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Modeling Respectful Discipline, Part Two
Leadership Insights

Just for APs: Modeling Respectful Discipline for Teachers, Part Two

By Terry Wilhelm November 11, 2013

Modeling Respectful Discipline, Part Two As suggested in previous AP posts, many assistant principals find themselves operating by default as teachers’ first line of defense against misbehaving students. Teachers who rely on office referrals for routine infractions need an AP’s assistance to implement a system of progressive discipline and to master simple behavior changes in how they approach students.

I missed the AP role on my own route from the classroom to principalship; I began my career as an elementary teacher, and my district did not have APs at that level. However, several Title I schools did have Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSAs), and I worked in this capacity for a number of years, also serving as an administrative designee. As a TOSA in my Title I school, I often fulfilled exactly the same role as an AP, and I quickly realized that not every teacher managed her classroom the way I had.

Groundbreaking theories on effective school discipline

A book that had a huge impact on me in those days was “Discipline with Dignity” by Richard Curwin and Allen Mendler. Originally published in 1988, a second edition came out in 1999; in 2008, the authors released “Discipline With Dignity: New Challenges, New Solutions.” The original book’s five-star Amazon reviews attest to its continued positive impact.

I heard Curwin speak when the first edition was published, and his message gave me a lot of practical guidance. One of his most important ideas is that, as he phrased it, “We do not have to consequate every misbehavior.” Intuitively I knew this; I’d posted short lists of rules in my classroom as a teacher, always phrased in positive language. Setting up a respectful classroom environment is fundamental to disciplining with dignity.

Posted classroom rules set expectations for daily behavior

Global rules such as “speak and act respectfully” cover a lot of ground and save the teacher from having to deliver a consequence for every little thing. As my school adopted Discipline with Dignity as a philosophical approach, I saw many teachers quickly understand and incorporate this framework into their teaching.

One sixth-grade teacher posted the following sign in her room: “I will not always be equal, but I will always be fair.” This is an excellent concept to explicitly state for students and parents. If, as a teacher, I have a repeat offender toss an object at a classmate, and in a different situation, a student who virtually never misbehaves engage in a similar behavior under extenuating circumstances, is it fair to deliver the same consequence?  Obviously, it isn’t — this is where a teacher’s good judgment should be used. But the rules and overall classroom climate must allow for that.

Direct modeling of respectful discipline: Did one teacher get ‘all the difficult kids’ in her classroom?

For a few teachers who did not readily internalize these concepts, direct modeling was helpful. A third-grade teacher who sent dozens of students to the office every week often expressed feeling overwhelmed by her unruly class. She felt she had gotten “all the difficult kids.” In fact, placement procedures at this school scrupulously divided students with both academic and behavior needs as evenly as possible among the receiving grade level’s teachers.

With the principal’s blessing, I approached her to ask if she would like some support with her difficult class; she eagerly agreed. We worked together several times; we would plan a lesson together, I’d teach it to her students while she observed, and then we would meet so that she could critique my performance.

Training teachers to use physical proximity, eye contact, and their voices to run class smoothly

We revised her classroom rules and I taught them to the class in explicit lessons that included modeling and practice. Then I taught content lessons, modeling the use of physical proximity, eye contact, a shake of my head, a finger to my lips. Using these simple tools, I modeled how to keep teaching without missing a beat. I also modeled the use of my voice: occasionally I would simply stop, sometimes  mid-sentence or mid-word, and wait, with strong eye contact, for a student to bring his or her attention back.

No punishments were meted out; no one had to be sent out of the room or to the time-out desk. All the students were able to stay focused and participate. As we moved into lessons with small group instruction and students needing to work independently, the teacher quickly grasped how these simple skills could be effectively used — even with her “difficult” class.

Differentiating for student responses is key

An important concept for this teacher, and others I worked with, was how to differentiate for student responses so that all would remain engaged. Calling on one student’s hand at a time to answer low-level questions will quickly generate boredom and misbehavior. With the greatly increased need for teacher-facilitation skills for Common Core instruction, this is more important than ever.

So, APs, consider yourselves teacher resources. You can provide just-in-time professional development on an individual, as-needed basis. This will help these teachers — and you — gain a considerable measure of sanity.

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