Discipline and safe schools are two facets of thought that dominate the minds of most school administrators and teachers. Each day, the number of issues that confront us are mind boggling—answering questions, planning instruction, looking to the future, the list goes on and on. But without safe and reasonably orderly environments to work in, the mission of our schools becomes increasingly difficult.
The Essex Town (VT) School District is no different than any other school district. They have their strengths and weaknesses but school discipline and safety are both priorities. What is different is their current work on redefining how they approach school discipline. The following article is written from three perspectives. First, Essex Middle School Principal Ned Kirsch recounts his journey as an administrator and how he handled discipline issues prior to arriving at his current state of thought. Next, Superintendent Jim Fitzpatrick explains his philosophy on discipline and how he is leading a district-wide approach to what we are calling shared responsibility. Finally, Lindsey Halman, a sixth-grade teacher at Essex, reflects on her role in the classroom using shared responsibility.
By Principal Ned Kirsch, Essex Middle School
Two months into my first assistant principalship, I had an epiphany: schoolwide detention did not work. As a high school assistant principal, I was responsible for many things, but primarily I punished students who misbehaved. I enforced the school discipline policy that worked something liked this: teachers sent “culpable” students to the office with a referral; I met with the offending student; after receiving three referrals, students were assigned an after-school detention in a room staffed by an adult; the adult usually had no connection to that student, unless the student had been assigned a previous detention; the student would sit for 45 minutes, repent, and be absolved of wrongdoing—until it happened again. Like the preceding sentence, the cycle was deadly, never ending, and ran on and on. Notice this: at no time did the student and the teacher sit down to discuss the issue that precipitated the referral.
Oddly enough, students did not see the redemptive motivation behind detention. As a result, many “habitual” offenders would skip dentition. Then I, the assistant principal, found them and assigned yet another night of detention. That’s right, another night. Brilliant. Then, shock of shocks, the repeat offender would skip that detention too! The next day, I would spend time tracking them down once again to assign day number three. After the third predictable no-show, the discipline policy mandated that I suspend the student—out of school—for one day. That’s right, a vacation from school. Parents would complain that the process was ridiculous and they were absolutely right.
On a drive home one day I came up with a great idea for change—re-name detention! The next afternoon, I bounded up the stairs to the detention room and announced my plan to the students in detention and enlisted their help. As you can imagine, the students who actually showed up were less than excited. “Come on,” I rallied. “Let’s brainstorm!” I grabbed a piece of chalk. The first student called out—I knew glory was within reach—“How about jail?” remarked the student.
Hmmm, not exactly what I was thinking. The next student shouted out, “Waste of time.” I quickly realized I was in deep. I left detention, fully acknowledging that changing our broken process wasn’t about cosmetic name changes.
What did the process of detention teach students or staff about responsible behavior? Absolutely nothing. We were stuck in a cycle of punishment and bad behavior. There was no connection to the offense and behavior change. There was punishment, yes. The behavior was bad. But what was the alternative? What did responsible behavior look like, for teachers and students alike? Our process was archaic and contrary to the idea of education because there was nothing being taught.
When I started as principal of Essex Middle School (EMS) in 2000, I walked into a place with discipline procedures remarkably similar to those I thought I had left behind. The only difference I noticed was that students at the middle level were more compliant; they actually went to detention. For students, misbehavior equaled punishment—but again, nothing was learned.
I made a decision that first year to end schoolwide detentions. If a teacher had an issue with a student, that teacher could contact the student’s parents personally and keep the student after school themselves. As you can imagine, this decision was not greeted with great enthusiasm by the staff. But I held my ground and saw immediate results. Rather than keep students after school, teachers began to find alternative solutions, and their relationships changed.
As time progressed, our school discipline process evolved. We wrote schoolwide core values. The core values were then woven into our report cards and celebrated monthly at award breakfasts. About the same time, we began our advisory program, and the core values played a central role. They became a visible part of our school and we began to think about responsible behavior as opposed to irresponsible behavior.
