Friday, August 28, 2015

It’s Your Show—Run It

Learning can’t take place in chaos or disorganization. It’s just that simple. Learning, one of the most difficult of all human activities, demands an orderly and sane environment. It requires focus, attention, and concentration.

I’ve always contended that the administration and faculty of a school can control any school, no matter how difficult, if the right leadership and procedures are in place. Discipline isn’t the most glamorous subject in teaching, but it’s one we can’t afford to overlook. And before you commit yourself to working for a school, you need to know how that school is run—or how it’s not.

Sensing the Atmosphere of a School

As you interview for a position or simply scout a school out, look around and see what behaviors the kids and faculty are exhibiting. See what kinds of activities the kids can get away with. Specifically, look for these indicators:

--Does the school let the kids wear hats? Are any gang symbols displayed on these     hats?
--Is there evidence of vandalism (graffiti, etc.) on display?
--Are the lovebirds cuddling, hugging, and making out in the halls?
--Are kids running around in t-shirts that display sexually suggestive messages, drug references, or the logos of beer and hard liquor brands?
--Are the kids dressed in revealing or decidedly immodest clothing?
--Are acts of intimidation taking place with impunity?
-- Is profanity being tossed around freely?
--Are the teachers nowhere to be seen in the halls between classes?
--Is there a complete absence of deans or other supervisory figures to watch the kids?

If the answer to at least three of these questions is yes, you may need to reconsider your job application. (If you answer yes to all of these questions, run, don’t walk, to get out of there.) I know you need a job, but you don’t need a school that basically lets the kids run the show. If you are interviewed for a position at any school, you’d do well to ask about the disciplinary procedures and the degree to which teachers can expect the school’s support in maintaining order.

If you have accepted a position at a school, you should immerse yourself in…

Your School’s Disciplinary Procedures

Explaining the school’s disciplinary procedures to the new faculty members should be one of your administration’s first tasks during your orientation period. I happen to come from a school where the disciplinary procedures are very well laid out, and the school has a reputation for firmness. Your school might organize these matters like this:

Principals or Assistant Superintendents. They keep track of the general flow of discipline reports; sometimes they are called in to deal with particularly thorny problems. “Being sent to the Principal” is still a big deal in some schools.

The Head Dean or Chair of the Discipline Committee. This is the person who is ultimately responsible for supervising law and order in the school. (See Chapter 25.)

Deans. These folks are teachers who walk around the school before or after school and at selected times during the day. They also supervise common areas (like cafeterias) and run the detentions after school. They also generally supervise school activities.

Teachers: In charge of classrooms, of course, but also expected to watch the kids in the hallway between classes and come to the assistance of other teachers if the need arises.

In effect, the administration and the teachers in a well-run school form a cohesive and mutually supportive team. To put it more plainly, we all have our disciplinary roles, and we all watch each others’ backs.

An intelligently organized and well-run school lets the kids know the score right from the start. A school should have a handbook that lays out all the rules and regulations. If yours does, familiarize yourself with its provisions thoroughly. The act of giving kids a hard copy of the rules is important; if they violate one of them, they can’t argue they were never told about it. Some schools may even have student orientation assemblies at the start of the school year to remind the kids of what the behavioral expectations are.

Every school with which I’m familiar requires the kids to have an ID card. The possession of such a card is important, especially in these days of heightened awareness of school security. The ID (as you all remember from your own high school days) generally has a picture and the kid’s ID number and year in school. (It may have a bus route number as well.)  Some schools require that the ID card be displayed at all times, which I think is a pretty good idea. (People in the private sector generally do, so why not?)

A School’s Rules and the Philosophy Behind Them

A sensibly organized school generally adheres to rules similar to these:

