In a training several years ago, it was Angie Clarke, a consulting associate from Teaching That Makes Sense, who opened my eyes to a new and better way of thinking about discipline when she said:
“The purpose of discipline is to disciple; discipline is teaching, not punishment.”
When Angie shared this with our group of high school teachers, something clicked. Her definition of discipline reminded me of my wise undergrad professor who taught our classroom management course prior to student teaching. This professor advised:
"A well-planned lesson that utilizes bell-to-bell instruction doesn't allow time for kids to cause problems."
Angie repeated her definition of discipline again. She shared a few anecdotes about "choices" students had made in her classroom and how she dealt with those "choices" that interrupted student learning and her instruction. While her students were much younger than ours, we shared similar problems: students interrupting, students making excuses, students turning in work late, etc. But she left the problem-solving to the students, rarely needed to call parents for "negative" behaviors, and asked a lot of questions instead of issuing punishments. Her "method" was genuine and full of compassion.
She discussed a book called Teaching With Love & Logic by James Faye and David Funk. I'd never heard of this book before and didn't believe I had discipline problems in my classroom because I followed my undergrad professor's advice about having well-planned lessons. As Angie explained the Principles of Love and Logic, I thought about my students, my classroom rules, and how much instructional time I lost dealing with behavior problems that seeped through even my best planned lessons. After Angie's training, I bought a copy of Teaching With Love & Logic and attended a Love and Logic conference. My ideas about punishment, discipline, and student behaviors changed for the better...
One Classroom Community, One Rule
After having taught for 12 years, I've succeeded, failed, loved, embarrassed, and humilated myself (and a few students as well) trying to figure out how handle problems in my classroom. What I've learned along the way is that I can only control myself. This seems like a simple concept, but throw 5 classes and 150+ students into the mix on a campus with close to 3,000 students and a staff whose ideas about classroom management are as diverse as our student population, and things become really complicated.
In my classroom, on the very first day of school until my students have heard it ad naseum, I share the one rule that we'll use to hold each other and ourselves accountable for the way we communicate, work, and have fun together. I have this displayed in the front of my room and every student receives a copy of it in their Plans For Success (think Course Syllabus). It reads:
Feel free to do anything that does not interrupt your learning, the learning of your classmates, or my teaching.
A colleague of mine uses the same rule reworded like this:
Feel free to do anything that does not cause a problem for you, me, or anyone else in the room.
Inevitably, problems do arise throughout the first weeks of school and every class period and week after that. I deal with these problems on an individual basis. Simple logic tells us that students, like adults, need to be loved and accepted regardless of the problems they create. As adults, we need to guide students into accepting the consequences for these choices in ways that will shape future behavior. We do this by:
- speaking to students in a calm voice
- offering choices that are agreeable to both the student and the teacher
- handling individual problems on an individual basis
- making eye contact
- getting down on the student's level (even if that means kneeling or sitting in a chair next to the student)
- staying calm regardless of the problem
- being firm, fair and consistent
As I stated earlier, I can only control myself. So when problems arise in my classroom, I try to remain calm by remembering what logic tells me:
- this isn't personal.
- this isn't about me.
I even have these two simple sentences written on a note-card that I taped to the top of my desk.They serve as gentle reminders that I can walk over and reread in those moments when I feel my frustration elevating.
When Problems Arise
The following two scenarios are problems that come up early on in the school year. Rather than argue with students and waste valuable class time, or get into a battle that I may/may not win, I apply the principles and strategies outlined in Teaching With Love and Logic.
A student wants to discuss his grade during class time. He insists on interrupting my lesson by raising his hand and asking me about when he'll be eligible to play football. The conversation goes like this:
Chris, a freshman football player, incessantly waves his hand in the air.
Chris: Ms. Deahl, I'd like to know when you're going to clear me to play football.
I use something called continuity of control by not letting continuing with my train of thought, not letting Chris get to me, and keeping with the pace of my lesson (step 1). I simply continue teaching and managing at the same time. I don't want one disruptive student (Chris) to steal me away from the others so I simply say:
Ms. Deahl: As we write our narratives, I'd like you to think about who your audience is and what your purpose is. Who are you writing to? Why? How do you know...
Chris continues to incessantly wave his hand in the air:
Chris: Ms. Deahl, when are we going to talk about my grade? I have a game Friday.
Continuing with my lesson, I walk over to Chris and stand next to him. I lean in so that only he can hear me. This time, I use a one-sentence response (step 2).
Ms. Deahl: I understand.
Chris: But I need you to clear me today! My coach isn't going to let me play Friday, if you don't clear me.
Now, I move into step 3 by not thinking. I do this by simply repeating myself.
Ms. Deahl: I understand.
Chris: It's our last home game. A lot of my friends are going to be there.
Chris has become so frustrated by this point that I need to keep my voice soft so I remain calm. I don't want to give him any more ammunition than his own frustration, and I certainly don't want him (or nearby students) to see my frustration. Leaning in closer this time, I repeat myself again by whispering.
Ms. Deahl: I understand.
Chris: Ms. Deahl, it will only take a couple of minutes for you to look at your grade book. I have a slip to get cleared in my pocket.
Chris, clearly isn't going to give up, and I'm not going to try to reason with him because that will only make the situation worse. I don't need to explain myself. Clearly, Chris is using a communication style that has worked for him in the past. He's not interested in the facts and logic I'm using by remaining calm. He's more interested in seeing me give in, or become angry with him. And, I can tell by his tone that he's getting desperate for ideas about how to win what he perceives as an argument. So as not to draw any more attention to the situation, I offer him 2 choices.
