are still written, forgotten homework is sometimes done at lunchtime, privileges are still withdrawn for bad behavior, and so on. But the varied forms of physical punishment that I experienced at school, would not be seen today. As a primary school child, I was caned many times. In fact, by Grade 4 I’d been caned about 40 times (yes, I was badly behaved). This was usually 1 or 2 cuts of the cane across outstretched hands, often in front of my classmates. However, most attempts at punishment failed to change my behavior. But of course, justice isn’t simply about punishment.



When I grew up and became a teacher, I had to learn very quickly that the ability to exercise discipline and shape behavior in my classroom, was a very important part of what it meant to be an effective teacher. I started teaching as a 19-year-old! True. And thanks to some good teaching by my College lecturers, I had a strong sense instilled in me of the requirement to set standards, to ensure that they were met, to reward those who attained these standards, and to moderate the behavior of those who didn’t.


One of the first lessons during my training was that discipline needs to be distributed with consistency and in proportion to the matter that requires the discipline. But there was little talk about the administration of discipline, simply that once I had decided on the need for punishment, it was important to do it and apply it fairly and consistently. But why was I disciplining children? What was my ultimate purpose in moderating specific behavior? And how did I arrive at my decisions? What influenced my decisions concerning the extent and nature of the discipline? And what were the standards against which the need for punishment was determined? Wojciech Sadurski has some wisdom to share in response to my questions.


Our God is just, and his justice is an expression of his holiness. Hence, God expects his people to seek justice in the world and demonstrate it (Mic 6:8). Is this seen in the way justice is delivered within the school community and through the curriculum? Do the curriculum and the attitude of teachers show a concern for the world? (Wojciech Sadurski in ‘Giving Desert Its Due: Social Justice and Legal Theory’ 1985).


As I write in my book, classrooms must be places turned towards the world and aware of the inequities and injustices within it. How do we demonstrate kindness to others and actively promote compassionate hearts in our students? Do we encourage empathy and respect for others? Do we demonstrate and ‘teach’ justice, forgiveness and mercy?


The first step in answering many of the questions I have posed is to reflect together as professional colleagues on current practices in your classroom and school. In my book (pp 159-160), I share a case study on ‘Justice and Forgiveness’ that deals with these questions. Could I suggest that as first step in assessing current practices that staff might find it helpful to read and discuss the case study together as colleagues.