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The Teacher As Disciplinarian: Ten Ideas That Really Work!
Ten Ideas You Can Try Right Away
“Discipline is not the Enemy of Enthusiasm!”
– Morgan Freeman as Joe Clark
When it comes to Discipline in the schools, there are many well-publicized and well-marketed “systems”. People sometimes get carried away with systems, or programs, structures, textbooks, etc., arguing passionately, for example, that block scheduling is better than traditional scheduling, or integrated math is better than traditional math, or whole language is better than phonics, or this discipline system is better than that discipline system. Similarly, real estate agents will include the name of various school districts in their advertisement for a particular home based on how beautiful the district’s buildings are.
The focus, wrongly, is almost always placed on things, and not people. The truth of the matter is, and I’ll wait while you etch it in stone, my system will do better than your system if my people believe in our system and are passionately committed to its success. So when you hear the arguments, ad nauseum, for this system over that system in the schools, know that it is not the “thing” that caused the success, but the caring and passionate people working within the system.
The rules of golf, my friends, state that you are permitted to have 14 clubs in your bag. In the “golf course” of life in the schools, do you remember the teacher who only had a “driver” in his or her bag?
As we approach the topic of School Discipline, we must begin with the a priori acknowledgement that the American Juvenile Justice System is built on a rehabilitative model. This starts with the understanding that kids- you were a kid too, remember- are not perfect, that they will make mistakes, and that it is our duty as grownups to help them acquire the social skills needed to function as a productive individuals in society. If the Juvenile Justice system is set up this way, then how much more so must the school disciplinary approach be one that attempts to assist young people so that they improve their inappropriate behavior and become productive individuals? Naturally, this means that kids are supposed to get second and third chances, and some attempts at modifying behavior might take several years.
If the people who work in the schools were able to actually “fly the plane” in all respects, there would be no “Zero Tolerance” policies, either, and you would not read about kindergarten kids getting expelled for having a nail file, or because they gave a member of the opposite sex a hug. These coward politicians love to show how tough they are by passing legislation to expel kindergarten kids for hugging somebody or having a pocket knife. Media people, please listen: No real educator would ever come up with a policy like that- even criminals get three strikes- the one strike baseball game was concocted by politicians trying to get votes, not the educators you criticize when this tragedy occurs!
In the Broadway Show Bye Bye Birdie, Paul Lynde, bemoaning the behavior of teenagers “today” (circa 1960) sings in one of the songs this phrase- posed as a question… “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way…what’s the matter with kids today, etc.?” A school I attended as a child had this quote on the wall by John D. Rockefeller… “What I am to be, I am now becoming.” So, everyone listen carefully… The kids you have right now or are going to have when you are out there teaching have not, unlike you, attained to perfection yet!!! However, perhaps through your caring efforts, patience, and rehabilitative strategies, they might get a few steps closer to the target- but they are not there just yet. So you will have discipline problems.
There are still teachers around who make kids stand in the corner and hold a dictionary in their outstretched arms or have someone write the dictionary, or “I must not talk in class” 500 times. We have all heard the horror stories of actions taken by teachers that do nothing but guarantee that the student will continue to do the wrong thing- often with greater enthusiasm. Don’t forget the line from Bye Bye Birdie…they are not perfect yet like you! Remember also that we are not selling a system in this book. You can buy books and take courses. Our purpose in this chapter is to give you a variety of tools- more like 14 clubs for your disciplinary “golf bag” if you will. These are strategies that have a high degree of success and can effect quick change.
PROACTIVE vs. REACTIVE
1. Start With a Positive…
Very few kids are discipline problems the first day of school or the first week of school. You probably already have an idea about the reputation of most of your students because the grapevine has informed you. The kids that have the potential to be problems have parents who usually are also aware that their child is a problem because that same child is a problem at home. So when these parents come to school angry at you the teacher, it’s really a case of misplaced aggression because it is their kid who is driving them over the edge. These same parents have literally cried on the telephone to me when they received good news about their child from the people at school- because it never happened before this. What’s the message for you? While it’s still early in the year- before the problems have manifested themselves, look for something positive that these potential problem individuals are doing and contact the parents to tell them the good thing that their child was doing.
