Stuck in the middle (of discipline) with you

A big part of my current leadership position includes student discipline. Yes, I’m the administrator who whenever I walk into a classroom, teachers ask, “Who do you need to speak to?” I’ve also been told, in jest, that I have the “not fun job at school,” and I’ve even joked that my position could be likened to “Dirty Harry” getting the short end of the stick on a job. I will grant that student discipline is a dirty job, BUT someone has to do it.

I am not scary or mean person, nor do I always need to speak to a student about a behavior despite having days when I have to do a lot of investigative work to construct an accurate picture of what really happened in a classroom. I love knowing that teachers and their work with students are supported each and every day through what I do with discipline. My mantra as a leader has always been “removing obstacles that inhibit learning in the classroom” and discipline is probably one of the most concrete ways to accomplish that.

Perhaps what I enjoy most about student discipline is that each referral is a new problem to solve, and after it is resolved, an opportunity for self reflection. I get to decide what approach to take (offer a carrot or bear the stick), if I am too lenient or stern when it comes to issuing consequences, or how I can make consequences meaningful. I have to choose my words carefully so I communicate to students what the appropriate behavior is and that students understand that even though they made a bad choice today, they are a still good person. We learn from it, don’t repeat it, and move on.

One of my favorite interview questions is the one that has to do with a teacher sends a student to your office, the student leaves with a smile on their face, and the teacher questions your method. Discipline isn’t about making kids cry and feel bad about themselves, it is making sure they don’t make the poor choice again and understand what to do better next time. It’s all about achieving positive results.

To borrow from Peter King king’s MMQB, here are the 10 things I think about discipline:

  1. The essential guiding question for discipline: How can we, as the adults in a situation, remove triggers that might cause students to act in an undesirable way or demonstrate negative behaviors? Start with this question and establish routines and procedures accordingly.
  2. Find ways to build relationships with students just as you did as a teacher. Students love when their principal plays games with them and shows interest in who they are. It gives you credibility, and students are generally more responsive to what you have to say if they do find themselves in your office.
  3. PBIS is awesome and proactivity is crucial. Clearly outline expectations from the start to set students up for success. We can’t assume they know how to behave in a given environment and they have to know that different environments call for different behaviors. Favorite analogy: They might both be musical performances, but I don’t act the same way at a rock concert as a I would a symphony.
  4. Biggest challenge with discipline at the administrative level = never experiencing what happened first hand. Move over C.S.I., I have to investigate just what happened to the missing lunch box in the kindergarten classroom.
  5. Most students will tell you they did nothing wrong and that they got in trouble for “doing nothing.” The teacher will explain what happened. I have to admit though, it is always impressive when a student can tell me exactly what happened while leaving out all the parts that implicate any blame on them.
  6. Natural consequences are highly effective. Picking up pea gravel on the playground, sweeping out a school bus, or wiping lunch tables are great deterrents for rocking throwing and making messes with food.
  7. If placing a call to a family about a discipline referral, and there is no answer or the voicemail box is full, send an email letting them briefly know what occurred. There is no reason for a parent to panic about a missed call from his or her child’s school.
  8. Contact families so they understand what happened before a student goes home that day. It’s an easy way to avoid a conversations with a concerned parent/guardian.
  9. Make sure families understand that you are there to help their child and believe that child is a good person. Parents always appreciate hearing something positive about their child (especially if their child is in the office frequently).
  10. Document, document, document. Keeping accurate, detailed records about discipline referrals can help you understand behavior patterns and respond more appropriate to student needs on an individual, classroom, and even the school level.

Stealers Wheel: Stuck in the Middle with you

Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see it makes no sense at all
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor?
‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

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The Letter of the Day

Creativity and excitement about learning are so innate in children, so how or why is it that we, as educators (present company included), can do or say things – usually inadvertently – to stifle it?

Thanks to my two year old daughter, I have had Sesame Street’s “Letter of the Day” song stuck in my head for weeks. If you aren’t familiar, click here (Warning: It’s really catchy!).  For the record, when we hear the song in my house, the letter of the day is always “M” because we only watch one episode over and over again. The girl is 2 and she likes what she likes. (I’m sure parents can relate)

At the risk of sounding like an overly proud parent, I must preface this blog post that my daughter recognizes all of the letters of the alphabet, knows their sounds, reads them when she sees them, and is a very clever witty little girl. Because of this, she can and has  made a joke of the aforementioned “Letter of the Day” song. How?  Sometimes when my wife or I sing the song to get her to choose a letter and when we get to the part where it comes time to say that letter, she looks at us with a frighteningly deviant smile and yells “CRANBERRY” (which is then followed by hysterical laughter).

Why have I shared this? As I use my winter break to regenerate for the next part of the school year, I began thinking about that awesome learning innocence in children, my own included, and their willingness to take risks, experiment, or answer a question without fear of ridicule or rejection. In their minds, the possibilities of what an answer can be or what something can do is limitless. There is no worry about logic or reason, they just want to share what is on their mind, ask a question, or make (what they believe is) a really funny joke/play on words.

Unfortunately, as we grow older, the social acceptability of these healthy risk taking behaviors seems to diminish; however, the innocent love of learning and creative thinking should remain strong, and, as educators, it is important to do what we can to keep it that way by remember a few ideas. They are this:

Learning is collaborative. We learn from others. Though the “copy cat world” is discouraged, a variation on something someone says or does turns out to be revolutionary (beg, borrow, steal, right?). The wheel has really never been reinvented (still round), but the right tire treads make a difference on a snowy road.

