CLASSROOM JUSTICE

© 2005 by Michael Riversong


Everyone who has been in a school will remember some mean and some fair teachers. A mean teacher can ruin somebody's education in many ways, even to the point of causing permanent damage to a person's ability to pursue a career. Teachers who are fair to students will of course maximize future opportunities, and often leave behind a lifelong love of learning.

Whether they know it or not, fair and just teachers generally follow certain principles found in Scripture. These are found in both the Old and New Testaments.

In general, Biblical justice evolves from one passage:

Leviticus 19:18
Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

This passage is referenced by Jesus in the New Testament several times. Another verse right before that one gives an excellent foundation for any system of justice:

Leviticus 19:15
Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour.

For a teacher, this not only refers to wealth, but to academic ability. It is a great temptation to consistently give the higher achievers “the benefit of the doubt”, and that must be resisted. In a school context, this means two things must be kept in mind.

First, at any time a student of apparently low ability can suddenly turn around. Understanding can always reach a critical mass, allowing any student to start putting out work like never before. In a classroom the door must always be open to this possibility. Unfair treatment could ruin any chance of such a turnaround.

Second, all students ought to be treated equally and consistently. Much has been written elsewhere about how consistency facilitates discipline.

In most schools, grades have the same role in that small society as money does in the greater society surrounding classrooms. Students who consistently get good grades can be considered wealthy. Those who get bad grades are the poor. Therefore, any favoritism towards good students, harshness towards the bad students, or bending over backwards to favor bad students is the same sort of perversion of justice prohibited by Biblical law.


Tattletales are a constant plague to most teachers, especially in the elementary grades. Here is one passage, among many, that addresses this problem directly:

Deuteronomy 19:15

One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.

Any time a student comes up to a teacher and starts speaking against another student, the first reaction of the teacher should be to consider the report as being from only one witness. Careful observation must be done at this point. If the teacher can establish facts from that, the case is over. If not, then the report should be ignored until another witness comes forth. It is better for a guilty person to go free than for an innocent person to be punished. This particular verse is one of the origin points of that principle.


When any person is seen to be doing something that violates community standards, something must be done to handle the situation. A clear method is given in Scripture, directly spoken by Jesus. This method works well in classrooms. It turns out to be an excellent way to run an entire school, as it can be applied to any dispute:

Matthew 18:15
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
18:16
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
18:17
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican [tax collector].

It is a natural human tendency to do these things in reverse order. We often hear about churches destroyed by gossip. This is often a situation where someone is literally taking a transgression before the whole group first, rather than speaking directly to whoever is presumed guilty. Of course many schools are permanent institutions, and cannot be dissolved or split into more than one congregation. What ends up happening in most cases is that the school becomes a hostile environment for faculty and students. The teacher's lounge is a place where most conversations are in whispers, and most contact with other teachers includes furtive glances to see who else might be listening in. Students always suffer in such an atmosphere.


Resolving grievances according to the Scriptural sequence helps everything run more smoothly. Taking a student aside for a private conversation concerning some misdeed or lack of performance often solves the problem right there. When it doesn't, a meeting with the student and an administrator is the proper action. If that's not possible, then writing down a remedy for the student, and making a copy for an administrator can work well. Meetings with parents, especially with the student present, can also do a lot of good.

Refraining from getting the entire class involved in disciplinary actions in the early stages is unlike much common practice in many American schools. Teachers have been told that humiliation is a powerful deterrent to bad behavior. Therefore, operating according to Scripture may go against training. This is one of many obstacles that secular society place against proper classroom justice.

Only when a student has been through the first two steps, and shown absolutely no improvement, should it be necessary to involve the rest of a class. In school situations, it may not be possible to permanently exile a student, but various suspension options can be pursued. Note that these words of Jesus instruct us to treat the most unrepentant people as “heathen” and “publican” (tax collector). This means that they are enemies. What did Jesus tell us to do with our enemies? In the answer to that question is the key to dealing with long-term situations of rebellion and poor performance.

Treating a difficult student with consistent love is one of the biggest challenges a teacher can face. In many cases patient love will eventually bring about a change. And if it doesn't, at least the teacher will forever possess the knowledge of having done the right thing.

[All quotations from the King James Version of the Bible.]


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