Later, you will need the help of these parents to help change their child’s behavior and they will remember this phone call and view you as a nice person- a fair person- maybe the first person in the school district who has ever said something nice about their child. When you call later, you begin by saying… “Hi Mrs. Smith. This is Mr. Jones from the school. You probably remember that we talked when I called you about the nice thing your daughter was doing in my class.” Mom will say that yes, she remembers you. You then say, “I need your help with something.” Then you explain the discipline problem that her daughter is involved with and ask her if she could get involved at home and perhaps, working together as a team, you and Mom can help the child to improve this problem she is now having. Most of the time, the parents will go out of their way to help you. They will also remind the child that you actually said something nice about them and we want to keep this nice teacher on our side- he’s a friend. This potential problem child may start acting better anyway because he realizes that you also make good comments, not just negative ones like everyone else. This is an example of a teacher being PROACTIVE.
2. The Unknown Time-Out
Although this strategy works best with younger students, used sparingly, it will also be equally effective with high school students. Make a plan with one of the secretaries, the Athletic Director, the Principal in a smaller school, or some other person- perhaps the Librarian, the Nurse, Custodian, etc. You can arrange multiple destinations for the Unknown Time-Out maneuver. When you have one or more particularly difficult students or ones that start well but get mixed up in any of the commotion that occurs in class, you call one of the students up to you desk, hand him a colored envelope that has something in it with the name of the person the envelope is going to on it. You tell the student to take this envelope to the person and wait for a response and then bring the response back.
When the recipient of the envelope sees that particular student or that colored envelope, he or she knows what is going on and tells the student to sit in the waiting area while they get the answer ready. Now they take 10 minutes to prepare the response, give it to the student and tell the student to take it back to you. This student just got a “Time-Out” lasting perhaps 15 minutes without knowing it. This Proactive strategy kept the student from being yelled at again for what would have been his inevitable misbehavior, he has done something that seemed to be responsible, and so you the teacher comment on his reliability and thank him. The anticipated daily problem never occurred in the first place. In this process, the envelope, not the student, can be the indicator, so more than one teacher and additional students can be involved in this process. It is unlikely that the students- even high school students, will ever catch on to this strategy.
3. Inviting the Principal to Provide the Positive
If you had the pleasure to attend a Catholic Elementary School in the mid 50’s, you may remember this- ruefully, I do. The report cards were distributed every 6 weeks, so every 6 weeks, the priest would come into class on a Friday to be involved in the process of handing out the report cards to 65 or so students in the class. As the Priest gave out the report cards, he always added a moment or two of editorializing. To this day, I have bad dreams about him saying… “Daniel. Hmmm. Let’s see…My goodness, I know your Mother…The Poor Woman will be broken-hearted when she sees this awful report card.” Of course, everyone is sitting all prim and proper with their hands folded, but your buddies are looking at you and silently making faces and laughing all the while. All of this had quite the dramatic effect.
What’s the message for you? DON’T INVITE ANYONE IN FOR A NEGATIVE!!! But, invite the principal in and when he is there, publicly acknowledge the student by saying something like… “By the way Dr. Stevens(The Principal) Billy here has been one of my most improved students this report period- he is doing some very nice work!” – Or, “Billy, why don’t you show Dr. Stevens your excellent Social Studies project?” Billy has been doing some excellent work lately Dr. Stevens! The principal knows that this is his cue to congratulate the child and talk more about how nice it is to see students behaving this way, etc. This is another very proactive way to reinforce any positive behavior being shown by a student who does not show it that often.
4. The Sandwich Technique
The Sandwich Technique comes to us from the world of sports psychology and has been an effective tool for modifying behavior and encouraging people for over 30 years. It has application to almost every area of human endeavor- in fact, you can even use it with your spouse. It begins by getting a person’s attention by saying something positive. We say this because, for the most part, whether you are a spouse, an athlete, or a misbehaving child, your ears tend to close when you sense that a negative comment is coming your way- we all tend to tune this stuff out. So we get people’s attention by saying something positive first- the ears perk up. The positive is followed by what we really wanted to say- the criticism or negative and any disciplinary action that might be occurring. It is followed by a final upbeat and positive comment. Thus the negative is the Peanut Butter and Jelly, and the positive in front and at the end are the two pieces of white bread.