Learning is messy/loud. When I taught general music, some of the very best learning activities for my students came from stations (workshop). I would have students creating patterns on tone bars, composing on keyboard instruments, reviewing fundamentals with percussion auxiliary, and learning theory through music games. There were days when a cacophony of sound would echo down the hallway and it was by most accounts, anything but musical. Students experimented, tried new things, succeeded and failed, revised ideas, got frustrated, asked endless questions, and when it came time for summative assessment at the end of the unit, they demonstrated the knowledge and skills and I had hoped they would acquire.

Great learning is organized chaos (and fun). With learning stations or any project based/group task, there is weeks of preparation training students on how to work in groups. There are hours spent designing supports that ensure students are able to manipulate resources so when they are in those stations, they can focus on the content and not just the tasks. The classroom environment itself will be respectful and conducive to learning, but despite all this, there will STILL be times when it will seem crazy because of the excitement about learning.

It’s tempting to tell kids to be careful, to tell them to be quiet down when they get loud (learning noise!), or to be nervous about them failing. Get over that. Often times, what a teacher thinks is a disaster (because it feels like chaos) is the best day for students because they were able to let loose and engage in an authentic learning process that was FUN.

Learning requires good feedback. This is key. I will say it again: This is key. How we set up the activity, outline criteria, and respond to our students when they have questions and working sets the tone for learning. Asking questions that require an explanation of thinking and help students arrive at an answer (even if it is wrong) without explicitly giving it away is important.

A student can’t just hear, “that’s good,” or “try agin, ” because those phrases don’t have context or meaning. Feedback has to be meaningful and specific so that it guides students through the learning process. Explain what is good and why it is good or why a student needs to try again. One of my favorite questions that I see on many math classroom walls/anchor charts is: Does your answer make sense? If a student is multiplying whole numbers and the product is smaller than the multiplicand and/or multiplier, clearly some re-thinking needs to occur. We learn through constant feedback. If something goes well, we continue on. If something goes poorly, we learn more through solving problems and trying new things.

So let me ask…

What are your “Letter of the Day” moments with your kids (students or children)?

What will you do next time when someone answers “CRANBERRY” and gives that overly complex answer (that might look like attention seeking in a classroom, but shows a lot of thought behind what is said).

What will you do to make sure you continue that natural flame for learning and spark creativity? Are you doing all you can, in action and words, to encourage and not stifle?

 

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Dance far away.
Now clap your hands.
To the letter of the day. Clap, clap.
What’s the letter? Clap, clap.
What’s the letter? Clap, clap, clap, clap.
What’s the letter? (4X)
The letter of the day is…

 

 

Oh, take me back to the start…

As administrators, we all started somewhere.

While I searched (endlessly!) for my first administrative position, I discussed what it would take to make that leap from band teacher to administrator with my superintendent. He understood my frustration with the fruitless efforts of applying and interviewing and told me something truly great. He said, “When you make that leap, and it will happen, remember that when things are tough, or you wonder why you decided to make this career choice, how you felt when they offered you the job.”

And I do! I remember driving in my car the day after the final round of interviews thinking I had struck out again because it was taking so long for them to call (it was 9:00AM). My phone rang (oh brother, hear we go again)! I answered and I heard the words “we’d like you to be our next Director of Student Services.” Though I remained conscious for the rest of the conversation, I only being told I could take time discuss it with my family. After hanging up, I fumbled to dial my wife (1 touch speed dial) and vividly remember being overcome with tears of joy as my wife said to me, “You did it, [Joe], you did it!” (She used her pet name for me).

This moment, though, comes well before what we face in out job every day: Reality.

  • It comes before the reality that if you don’t like something, you can’t just fix it in a day because you don’t just have a classroom. Change now requires a lather of shared vision, patience, relationship building, data collection, and carefully crafted professional development. (Rinse and repeat…rinse and repeat…has it changed yet?)
  • It comes before the reality that you have to document and organize dozens of observational artifacts and complete a written narrative at 9:00PM in bed before you can do what you love (and in my opinion matters) the most: the coaching conversation with the teacher who is on the cusp of going from good to great. (aMAZing!)
  • It comes before the reality that you will receive phone calls from an upset parent wondering why you haven’t done anything stop their child’s classmate from tormenting them every day for the past two weeks. Keep in mind, you knew nothing about this until right now (Have they informed to the teacher yet?…No.).
  • It comes before the reality that you want to bang your head against the wall because no matter what you do or say to students about bus behavior (PBIS is legit!), students can’t still seem to sit and stay in their seat, talk quietly, keep hands to themselves, and eat the food when they get OFF the bus. (It sounds simple to me!)

Sure, the reality of school leadership can be harsh, but what was described above is just a day in the life of someone with a job they love. I maintain a  good sense of humor, I am a bit of an eternal optimist, and, maybe, just maybe, I am a bit of a glutton for punishment.

It is a privilege to lead teachers and impact students each day, and their successes are  motivating and inspiring. That being said, after a super tough day when success. motivation, and inspiration may be scarce, I push my own reset button and remember how I felt when I was offered this job. It helps me visualize that greater success with staff, bigger smiles from students, and deeper appreciation from families will surely come.

Coldplay: The Scientist

Nobody said it was easy,
No one ever said it would be this hard.

Oh, take me back to the start.

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