Discipline Lessons I

Many years ago, when I was living in Connecticut, an educational psychology professor at Yale, who was conducting some of the early teacher effectiveness studies, hired me to observe and evaluate teachers in a New Haven public high school, one that had been the scene of violence the previous spring. I was in all kinds of classrooms, watched all manner of teachers, and learned very quickly that effectiveness isn’t the exclusive property of any particular teaching style (though some approaches have more potential for deadliness than others).

Tasked with observing the interaction between classroom control and teacher effectiveness, I saw that students in the classrooms of effective teachers—whether they were traditional lecturers or innovative strategists—were deeply engaged in the learning process. Sometimes it was the sheer complexity or elegance of the content that kept the students’ attention, sometimes it was the specific techniques the teacher employed, and sometimes it was simply the teacher’s charisma.

But the effective teachers had control, even when the students were running the show, as in the case of one young English teacher whose students were conducting a mock trial, a culminating project for a novel they had read. She sat on the sidelines, but she was following the action intently, completely focused on the proceedings and on her students’ interactions.

In every case, it seemed to me, the teachers’ control came from a clear set of objectives, high performance expectations, and personal confidence, not from a rigid set of rules and imposed penalties.

Years later, when I was required by my school district to write up my classroom policies and procedures—all the rules and the corresponding penalties—I complied with the request but told the students, orally and in writing, that the whole thing really boiled down to two concepts: Do Your Best and Respect Other People.

Of course, achieving effectiveness isn’t as simple as that sounds.

It starts with confidence.

My student teacher this past spring stood in front of her first class—9th grade—looking, frankly, terrified. The students, mostly boys, none of them “bad,” but all of them squirrely, wouldn’t sit still, talked when she talked, fidgeted with their papers and pens and books (if they’d brought them to class), dropped books on the floor, looked out the window—in short, did everything but sit tall in their seats and pay attention to the teacher. For her part, my student teacher wasn’t signaling that she ought to be paid attention to. Her voice was high, and when she spoke, she tripped along at record speed. She moved all over the place while she spoke to the students, and she constantly looked at me for reassurance or help. Her directions were vague and alarmist: “Don’t do that!” Exactly what the students shouldn’t do wasn’t clear.

In truth, she reminded me of myself in my very first teaching position.

Over the years I learned some tricks—the hard way—and was happy to pass them on to her. Things like:

• Lower your voice; don’t raise it. Students will have to be quiet to hear.
• Stand still when you talk to them—they’ll have only one place to look.
• Make your directions explicit: “Keep your hands on top of your desk and your feet on the floor under it.”
• Deal with disruptions immediately and in private. Most students who disrupt are really seeking attention. If you reprimand them in front of others, they have the audience they seek and will use it to cast you as the villain. Bend down and tell the student quietly what you expect. Even something as simple as changing a student’s seat can and should be done privately.
• Don’t engage in public debates about the purpose of a correction or the rightness or wrongness of one. It is what it is. Turn to the topic at hand. A student who wants to argue can certainly talk to you—after class.
• Don’t be afraid to call parents if a student has been disruptive. The failure isn’t yours: It’s the student’s. Most parents will be your allies, but they can’t help you out if they don’t know what’s going on. So what if the lesson wasn’t as good as it should have been? So what if your directions weren’t clear? Those aren’t reasons to tolerate disrespectful behavior. Parents won’t ask about the fine points of your instruction. They’ll ask what Johnny or Sally needs to do. Tell them.

Simple things like this, I learned by trial and error. Every one of these scenarios has happened to me—and it was discouraging at the beginning of my career to have to learn what to do, one agonizing crisis at a time. But every time I successfully handled a situation, my confidence increased. Eventually, I wasn’t afraid of my own shadow and wore my authority comfortably.

But it was a bumpy road to that confidence, so my sympathies were with my student teacher. Luckily, she was a quick learner and soon had the classroom under her control. She grew in confidence daily, and before long, she was ready to concentrate on other components of effective teaching. For her, too, discipline became as “simple” as Do Your Best and Respect Other People.

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