Next, we added a planning room where students could work with an adult trained in behavior intervention. The planning room coordinator would act as an intermediary between students and teachers, a resource for both. We were actually teaching behavior instead of simply punishing behavior, which was quite a transformation. At our graduation ceremony each year, the eighth-grade students would view themselves and teachers in a photo montage of the past year. The biggest cheers were always reserved for our planning room coordinator. He was, and is, immensely popular. Why? He builds relationships with students. It’s that simple. He doesn’t judge. He doesn’t get angry. He processes, listens, explains, listens, and tries to make things work out for the student.
As we changed and grew, some offenses remained, as did our policy of suspension. Within those remaining offenses, larger safety issues do arise—and creating unsafe situations can sometimes warrant suspensions from school. But, similar to the idea that detention does not work, I’ve realized that neither does suspension.
When we redesigned our discipline procedures, we made a list of safety issues that could lead to suspension, rule violations that seemed to demand more aggressive attention. Looking back, the creation of this list itself was a self-fulfilling prophecy. We found many reasons to suspend students. But when suspending students for egregious behavior, it seems we must always ask ourselves, “What reason do they have to stay? How do we convince such students to want to be here? Wouldn’t such a positive desire inhibit outrageous behavior?”
What I have generally learned is that suspensions also lead to bad will between parents and the school. There is rarely a parent who agrees with the decision, and most view it for what it is—punishment that doesn’t address core issues—punishment that doesn’t teach.
So far this year, we have not suspended one student. Yes, schools across the nation differ unbelievably and we are privileged at EMS with some advantages: we’re small, we’re largely upper- middle class, and we have a large percentage of highly educated parents. But we still experience our share of hardship. Within our community we face poverty, violence, alcoholism, familial abuse, and the like—things that seem endemic to public education. And those things create hard cases no matter the geography or socio-economic status of a school. Bottom line is that we all deal with people—real, live human beings.
Given that, this year has been one of building human relationships. This year, when students make mistakes that in the past would have merited a suspension, they are kept here at EMS. Instead of sending them away, we hold them close. The school is, after all, a place of classrooms and of learning. We are learning together to be responsible citizens.
This idea of shared responsibility is a work in progress. However, the philosophy is sound. Students need to be part of the solution and not just punished as a result of a procedure. Working with students and staff to find common ground is a practice that will improve our school climate and lead to a safer school for all. A system based on punishment is a system that will eventually fail.
By Superintendent Jim Fitzpatrick, Essex Town School District
In any school, most of the kids follow the rules. They follow the rules because they find school, to one degree or another, to be a pleasant place. Therefore, they behave, make good choices, and as long as the choices they make reinforce this relationship, these kids will continue to be our “good” students. But the question is, what makes school a satisfying place for these kids? Is it the system? Is it the discipline code? Is it the rules? I would suggest it is none of those.
More than likely, it is one or both of the following: the students come from families where education is valued and they are headed to higher education, or the students come from families where being cooperative and respectful is highly valued by an adult. These kids cooperate with us because we are steps toward goals that stretch beyond the school building. We are an interim in their lives, more than an integral piece. In fact, if you think about it, we may just be an interruption.
Some kids will be “good” because they have a positive relationship with the subject or a teacher; they do well in that subject. Others need a subject for college, to graduate from high school, or to stay on the ball team. But we often mistake this cooperation or “control,” with actual student interest and a good discipline system, a good handbook.
Are these students really learning? More to the point, are we really teaching? I don’t mean just subject matter. I mean, are we teaching what it means to be a citizen, a human being, a thinker? Or are we demanding compliance?
What I find most fascinating is that changing the behavior of a student, one of the most difficult challenges we face as school leaders, is left to a system or process based on punishments. We expect children and adolescents to change with little practice or time.