Ms. Deahl: I discuss grades at 7:15 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. What time works best for you?
Chris: I don't get to school until the first bell rings, and I have practice after school.
Ms. Deahl: I discuss grades at 7:15 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. What time works best for you? (notice I'm playing dumb again by repeating myself).
Chris: Fine! I'll come in after school today. I guess I'll just be late to practice.
Ms. Deahl: Okay. Thank you.
I quickly walk away so that Chris cannot re-open the conversation. In sum, I've spent less than 5 minutes dealing with this problem, and I've given the problem back to Chris by allowing him to choose a time that works best for him. I've allowed him to take some responsibility for the problem by offering two choices that show: I can only control myself. I've demonstrated the continuity of self-control.
I did this by:
- remaining calm by using a gentle tone.
- continuing my lesson and managing the problem at the same time.
- repeating myself to show that I'm not giving in.
- using "I" statements that include what I do.
Whether or not he shows up after school is a completely different problem that may result in the natural consequence of him not playing football. If he does make it, we'll have the opportunity to have a private conversation about his grade and what he needs to do to improve it. At that time, I may need implement other principles and strategies, but I have a greater chance at developing a positive relationship with Chris by not arguing with him, not raising my voice, and by not giving in. When he comes in after school, we can work on coming up with a solution together, as a team.
Heysel is texting during Work Time. She's attempting discretion by doing this under her desk, which I've noticed from across the room. I walk over and stand next to her. She continues texting.
Ms. Deahl: Haysel, it is a problem that you have your phone out during Work Time.
Heysel: Miss, don't get crazy!!!
In a calm tone, I kneel next to her making eye contact and deliver a one-line response that states what I'm going to do next. Again, using the continuity of self-control.
Ms. Deahl: I'll listen when your voice is as calm as mine is.
Heysel lowers her voice, but tries to make an excuse this time.
Heysel: Alright, alright. But my mom was texting me that I need to pick my brother up from school.
Heysel could be lying, but I'm not concerned by whether or not she's telling the truth. I simply want her to follow our school policy by putting her phone away and getting back to work. I also don't want to show her my frustration. This time, I offer another one-sentence response by whispering:
Ms. Deahl: I give full participation points to students who follow our Classroom Procedures by working the entire class period.
She giggles and isn't taking me seriously, but at this point she's put her phone away.
Heysel: Ms. Deahl, you don't have to get all serious on me.
Heysel begins working. I know she respects me and cares enough about my class and her grade to get back on track. I lean in closer and whisper:
Ms. Deahl: Thank you.
Implementing one-sentence responses that include what I'm going to do has completely changed the way I communicate with my students. Before, I used to waste a great deal of instructional time arguing with students because I thought that I'd win the "power struggle." Most of the time, my students saw through this, which only caused problems to escalate, hurt feelings, and wasted time and energy. More importantly, they created a negative relationship with the student who caused the problem.
Using the continuity of self control in the form of one-sentence responses allow me to state what I'm going to do in a way that shows what I have complete control over - myself. Even better, they're almost impossible to argue.
I like to have a list of these one-sentence responses taped to my desk for those times when I'm so frustrated I can't think of what to say next. I can simply walk over to them, take a breath, re-read them and then handle the problem that frustrated me so much in the first place. In the event that I need to walk away from a particular problem, all I have to say is:
This is a problem that I need to do something about. I need to look at something on my desk. When I come back, I'm going to do something about this problem.
While I do, the student has some time to think about what may be the problem, and I have chance to control the frustration I'm feeling.
Here are a few from that list:
- I'll continue reading/teaching when it's quiet.
- I'll begin when all electronics are off and out of sight.
- I'll be happy to help you with that when your eyes are on me.
- I accept work written in blue/black ink.
- I listen to students who raise their hands.
- I argue with students any time after 2:30 p.m.
- You may use the smart board as long as you draw/write school appropriate content.
- I'll be happy to write you a pass for the bathroom when I'm finished teaching __________.
- I dismiss students on time who show up to my class on time.
- I'll take you seriously when you're taking me seriously.
- Feel free to talk in groups as long as you're getting work done.
- Feel free to join the discussion when you're on topic.
How We Communicate with Students Matters Most
Each year, I spend as much time working on how I communicate with my students in ways that build positive relationships as I do on planning and grading. Yes, I absolutely want my students to become independent readers and writers, and I want them to develop a love for each of these skills, but I also want them to be responsible and compassionate people when they leave my classroom.
By providing "choices" instead of "punishments", I'm letting my students know that I care about them as individuals. I love and respect them enough to not argue with them. It is not my intention to demean or demoralize them. Instead, I'm sending the message:
"Kindness is always better than being right."
I've seen some of the toughest kids solve their own problems, which has given them more confidence in how they interact with each other and other adults. Communicating with my students in ways that show them I'm compassionate and logical has allowed me to build positive relationships with them and creates a classroom community where it is safe to learn together.
These days I:
- Spend less time on discipline and more time on instruction.
- Deal with individual problems on an individual basis.
- Have confidence in leading students to solutions that work for all of us.
- Deliver messages in a gentle tone which shows my students that I care about each of them regardless of how angry/frustrated they are with me.
- Deliver discipline in ways that are fair, consistent, and sincere.
- Teach responsible students.
- Have more fun in my classroom.
For more on Teaching (or Parenting) With Love and Logic, please see: Love and Logic. I encourage you to: read the book, attend a Love and Logic Seminar, and/or subscribe to the weekly tips via email.