Assistant Principals: How to Model Respectful Discipline
Leadership Insights

Just for APs: Modeling Respectful Discipline for Teachers

By Terry Wilhelm October 7, 2013

Administrators — most commonly assistant principals — to whom teachers refer students for discipline must bear the weight of a certain kind of expectation. As a rule, teachers expect administrators to give students a consequence that the teacher views as appropriate (read “appropriately severe”) for the offense. This makes the teacher feel supported by the administrator. However, administrators understand that while simple on the surface, this expectation is fraught with issues.

Respectful discipline vs. punishment: Understanding the difference

Some teachers refer students for the slightest infraction, issues that can and should be handled at the classroom level. In my previous post on this topic, I described how one new AP helped her staff create a schoolwide system of progressive discipline to address this problem.

Inappropriate responses to students = bigger behavioral issues

Teachers — even classroom veterans — who over-refer students may actually be reflecting their need for better classroom management skills. Through their inappropriate responses to students, teachers can ignite power struggles that escalate minor infractions to major classroom disruptions.

When investigating this kind of referral, an administrator may discover that the teacher is the one who created the problem. As a consequence, the student responded with highly negative or disruptive behavior. Still, the administrator is stuck with figuring out how to mop up the mess. Teachers like this need intensive intervention themselves in order to begin to practice respectful discipline.

Redirection takes seconds, nips small problems in the bud

Teachers often believe that every misbehavior requires a consequence — that is, a punishment. A much simpler technique is for the teacher to redirect the student, nonverbally if possible. Eye contact, a shake of the head, or simple proximity take seconds to execute.

A punishment orientation is the typical worldview of the aforementioned teacher who creates most of his or her own discipline problems, but it can also be the view of many teachers with better skills who have simply never given much thought to their philosophy of classroom management.

Each of these subtopics could fill several posts, but we can begin by exploring this question: Does every misbehavior really require a consequence?

Progressive discipline: reiterate the R-word to students and staff

I was hired as an elementary school principal — without an AP — at a school with no building-wide system of progressive discipline. Daily fights were the norm, and a lack of respect between students and their peers, between students and their teachers, and even among staff members was rampant. It was a daunting assignment on many levels, and this aspect was the most urgent because on many days, discipline could consume 100 percent of my time.

In addition to a number of positive, good teachers who stayed in their rooms behind closed doors, I had many teachers who needed significant support to improve their classroom management and their attitudes toward students and parents.

I began with a broken-record message about the R-word: respect. I talked about it in every staff meeting and with every student referred to me for discipline, wrote about it in every weekly bulletin, and did mini-professional development sessions on respectful discipline whenever we had staff development time.

Asking students to identify their mistakes — and how to move forward

My typical M.O. for dealing with office referrals was to ask the student, “What was your mistake?”

Students were not used to this. In the beginning, they would respond by describing what their teacher or another student had done, such as, “[Susie] made me ______!”

When this happened, I would stop him or her and say, “Susie can’t make you do anything. What did you do?” This was a long-term educative process for my students.

Eventually, some of my repeat “clients” began to plop themselves down in my office chair, fold their arms, and burst out, “Alright! I know what my mistake was. My mistake was ____!”

My next question would be, “And what are you willing to do to make it right?”

Usually, I had to prime the pump by suggesting certain actions — apologizing to the class, writing an apology to the teacher on his or her own time (after school or at lunch — of course, these required that I supervise or arrange supervision), or making restitution if some kind of damage had been done.

Pushing for logical consequences instead of punishment for its own sake

With my staff, the educative process involved discussions about logical consequences. A logical consequence for making a mess on the lunch table with ketchup is to clean up the mess. Cleaning all the tables in the cafeteria is excessive and not a logical consequence. A logical consequence to disrupting class and wasting everyone’s time is to make restitution in some way, such as helping the teacher tidy up the room after school. In the beginning, many staff members were oriented to punishment — the more severe, the better.

One teacher said to me early on, “This is not a…a…mistake! These are bad kids!” Our school was in a gang-infested area and, certainly, some of our older students were already being recruited and influenced by older siblings and cousins who were gang members. But this statement was telling: this teacher, who was also very reactive and often not respectful in her dealings with students, held a worldview that was completely counterproductive to improving discipline in her classroom and our school.

There will be more about this provocative topic in future posts but, in the meantime, APs should try introducing the “what was your mistake?” method for students who are referred to them for discipline. And, if needed, begin moving your teachers down the road of logical consequences.

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