Discipline (or lack of) in Schools Today

The principal closes the office door.  Teachers gather around the secretary’s desk as everyone strains to hear what is going on behind the closed door. Waiting expectantly for the outcome.  After what seems like forever, the door opens and a teacher walks out. She is obviously shaken.  Her colleagues offer shy smiles and everyone returns to their classrooms.  Eventually, the story comes out.  A student had disregarded a classroom policy and received a warning, from the teacher. Two days later the same student, again breaks a rule. This time the classroom teacher wrote a disciplinary referral. She was hoping that she would have the support of her administrator. Instead, she received a warning about her classroom management style.  The student received nothing.

I still remember my first day of school.  My parents “ungraciously” introduced me to my kindergarten teacher and told her that if she had any problems with me, to just call and they would take care of it.  What were they saying?  Sure, I could be a handful and had trouble listening, but to give my new teacher permission to tell on me!  You’ve got to be kidding!  I knew that meant that if I got in trouble at school, I would be in trouble at home.  My parents had a realistic view of my abilities and limitations. They knew I wasn’t perfect and that I needed structure, discipline, and guidance to grow up into a responsible adult.

When I first began teaching, our principal was a no-nonsense lady that had high expectations for every student.  I heard the word “enabler” for the first time. She educated her staff, students, and parents on the concept of enabling and how damaging it could be when enabling interfered with the discipline process.  As a result, we had few discipline issues.  Staff and students were content. Classes were structured.  Lessons were engaging. Students were learning.  Test scores and reading levels rose.  Teachers didn’t have to worry about lack of administrative support.  Our principal wasn’t afraid of parents.

Flash forward to 2015. Principals seem more concerned about PR than maintaining a structured learning environment. Top level administrators seem intent on pushing schools into the 21st century. This push involves enabling children.  A colleague was told by our administrator, “We don’t discipline here. We let kids be kids.”  This mindset is taking hold.  The previous school year, the assistant principal called me to his office after his meeting with a student that I had sent to the office. He wanted to share with me the reason that the student caused classroom disruptions: the student did not feel in control. The principal’s solution: I was to create opportunities for the student to be in control of the classroom.  At first, I thought it was a joke. Then I realized that the principal didn’t know how to handle the situation. It was easier to “correct” me than it would be to assign a consequence to the student.  By correcting teachers, administrators don’t have to worry about dealing with angry parents. And the district doesn’t have to worry about angry voters.  Teachers are expendable (a superintendent actually said this), but taxpayers aren’t.   Apparently, these administrators (and certainly not all administrators are like this. I have had the privilege of working for some amazing, courageous administrators) don’t realize that the end result will be a lack of trust and respect- by both the faculty and the taxpayers.  Schools that do not support their staff in maintaining a safe environment conducive to learning will soon see huge numbers of teachers exiting their district. Teachers put a great deal of effort into planning engaging lessons, connecting with students, and building rapport with colleagues. To have these efforts constantly undermined is draining.

Teachers will be the first to admit that classroom discipline/management begins with them. It is up to the classroom teacher to set the tone and establish perimeters. But it is the responsibility of the administration to support that teacher’s efforts and help them grow as an educator. Growth is not possible when a teacher is overworked and overwhelmed.  Teachers who struggle with classroom management know they need help. In a safe, supportive atmosphere they will ask colleagues and administrators for assistance and suggestions. In an atmosphere of fear, these teachers will put on a good face and hide behind tactics that will eventually erode to expose their weakness. Am I criticizing teachers that have poor classroom management?  No, we all have areas of weakness.  We all have areas that need improvement.  The point I am making is that teachers will flourish in a safe and supportive environment. In this type of atmosphere, everyone is a winner. Students feel safer and more engaged, teachers are more content and calm, administrators will spend less time putting out fires and more time building relationships with staff, students, and community.

If discipline worked in the “good old days” why have we rethought the process? If we can find the answer to this question, we will understand why talented teachers are leaving education.  What does the future hold for our 21st century learners who lack responsibility, respect, and self-control?  Who will teach them these skills of citizenship?  Maybe it is time to get off the latest discipline band-wagon and use some common sense.


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