I vividly remember my middle level principal and the fear that hit my gut every time he would look at me or even walk by. He was six and a half feet tall, weighed close to 400 pounds, and his last name was Kevorkian. Who wouldn’t be afraid of that principal, especially if he never smiled and looked like he could be in the WWF as Andre the Giant’s tag-team partner?
Now as a middle level principal myself, I look back at the steps I took through the narrow, freshly waxed hallways of my middle level school and wish I could have had a positive relationship with my principal during those crucial and fragile years. I wish my principal would have been more of a mentor than a monitor, a sculptor instead of a suspender, more friendly and less formidable. I truly believe if I had been able to have a relationship with my principal, my middle level and high school career would have been more successful, and my GPA would have exceeded a 2.0.
The role of school principal has evolved from manager to lead learner and teacher. If that aspect of the job has evolved, my hope is that our mindset and process of school discipline can follow suit.
Discipline over the years within the confinements of the “principal’s office” were centered on the concept of fear and consequence. Sure, fear may keep some students in line, but what fear does not do is teach, develop, or mentor. Those three concepts are what truly keep students focusing on what they should be doing—and, most importantly, why they should be doing it.
Before I go any further, let me address the elephant in the room. Some of you out there are thinking, “They need to have a fear of their principal. If they don’t, they will be out of control, and teachers can’t teach and learning won’t happen.”
I know this because I had that same mindset when I started my career, because as a student I was brought up to fear those in charge of my education. Unfortunately, I believe that fear is what caused me to never reach my fullest potential. Yes, I would walk (and not run) on the right side of the hallway, raise my hand before answering a question, and stay glued to my seat for 55 minutes at a time because I didn’t want to “get in trouble.” What I didn’t do was find a mentor; someone to sculpt me and show me what I could be. Those things were missing from the discipline tool belt that my principal wore, and until my mindset changed, they were vacant from mine too.
The irony is that discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means to “instruct, educate, and train.” If that’s what the word is rooted in, why are we not planting those concepts into our discipline interactions and letting them grow? Why are we still making our offices a place of negativity instead of a place of enlightenment, growth, discipleship, and understanding?
Don’t get me wrong. If students misbehave, they need to be held accountable, but they also need to learn how to not make that same mistake again. They need to know they have a tag-team partner in their corner who cares enough to walk alongside them on this path of change. Consequences are important, but what is more important is a relationship with a child—a relationship where you can mentor them to not make that same mistake or decision twice. Receiving a consequence is immediate, but it’s not infinite. The pain of the detention, suspension, or missed recess will sting for a moment, but the lessons we teach alongside those consequences are what last forever.
Disciplining just through giving consequences never was enough, and it never will be. Look at the prison systems in our country—they are full of people who have made mistake after mistake and never learned from them. How many could have learned to change earlier in life if they had a principal who stepped out of their role of lead disciplinarian and entered into the role of lead mentor?
We have to make sure we are not just punishing but developing our students. We need to make sure that we go the extra mile for all students, even those who push us to the brink of our sanity. I ask you to join me and become their lead mentor, instructor, educator, and trainer. You never know—the student’s name on the office referral sitting on your desk right now may be the principal who helps change the lives of future students one day. Don’t miss this opportunity.
Are you more of a consequence giver or a mentor when it comes to discipline? Look back at the principals you had in your education—did you have a positive, impactful relationship with them, or was your relationship built on fear? What is one thing you can change in your practice for the next school year?
Roger Gurganus is an assistant principal at Brownstown Middle School, a grade 6–7 building in Brownstown, MI. Follow his educational and leadership journey on Twitter (@RogerGurganusII), Instagram (@RogerGurganusII), YouTube (@BMSWARRIORS67), and his blog (https://raiseyouranchor.blogspot.com).