We’ll leave it to you how best to apply it in other walks of life, but consider how it can be used in the school setting by looking at the following hypothetical:
Johnny misbehaved in you class again today. He’s actually an intelligent individual who simply is not working to the best of his ability. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but for the most part, is usually at the center of any commotion that goes on in class- he’s been turning in some sloppy work lately as well. Write a script of what you would say to Johnny making sure to apply the Sandwich Technique.
It might go like this: Johnny, you know that I like you- you and I have developed a pretty good friendship over the last couple of months haven’t we? That’s why I am surprised that it is you I have to talk to so much. I have looked at your test scores and I have seen some of your work and it is excellent- you have the ability to be one of my brightest students. Here’s the problem, though…this is the fourth time in a row that you have turned in such sloppy work. So I am going to just keep giving it back to you till you do it correctly, and I don’t care if it takes you a month to do it correctly. You will have to come in after school to redo the work, Also, if you do not change the quality of your work, then I am going to have Mom and Dad come in, and you know what your father said he would do if I call him about you, don’t you? What do you think would be a good way to fix this problem? (Avoiding the Yes-No question)All right. Let’s get back to work, but I want you to know, I think you are a sharp kid, and I was just talking about you in a good way to Dr, Stevens. So let’s start doing the work I know you are capable of. Etc.”
5. Divide and Conquer
In this situation, two students are a constant disruption in class. Take one of the students and treat him in a way that is a little less strident than the other. This can be done by rewarding one of the students for doing something right and making it seem as though he is not the real trouble maker in all of these class problems- it’s the other guy. The second person will not stay too friendly with the first person, and the first person will begin to distance himself from the second person. You say to the first student, “You know Billy, I look at you as one of my better students and I don’t think of you as a troublemaker like some students seem to be in this class. What do you think you could do to improve this problem? (Again, not a yes-no)Following the private discussion, you move Billy making sure to explain to him that you want to get him away from the problems so he can do good work and not be bothered all the time. The partners in crime will not be so friendly with each other after you take this action.
6. The Phone Call From Class
Signal for the misbehaving child to join you in the hallway. Tell the child that you have your cell phone “right here in your hand”, and if you ever see this kind of behavior again, you are going to call his or her Mom at her place of work right here from class and the child is going to have to explain to her Mom the reason why the call is being made. The teacher then asks the student how happy he thinks his Mom is going to be to receive such a phone call from school when she is working? When he replies, “Not very happy”, say, “Right, not very happy, so I expect to see some very quick improvement in your behavior- got that Billy? This is one time where a yes answer is all that is needed. The next day, or for the next few weeks or so, if Billy is acting out, the teacher merely holds the phone up and looks at it and then looks back to Billy. Billy will understand completely. Additionally, can you imagine the effect this will have on the other students, notably potential problem individuals when they find out that someone had to actually call his or her mother from class!
7. The Letter in the Drawer
Let’s say that a child uses foul language in you class. First you tell him that this kind of language is not appropriate for class and that you and he are going to have to talk about this after class. Quietly, without any overreaction and typically after class, although there might be occasion to use this technique within earshot of classmates, you tell the student the following: You are really surprised that a person like him would be speaking like that. You then tell him to write down what he said on a piece of paper. Make sure all of the words and details are included in the writing. Then, with a flourish, you place the writing in a business envelope and put a stamp on it and tell the student that normally, this would go directly into the mail with a phone call to let Mom know it is coming. Also, you dramatically write out a disciplinary referral.
Then you might tell the student that you are going to give him a detention for his behavior, but since you the teacher are such a nice person, you are going to keep this letter and the referral in your desk for mow. If this behavior ever occurs again though, both of these items are being sent along with a second mailing for the additional offense. Then you tell the student that this will stay in your desk till the end of the marking period at which time you will dispose of it if he, the child, continues to behave properly. Like the technique involving the cell phone, if the child is starting to misbehave a few days letter, you can point to the letter or the referral as a silent reminder. The child will get the point and probably appreciate your kindness.
