Julia Steiny: Students Curb Classroom Misbehavior with ‘Shirt of Shame’


By Julia Steiny

At the beginning of this school year, chemistry teacher Brandon Haggerty facilitated a negotiation among his “Crew” students to agree on group norms for themselves.  Haggerty’s school, the Greene Charter School in rural, leafy Exeter, RI, is an Expeditionary Learning school where what would otherwise be an advisory program group are “Crews.”  Crews are like advisories, but they also have responsibilities they must accomplish as a team, like tending the vegetable garden.  Of course, creating group norms is a good idea for any work team, youth or adult.  People collaborate best if they are have clear expectations of one another.  And it’s good experience for successful careers.

So these 12th-grade Crew members developed a solid set of mutual rules that govern issues like confidentiality, consensus decision-making, and my favorite: “keep it light and positive, avoid drama and vindictiveness.”  Articulating their own rules gives kids a say in the matter and an understanding of why they need rules.

But this year was a little different.  The year before, Greene had begun the work of implementing Restorative Practices, which build strong communities that include everyone, including the “bad” kids.  So this fall, Haggerty’s group went a step beyond setting mutual expectations and also mapped out a set of consequences for not adhering to their own rules.  The group — Haggerty himself represents only one of the voices — will decide which of the consequences fit the norm violation.  They brainstormed and settled on four “fallouts,” as they called them.  Which are:

*  Give two compliments — in the event of a thoughtless criticism, for example;

*  Put a nickel in a money jar — for things like a mindless swear;

*  Give up their phone to Mr. Haggerty for Crew period — and surely you know what a sacrifice this is;

*  Wear the shirt of shame for as long as the group decides — for serious offenses.

This kind of accountability is about being responsible. 

As of this writing, the specific shirt had not been chosen.  They have several contenders.  It’s clearly fun to think about.  Furthermore, the kids proudly announced that the shirt would not be washed, although you could see a startled Dean of Students, Alex Edelmann, considering pushing back on this feature.  Not that she did.  Yet.  Let the kids figure it out.

Student Jessica says, “This kind of accountability is about being responsible.  You own up to your actions to yourself and whoever you offended or hurt.  I’m thinking that this will probably keep certain people who disrupt from doing that.  I know it wouldn’t be worth it to me to have to wear the dirty shirt just to interrupt and be disruptive.”

And there you have it.  This Crew is creating their own social control system.  We all resist other people’s rules and regulations when we don’t see what’s in it for us.  When these teens get drivers’ licenses, for example, hopefully they’ll have a deeper understanding that traffic laws are there to keep them safer on the roads.

Teens are naturally narcissistic, invincible, and not fully mindful of the consequences of their own actions.  By creating consequences along with norms, they teach each other that order in their own classroom is up to them to maintain, not someone else’s work.

Granted, a shirt of shame sounds like born-again Puritanism.

It’s a little like putting people in stocks.  But this is not a sentence imposed by an adult or anyone but themselves.  Youth would naturally devise “fallouts” that are more real to them and more socially expensive than anything they can just dismiss as “the teacher doesn’t like me.”  Suspensions don’t work well as deterrents.  Instead, as Jessica points out, that shirt would seriously discourage the kinds of behavior the kids themselves dislike most.

A restorative culture helps kids and adults own their community’s health and happiness.  Everyone, adults and kids, can expect to be called on to account for their actions, and therefore learn to verbalize what they were thinking, feeling, or hoping to get from their behavior.  (Sometimes the behavior makes a lot more sense than you would have guessed.)  Restorative justice/practices often get a bad rap for being “soft,” but many students would far rather be suspended than have to stand there and explain their thinking, or lack of it – never mind wear that shirt.

Another Greene teacher, Meg Dutton, had also gotten her Crew to agree to their own restorative consequences.  And in fact, one of her students misbehaved.  But he took responsibility for his actions, and per their class consequences, he dutifully sang a song for 30 seconds.  Since that incident, the class has endured zero misbehavior.

Nope, it’s just not worth it.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny