Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Discipline the Behavior, Not the Child

"I want him out of my class! And he can't come back until he's ready to follow my rules."

Have you ever heard these words come from a teacher?  If not, have you heard the tone? The frustration?  The exhaustion? The call for help?

There was one time as a teacher that these words came from me.  Instantly I felt horrible for what I had done and I knew that I would forever be a different teacher based on that one interaction. And I was different from that day the student.  I lost all of his trust, confidence, and desire to learn.  

Like I said, I knew that I was forever changed but I had no idea how much I affected the student. For the remainder of the year (luckily this happened in April) the boy was different.  No matter what I tried, he was done with me.  It would have been better for that student if he was moved out of my classroom.  I don't talk about this lightly and I think about this student a lot and wonder where/what/how he is today. I guess my biggest fear is that he lives under a bridge in a cardboard box, staring at an old yearbook picture of me as he plans his revenge for that fateful day.  Maybe I feel like I have WAY more influence over that student than I actually did, but I like to think I made an impression on him.

A few months ago I was visiting another building, not in the district I work in, and the first thing I saw was a teacher walking an unruly student to the office.  I've seen this before so I slowed my pace because I didn't want to be in the way just in case the 'party' was about to get started. The boy turned and looked at me and in that instance I was transported straight back to the day I became frustrated at my student.  The whole scene was an awful reminder of my actions.

As a building principal I understand the frustration that students can bring to the classroom.  I also understand that teachers have good and bad days.  So do the students.  When those bad days happen on the same day fireworks are bound to go off, quickly.  A big cause of office visits are based on frustration levels.  Some teachers have a higher threshold of frustration while others have a very very very low threshold.  Have you ever known a teacher to kick a student out of class because he/she didn't have a pencil?  Probably a low threshold kind of teacher.

When a student comes to my office I quickly remind myself to separate the student from the behavior.  I know that is very easy to forget in certain situations, however, it's imperative that you do it.  We never know exactly what the student is going through at home, who is bullying them in 1st period, or what their after school activities demand of them.  Life seems to be more and more stressful for adults and students and we, the adults, better be prepared to help students navigate their stress. When we deal with students in a disciplinary manner we can help reduce some of that stress by dealing with the negative behavior separate from the character of the student.


  1. Loved reading this. I see this all too often at the schools I've worked at, and it's just a great mantra to keep in mind. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great reminder... every child wants to do well. Every child is a good kid - some just make poor choices or lack the skills to make effective ones.

  3. I know a certain teacher I'd love to show this to, if we were still on talking terms!

  4. Wow- so well said, John! Too many times we as educators take a student's behavior personally, forgetting that there may well be other forces at work. Thank you for the reminder to separate the behavior from the child.