The basic approach of discipline in school is very common and well known to all school practitioners. However, I believe it is based on two faulty assumptions: 1) The reason that the majority of kids behave in school is because we have a good discipline system (i.e. a set of rules and predictable consequences), and 2) If we just fine-tune the system a little more, we can get any remaining, uncooperative kids “in line.”
Just as I believe that many students choose to behave, I believe that some choose to misbehave. Often, as mentioned above, educators believe the secret to a strong school is a good system of rules and consequences. Such a system is then believed to require compliant teachers who enforce the rules, a clear referral system, and administrators who back up the teachers. This ensures kids know there is a bottom line, and if they don’t follow the rules, they will receive detentions, be suspended, transferred, or even expelled! In such a school, the system determines what happens to the kids rather than the people.
As administrators, we frequently listen to the extenuating circumstances (reasons for misbehavior), but few exceptions are allowed. That breaks the system down. In the end, the system determines the outcome and the consequences of behavior infractions. I have heard administrators apologize when they invoke the consequences: “I realize this is an unusual situation, but my hands are tied. The handbook or policy says I am required to assign a three-day suspension.” The system must prevail to endure. Without the system in place, what would happen?
A recent systemic snafu comes to mind. A school allowed students to have cell phones, but students were forbidden to use them. A boy was discovered talking to his mother on the phone. She was evidently calling from Iraq where she was serving in the armed forces. He was instructed to end the phone call. At this point, as the story goes, he said (maybe not in the best tone?), “I am talking to my mom. She is calling from Iraq!” He refused to end the call. He was escorted to the office. Policy. As you can imagine, he was most likely not as polite as he might have been. So, he broke the cell phone rule, and then he was also breaking another school rule: being disrespectful to staff. According to policy, he had two options: be arrested or take a ten-day suspension. The school suspended the boy for ten days. I started thinking that it probably would have been better for the student to be arrested. He might have been better off in front of a judge.
For years in the school business I held dear to these systems. Systems of punishment—systems where the focus is, “What was done to the kid? Did he get a detention, referral, suspension? Was he punished…enough?” The language among the adults was centered on issues of control, punishment, and power.
This approach “works” with the vast majority of the kids and staff. The system appears to keep the kids in control. But groups of kids (and, in some cases, staff) still don’t follow the rules—they do not fall “in line!” And here the system fails. Typically the system goes “to work” on this last group, tries to force them into line, or gets rid of them.
I espouse a different approach. What if schools operate according to a set of beliefs or a philosophy about behavior and students? We know that learning in the academic areas takes time and practice; mistakes will and do occur. When they do, we review and re-teach. We test for understanding. We understand that curriculum must be differentiated. As frustrating as it may be, we would never admonish, humiliate, or punish someone for not being able to learn something in the academic area. What if we operated with those beliefs when it comes to behavior?
The idea of shared responsibility is focused on teaching behavior without threats of punishment. Using the philosophy of shared responsibility, school faculty adheres to a set of beliefs (philosophy) about behavior. The system is then designed to accommodate this set of beliefs. Such a model allows the system to be flexible and address the needs of individual students and circumstances. It may sound overwhelming. But do not worry; I am not talking about a massive therapy session!
It should be clear that, for the vast majority of educators, this does not require major changes. This approach is compatible with what most effective educators have been doing all along. The following are important factors that should be kept in mind when holding students accountable:
1. How we view ourselves and how we view the world around us are two of the most important attributes in our development.
2. Children see and interact with the school based on their view of themselves and their perceptions of the school and the adults around them. Therefore, effective change and learning must focus on the child’s perception of him/herself and the school, not the adult’s.
3. All children can succeed and achieve at a higher level than they are presently. Children can excel in amazing ways. Change sometimes occurs instantly. It is the preparation for change, indecision, avoiding risk, self-doubt, and fear of failure that takes so long! Children learn and grow when we build on their strengths, not their weaknesses. This builds a solution-focused environment rather than a problem-centered one.
