The Power of the Troublemaker

In her new book, the author Carla Shalaby explores the repression and freedom at play in America’s classrooms.

A closeup of a doodle on notebook paper. The cartoon appears to be an angry robot of some sort
Paul Sancya / AP

As a veteran educator, I have encountered my share of “troublemaker” students—those who talk when they should be quiet, stand up when they should sit down, and generally find endless ways to turn the order of the classroom upside down. For Carla Shalaby, a former elementary-school teacher who has studied at the Rutgers and Harvard graduate schools of education and directed elementary-education programs at Brown University and Wellesley College, the social order of a classroom and the practices within it are a matter of freedom, democracy, and justice.

In her book, Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School, Shalaby argues that troublemakers are like canaries in a coal mine, calling out for the rest of society the inherent problems in the American school system, and that the problem is not with the troublemakers themselves, but with the system in which they are forced to conform. She followed four young children—Zora, Lucas, Sean, and Marcus—over the course of one school year in an attempt to see from the “troublemaker” point of view. She chose respected schools with strong reputations and asked to observe the strongest teachers in each. Then she chose the students with whom even those teachers struggled. I spoke with Shalaby to learn more about her work and her book. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair: I love the idea of school as a place to practice freedom. Can you elaborate on what that means to you?

Carla Shalaby: School as a place to practice freedom is both a radical idea and a common-sense one. It is a common-sense idea because schools are populated by human beings—and human beings have an unalienable right to be free, simply by virtue of being human. I start the book by defining freedom as this inherent right of every child to be treated as fully human and to intentionally learn to refuse any less-than-human treatment. Still, it is controversial because the schools we have now are committed to control through punishments and rewards—sorting, ranking, competition, and the treatment of young people as objects to be acted upon rather than human beings who themselves act in and on the world. So we have to rely on our imagination to conjure a vision of a school committed to freedom, and that’s unfamiliar and abstract to educators, and threatening and scary to the powers committed to maintaining racial caste systems in our country.

Lamb-Sinclair: Why did you set out to do this research?

Shalaby: I started this project because I think young children are just the most insightful and genius and incredible people among us, but I’ve sat in hundreds of classrooms over the years where, with astonishing consistency, they are treated as undeserving of basic human respect, let alone the reverence I feel they deserve. And I couldn’t help but be particularly drawn to the troublemakers for their insistence on being powerful in an institution actively designed to exercise power over them. How could anyone not be curious about them?

Lamb-Sinclair: You discuss in your book that you intentionally chose strong teachers in notably successful schools. Why did you choose high-quality schools and teachers for this research?

Shalaby: We don’t have collective agreement on what makes a school or teacher “strong” or “successful,” so I hesitate to ever speak in those terms, but basically I chose these schools and teachers because I wanted to disrupt the stereotypical perception of troublemaking as a problem of concern only in under-resourced or otherwise struggling schools. The bottom line is that in every kind of school there will always be children practicing the act of refusal because that’s what human beings do in constrained conditions, and young people are human beings and the classrooms we have now are constraining (that’s a mild term). What teachers have to understand is that if children are doing what you’ve asked, it’s because they’ve chosen to, not because they have to.

Lamb-Sinclair: The teacher in me who struggles with “troublemakers” in my own classroom wants to know how to “fix” the problem, yet I agree with your ideas about freedom in the classroom. How should educators approach this book and what should they expect to learn from it?

Shalaby: “Classroom management” is about how human beings fundamentally deal with each other in the classroom. So I couldn’t write a book about what to do. This is instead a book about how we might be, as human beings, together in school. I hope this won’t be too disappointing to teachers, but I don’t think teachers want to be told what to do anyway. I think teachers just want to be reminded that their everyday, impossibly hard work is world-changing. They should expect that reminder from this book.

Lamb-Sinclair: While reading the book, I couldn’t help but feel distressed by how much academic time each student lost and how being excluded from the classroom impacted their social interactions as well. What is the danger in the act of exclusion in a classroom?

Shalaby: The danger of exclusion in a classroom is that it reflects, reinforces, and maintains our national, cultural commitment to incarceration and to other state-sanctioned efforts at racialized economic and social exclusion. We believe that people who do bad things need to be sent away because we lack an imagination for a more restorative, humane alternative and because we are committed to actively maintaining a racial caste system in this country. Rather than use classrooms as an opportunity for young children to imagine and to practice a better way, we prepare them for the world we have now instead of the world we want.

Teachers can choose differently. The lesson these young troublemakers offer is a reminder to recenter our ability to be human, to prioritize relationships in classrooms, [and to embrace] collective healing and restorative problem-solving. They are showing us a different way, however inappropriately. The key is for teachers to learn to see and hear those lessons rather than try to silence them.

Lamb-Sinclair: Why is this issue of freedom and democracy in the school system important right now? Why is this a discussion we should be having as a country?

Shalaby: We’re getting reminders during this political moment that we have to resist automatic perceived power. We can’t continue to treat schools as a place to train children into compliance with authoritarians. It’s too dangerous. We like protest when white adults do it in marches, but we don’t like protest when black kids do it in the form of righteous anger. We have to learn to see these children as powerful, as our best hope for a different, more human way.