Discipline is not a four-letter word

Somewhere along the way the word discipline has, for some, become a four-letter word.  Isn’t discipline a good thing?  Don’t I need discipline to sustain a habit, change my lifestyle, or excel at anything I do.  Isn’t it important that I learn self-discipline so I can monitor my own progress toward any goal.  If I don’t have it or know what it looks like, isn’t it important that I have someone to help guide me there? Now, I know that’s probably not what is often meant when people use the term discipline, but therein lies the problem.  If by discipline you mean punishment then say punishment.  Living in the world of connotation opens the door to misunderstandings even when we actually agree.

I don’t want to move “beyond discipline”; I want discipline, self-regulation and self-control…and I want it for my students.  I certainly want to move “beyond punishment” to engage in more meaningful dialogue to assist students in understanding where things went wrong, how they can restore their relationships, and how to avoid making the same mistake again.

For schools, discipline plans or systems should be designed as instruments of support & inclusion, NOT removal and isolation. The focus should be on teaching what is socially acceptable within the given context and helping students learn what is and is not appropriate. Students are greatly influenced by the parameters outlined by the adults they interact with and are taught, both directly and indirectly, what is socially acceptable. Do we not celebrate coaches who can instill a disciplined atmosphere within their team? Do students not need discipline to prevent themselves from reacting inappropriately while emotionally charged?

Discipline is a good thing; the misuse of discipline – or mistaking punishment for discipline –  doesn’t render the idea of discipline inappropriate or ineffective. Effective school discipline brings a sense of belonging, an atmosphere of inclusion, a feeling of predictability, and a climate of respect.

I Trust your Intentions

Over the better part of the last decade I have had the good fortune of presenting in schools & school districts, and at a variety of workshops & conferences across North America. The topics have varied, but the message has always been similar: Some things in our system need to change or improve and here are some ways in which I think we can accomplish that goal.

Anyone who knows me knows that my presentation style is fairly direct, clear, honest, and focused on what I perceive to be the job at hand.  I believe what I believe, I try to show credible research and examples of why I believe it, and help others understand what it might look like if applied within their context.  Even as a school leader, I’ve never been one to avoid having the conversations, debating the merits of an issue, or guiding someone to feel compelled to move in what I think is the more appropriate direction.

With all of that, there is one thing I try to avoid at all costs and that is questioning a teacher’s intent and telling them how wrong their career has been up until that moment.

I trust your intentions.

While I might not agree with you and we may – fundamentally – have a completely different view of what is best for our students, I try to avoid being right by proving how wrong you are. I believe that every teacher has the students’ best interest at heart. Whether it is how you develop a positive school climate, how you support students with behavioural challenges, how you assess, grade, and report student progress, or design the instructional experiences for your students, I believe that you believe it is the most effective way to maximize learning. Again, I might not agree with you, but to question your intent, for me, crosses the line. I want what I believe to stand on its own and not rely on simply being the best of the worst; teachers are not inspired by that.

Occasionally, and especially on twitter, I come across 140 character attacks that question the intent of people who have dedicated their careers to teaching and supporting their students.  Words such as malpractice, dangerous, control, power, manipulative, bribery, conspire, and coerce, are thrown around (I’m guessing) for their definitiveness and their shock value.  Bribery as an example, is about coercing people to act in an illegal or immoral way; I don’t know any teachers who do that. It’s easy to have keyboard courage but it’s something else to look people in the eye and inspire them to learn, move, or grow. I’ve come to know – and have experienced several times firsthand – that you don’t need to browbeat people and put them on the defensive in order to create the optimum conditions for change and growth.  Browbeating people through inflammatory language only serves to expose our own insecurities about our convictions, create animosity, and drive people away from the messenger who, in fact, may have a compelling message worth listening to.

Questioning teacher’s intentions cuts to their character and none of us – none – are fully qualified to judge that invisible entity.  I believe many things in our system do need to change and/or evolve, BUT I also believe that 99.99% of the teachers, administrators, district staff, support workers, custodians, secretaries, etc. are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the students in our schools.

Push their thinking, challenge their widely held beliefs, and show them there is a more effective way and they might just feel compelled to listen and follow. Attacking their character and questioning their intent will only lead to them tuning you out and to you becoming white noise.