4. We must hold students to high standards and then communicate to them that we will not let them down!
5. Common sense is a powerful tool for making wise decisions.
This year, our district is revamping our system and incorporating this philosophy. The groundwork for this change was put in place almost two years ago with a cadre of teachers and administrators working and learning together. The Shared Responsibility Committee seeks to employ the works of William Glasser and the Choice Theory program. The work is continuous and is already showing signs of success all over the district.
By Lindsey Halman, Sixth-Grade Teacher, Essex Middle School
In 2007, my school district developed a committee to concentrate on helping students and educators share responsibility for their behavior. I was asked to be part of this committee and it has helped me and my school change for the better. The Shared Responsibility Committee explores the works of Glasser and has created a developmentally appropriate model seeking to build strong relationships with students, helping students assume responsibility for learning, and developing a common language for addressing behavior across the district. After reviewing our state data based on behavior referrals, it became quite evident that there was a lack of consistency in approaches, language, and data collection techniques across the district.
Our work has been guided by the belief that students, teachers, and families should experience a seamless transition during their K–8 years. As a committee, we continually promote a movement from an incident-based reactive approach to discipline to an approach that views student behavior skills as a curriculum to be taught to all students. I believe that there are multiple ways that student behaviors need to be addressed. In the same way we embrace differentiated instruction in our academic areas, we need to similarly differentiate when we are teaching students behavioral skills.
Part of my commitment to this committee has involved intensive training. In May 2008, I completed the four-day basic intensive training through the William Glasser Institute. During each of our district’s in-service days, three colleagues and I presented to the staff the work of Glasser and how his theory should be utilized to build classroom community and stronger relationships with our students. Each of these in-service opportunities has allowed me to share my own passions and expertise with other educators, administrators, and support staff in our district. Finally, I have also had the opportunity to facilitate a professional learning community at my school. The focus is on building stronger relationships with our students and supporting one another in our own professional growth.
As a result of my strong interest and commitment for student voice and the implementation of teaching methods that address the diverse needs of students in the classroom, this leadership role has allowed me to share my passion with colleagues across the school district. Engaging in an ongoing dialogue with them has significantly contributed to my own growth as an educator. This work has enabled me to critically analyze my own teaching and help others in our school. One of my peers, Karen, devoted time to working on building a stronger relationship with one of her students who was struggling with his place in our school. After Karen embraced the ideas that we discussed in our professional learning community, her student had a much more successful academic year and their relationship was strengthened.
I have now rethought the way that I help students build community within the classroom. We spend much of the first few weeks of the school year thinking about who we are as learners and how all learners can continually contribute to the classroom community. My students begin the school year thinking about what it means to be a positive member of a community and what precisely that would look like. After many days working in cooperative groups and thinking about our hopes and dreams for the year, the students create their own team vision, called the Verve Vision. Furthermore, students on my team feel empowered because they know they have a voice. With a strong voice and choice in the classroom, I have been able to foster positive relationships with each of my students.
I believe that the communication with children and with each other sets the tone of our school. This communication extends beyond words and includes gestures, postures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Ultimately, these thoughtful and deliberate interactions enable our children to be more introspective and respectful.
At Essex Middle School, the seeds of change have germinated, roots have been sent down to support the systematic change, and the concept has begun to branch out. However, the fruit of our transformation is only beginning to blossom as it is still a work in progress. But EMS continues to cultivate this work because we firmly believe teaching behavior instead of punishing behavior will help us become a safer and more productive school. As all the authors have stated in different ways, this has not been an easy process; old habits that had formed and been encouraged are now undergoing a change.
By building stronger relationships with our students, we are hopeful that they all will see themselves as valued members of our school community. Our hope is that if our students feel a sense of belonging and know that there are caring adults at the school, it will ultimately lead to more responsible behavior on the part of the students. We must also remember that it is equally critical is that we adults also model these relationships with our colleagues. The ultimate mission at EMS is to build an environment that will allow every student within our school to flourish and grow—therefore, the seeds of change have been planted and our work will continue.
Keep reading: From the Field: Positive Behavior Support