It's the end of July, and while there have been many thoughts this summer about new ideas and goals for the new school year, the time has come to seriously work on moving some of these from "thoughts" to "action." It is a time not just for setting goals, but considering how they are going to be fulfilled.
With this comes, you guessed it, reflection. I've written before about my ardent belief in the need for all educators to be ready to love every single student. This isn't a passing thought or belief; it is part of my passion for teaching. Having this love for your students pays obvious dividends in classroom planning, quality of activity, excitement of environment, etc., but we can't forget the role that love for our students plays in effective discipline.
We've all seen the teachers whose idea of effective discipline is to expect abject and thorough obedience, and when that isn't demonstrated by a student, then it's time for a referral and the principal's office. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all about respect, and certainly realize that there are times when the admins in the building need to be involved. But so many potential classroom discipline issues can be rendered moot if the student is within a classroom that centers on three fundamental truths- love for the student, fairness of expectation, and mutual respect between the teacher and the student.
As I was working on this post, I happened to start reading the book Kids Deserve It! by Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome. By the way- If you are an educator or leader in a school, and you're not reading this book, you are missing something special! One chapter of the book was titled "Never Slam the Door", and it spoke to so many of the things on my mind as I wrote this post. It spoke to the reality of all teachers that we each have had "that student...the one who works to make him or herself unloveable." I bet that if we all stopped to think about students who have presented the biggest challenges, from a disciplinary angle, this description would likely apply. So...what do we do with this student? Do we present ourselves as simply another in a long line of "senders"- teachers dealing with the student by sending them to the office every time a discipline issue arises? Or do we strive to work as a "change agent"- teachers who have decided to try and find the root of these issues, and be an agent of positive influence and change in that student's life? The first route is always an option...if you're looking for the easy way out. But I can assure you, I can promise you, without a doubt in my heart or mind, that this model will not only stunt the growth of a child, but it will also earn you the ire of an administrator. Moreover, it will rob you of an incredible moment that could be had with a student.
I've been very fortunate, over the course of my career, to have had several of these moments with kids. I don't wish for discipline issues, but always try to seize on them as a moment of growth. I remember having to write an elaborate classroom management plan while completing my undergraduate work, and emerged from college believing that I needed to have such a plan in place in order to have any kind of order in my classroom. What is clear now, after 11 years of teaching, is that, while it is good to have a process with which one is comfortable, teachers need to be flexible, ready to handle any situation, and ready to understand that each student is going to have a different story, a different need. My process is pretty simple- as a discipline issue arises, I always offer a quick warning (sometimes verbally, sometimes something as simple as moving through the classroom and placing a hand on a shoulder, or a foot to the back leg of the desk). If the issue continues I may ask the student to step outside and have a seat. I know what you're thinking, so far this isn't any different than most teachers. Here is the key, however- never leave the instance or the student in such a way.
"That student" for me will always be vividly etched in my memory. This student had a propensity for talking out in class. As teachers often do, I was "warned" about this student. Generally I don't listen to such warnings, but would be lying if I said I wasn't keeping an eye on her. Sure enough, she started the year with issues that ranged from talking out to sleeping to being openly defiant. After a warning, I asked her to step outside and have a seat, which she did (with a considerable amount of attitude). The easy way out- claim "good riddance" and be thankful for a few minutes in class without said student. But sitting a student in the hallway does nothing to fix the issue, and certainly nothing to help the student. As I've written before, it is our responsibility as educators to love every single kid that comes into our classroom, even, and especially so, those that are harder to love than others. I purposely ended class that day with about 5 minutes to spare, and stepped outside into the hallway. The student was sitting down, as I asked her to do, but it was obvious that she was not in a good mood. I sat down beside her, in the hallway, in the dust, and calmly asked her why she believed I had asked her to step out. She explained, perhaps grudgingly, that she had talked out and disrespected me. I then asked her if she thought what I had done in response was fair. The look on her face was priceless. I could tell that she had been expecting detention, and had certainly never been asked that question. She responded with a yes. What then followed was a conversation about the need for mutual respect, and what I believed she could bring to the class and her classmates. By the end of that short 5 minute conversation she was calm, I was calm, and we had an understanding.
And I'm proud to say that, from that moment on, our relationship was one of trust and respect. I continue to look back on that instance as the moment that I began building a relationship of trust and respect with a student for whom I care a great deal.
I don't tell this story to sound my horn, but simply to encourage each of us to remember what Welcome and Nesloney talked about in Kids Deserve It! We make nothing better by filling out referral forms left and right; we make no impact on the kids when we fill up detention. Sure, we might gain a day or two of quiet, but how many potential future issues could we solve by simply handling things the right way the first time. When confronted with a discipline issue, we have to make the effort to find the root of the issue. We may not know the hurt they are feeling. We may not know how pain in their life is manifesting itself as a discipline problem in school. Give them a chance to talk. "When you listen to a child, you give him back his voice" (Nesloney, 38). This doesn't mean be lax or stop setting expectations on behavior. It simply means to check your reaction, and make sure that you give the time to a student. Sit with them in the hallway; don't be afraid to get your pants dirty. Treat that student with respect, and don't be shocked when you get it back. Love them...you may be the only one who does.