8. Invite Mom to come in
This is a great technique for improving everyone’s behavior because one visit to your class by someone’s Mom who sits right next to her normally misbehaving child for one or more periods and everyone will behave because they will fear that they might be next. Kids would rather have root canal than have Mom come in to sit next to them for an entire period or several periods. The process works like this: You make an effort ahead of time to establish a good working relationship with the Moms of some of your most significant problem individuals. You call Mom and invite her in because Junior is misbehaving. Mom comes to class and sits right next to her child and can remain for one or more days. Nobody wants to endure this humiliation. Do it just once and many of your discipline troubles will be over. The next day after the visitor leaves, the teacher can say… “Well, you saw a parent in here to visit because there were some problems I wanted her to see…who’s next?” Don’t expect any hands!!!
9. Involve the Guidance Counselor
Without fail, you will find guidance counselors more than happy to assist you in dealing with a student experiencing problems because it gives them the opportunity to do what they went to school to learn how to do. This is important to guidance counselors because, in the present national testing zeitgeist, they have all too often become the de facto assessment coordinators for their school. They have less time to actually counsel kids because much of their time is being spent checking bubble sheets, counting booklets, and filling out forms for the state as well as sifting through mountains of paperwork related to special education, for example. As a teacher who sees the same students on a daily basis, you know which students have the most pressing issues related to discipline and which ones would profit most from a visit with the counselor as opposed to a visit with the Principal or Dean of Students. Not every matter needs to go to the principal.
On the other hand, you are out there amidst the masses and you hear various stories about kids regarding things that are happening in their lives. Sometimes you have established enough of a rapport with a student that he or she shares it with you himself. Once a student was talking to me about where she was going for the holidays and matter of factly told me that she and her two sisters are from 3 different fathers and they would be going to see all of the fathers as well as the related grandparents, and even though one of the fathers used to “beat my Mom up”, things are pretty good around the holidays as long as he doesn’t get too drunk, etc. The child acted as though this was completely normal, and although she was a discipline problem now and then, after hearing this story, I looked at her much differently. I realized quickly that this was something that should involve the guidance counselor.
Remember also that kids spend more time around the people in school than the people at home, so you will often know immediately when a kid just does not look right which might be an indicator of sexual abuse, drug use, eating disorders, pregnancy, self abuse, etc. Maybe the grapevine knows about a death, a loss of a job, marital unrest, etc. You are the first line of defense in this process. The counselor has all of the right contacts and phone numbers of professionals that she can bring into the process. When a kid who was never a discipline problem starts to become one, or his work starts to take a negative turn, pay attention and don’t just turn directly to the discipline code page in the student handbook. You and the counselor, working together, can be a great force for changing a kid’s life- and the matter never has to get to the discipline office. Don’t be upset, however, if after the counselor gets involved, he or she is unable to share all information about the child with you. There are some issues with Confidentiality involved, so maybe all you will hear is that “The matter is being taken care of.” That might be all you are able to find out.
10. Careful About Examples
Do you remember the movie Home Alone? In it, Mc Cauley Culkin, the child who was left behind is talking to the old man who used to scare him. They are sitting in a church and the kid tells the old man that a certain third grader got “nailed” when kids found out that he wore dinosaur pajamas. If you are not careful about certain examples you speak about to misbehaving kids, you might get somebody “nailed”. To clarify, if you had brothers or sisters, do you ever remember hearing this from either of your parents, “Why can’t you be more like your brother who always makes the honor roll- he always does all of his work so neatly!
If, as a teacher, you make an example like this by saying, “Why can’t you people in the back turn in neat work like Jimmy here- he is such a wonderful student?”… you may be insuring that poor Jimmy is going to get “Nailed”. The world of kids is difficult enough, don’t put someone in peril because he or she is a model student. You can still have pageantry involving awards, but never expressed in a comparative way as in, “Jimmy got this, but look at you Billy, you only got this!” Your parents did that. It did not necessarily endear you to your brother or sister when the comparison was made.
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