The Great Behavior Divide


Third hour was long.  The students were particularly rowdy.  ‘Must be a full moon.’  Only half of the students handed in homework, and several forgot their books.  But the tide turned when the lesson got going.  It was engaging and relevant, and the students responded.  Things were going well when Bobby threw his pencil across the room and hit another student.  This was absolutely the last straw.  He had been pulling things like this for days.  Done.  I sent him to the office.  In my thirteen years of teaching, I can count on one hand the number of students I sent to the office.  You can bet I wanted him punished.

Cut to three years later.  Another Bobby was sent to the office.  I honestly can’t remember what he did.  But this time I was the assistant principal in charge of discipline, and I was smack in the middle of the great behavior divide.

Anyone teaching or working in school administration will know the divide to which I refer.  A student makes a bad choice.  The teacher sends her to the office.  The teacher, understandably so, feels frustrated and wants punishment.  The administrator, understandably so, wants to teach and build or maintain a relationship with the student.

So the administrator has the student sit quietly for a bit, maybe reflect on or process what happened in the classroom.  Then there is a conversation.  “What happened?”  “Why?”  Ideally several things happen:

1.  Any unmet needs are resolved.  Is the student hungry?  Tired?  Worried about something happening at home?

2.  Any medical or chemical issues are addressed.  Is the student sick?  Under the influence?  Off prescribed medications?

3.  Does the student have an honest understanding of what happened? Is there more to the story from his perspective?  Do you need to talk to other students?

After an investigation, the administrator assigns a consequence in line with the Code of Conduct.  The hope is that the consequence teaches behavior.  The hope is that the investigation and the conversation about the consequence work to establish a trusting relationship with the student…and the student’s parents.  The hope is that with each interaction, the administrator builds rapport and influence with the student.  When that happens, there is a much greater likelihood that in the future the student might make different choices.

Unfortunately this whole process can sometimes frustrate the teacher who sent the student to the office.  Believe me, I understand.  Like I said, when I sent Bobby to the office, I wanted him punished.  I didn’t want him to have a relationship-building conversation.  I didn’t want him getting a pop-tart because he was hungry.  I wanted him punished.

Discipline in schools should not be about punishment.  As difficult it can be in the moment, discipline in schools should be about teaching.

As school leaders, some of the most important professional development we need to provide is to talk about behavior and discipline.  I do think it is possible to avoid the great behavior divide.  It takes time and transparent conversations.  It takes an understanding of the shared vision for the school and the community.   It is important for teachers and administrators to be on the same page.

Like I’ve said before, we’re all in this together.