--Students are expected to respect teachers and other school officials and comply with their (legal) orders. Any defiance of this is considered insubordination.
--Students are expected to conduct themselves responsibly when riding on the school’s transportation.
--Students should dress in an appropriate way for school. This, by the way, has been an area in which the courts have occasionally had to step in. Unless you are teaching at a private school, the kids can pretty much have their hair at any length and wear most items of clothing, within reason. But school administrations do have the right to prohibit clothing that would disrupt the atmosphere of the school, such as kids wearing clothing with obscenities written on it, and there are limits to the amount of skin a kid can display in school. Some schools with severe discipline problems have found it both necessary and beneficial to require school uniforms, which isn’t a bad idea.
-- Students are generally not allowed to eat or drink in areas other than the cafeteria. (In hot weather, a school might—and in my opinion, should—allow the kids to drink water in class.)
-- Students may not at any time possess any controlled substance, alcohol, or tobacco while on the school grounds. They can’t have non-controlled drugs (like aspirin) unless given specific permission. (Personally, however, some of the “zero tolerance” policies of certain schools are absurd. There are kids who have been suspended in the United States for possessing an asthma inhaler, which can be the difference between life and death. I hope your school is more rational than that.)
-- Students may not at any time possess a weapon of any kind, or ammunition for a weapon. (This is a big one.)
--Students may not engage in fighting on the school’s property. (A reasonable proviso here is allowing at least minimal self-defense if a kid is assaulted by another kid.)
--Students may not engage in public displays of physical affection, although different schools have different tolerances for this than others.
--Students must be on time to both school and to class.
--Students may not damage, deface, or destroy school property.
--Students cannot violate a teacher’s class rules and cannot disrupt either their own or any other class.
--Students may not bully, harass, intimidate, or otherwise threaten other students, verbally or physically. This of course includes all forms of sexual harassment.

And of course, all the usual laws that govern our conduct are in effect in the school as well. (By the way, kids do not have the same expectation of privacy that adults do in the area of searches and seizures. Their lockers can be searched at any time, for example. The lockers are the school’s property—not theirs.)

So why all the rules? Your kids will often complain about these restrictions, especially if your school is strict in enforcing them. Here’s what you need to tell them:

--The people of the community are paying for the school. They expect it to carry out its job. In order for a school to carry out its job, there have to be rules that limit everyone’s behavior.
--There are (500, 1000, 2000, 3000 or whatever) kids in this school. Would you really want to go to a school where there were no rules at all? (If you’ve ever read the book or seen the movie Lord of the Flies, this is a good analogy.) Who would run this place inside of three days time if the school didn’t enforce the rules?
--The school is legally obligated to protect your safety. Half the school’s rules are aimed at that objective alone.
--We’re trying to maintain a certain atmosphere here. This isn’t a party, this isn’t your home, this isn’t a social occasion. This is a place for education. We’re here to do something really important, and we need to have everyone focused on that.

You’d be surprised; the vast majority of kids accept this reasoning when it’s presented to them calmly and clearly. Communicate this to them: the rules aren’t here to hurt you or make your life harder—they’re here to protect you and provide an atmosphere where you can learn and get a diploma. And although they’d sooner watch C-Span than admit it, the average kid is grateful for a school that maintains a fair and disciplined atmosphere.

You’ll notice that I’ve emphasized the word fair in the previous paragraph. What are the elements of a truly fair school-wide disciplinary policy?

--Fair warning and information about the school’s rules disseminated to every student in clear and unambiguous terms.
--No favoritism; no prejudice. Popular kids who break the rules deserve no more consideration or leniency than anyone else. Even if a kid is a star athlete and it’s just before the big game, if he breaks the rules, he should get the punishment—including, if necessary, suspension from playing. By the same token, just because a kid is unpopular or short-fused doesn’t mean we should come down on him or her any harder than anyone else. Equal treatment for everyone!
--A chance for kids to defend themselves during any disciplinary procedures.
--Efficient notification of parents and a chance for them to have their input.
--Professionalism in the assigning of sanctions. Discipline should be imposed calmly and dispassionately, not in the heat of anger.
--Reasonable punishments for reasonable infractions.
--A chance for a kid to be considered “rehabilitated” and fully reintegrated into the school community.

Of immediate concern to you is your ability to maintain control of the classroom so as to keep the learning process moving forward. What state of mind is required to accomplish these formidable tasks?

The Attitude You Need to Have

--You’ve got to be determined. You’re there for a reason.
--You need to look and act strong and confident, even if you don’t feel it so much.
--You’ve got to set it in your mind that you have a job to do, and nothing is going to stand in your way of doing it.
--You have worth as a person. You have dignity. You have a strong sense of self.
--You are an adult. You deserve to be listened to and obeyed, and you won’t have it any other way.
--You are worthy of respect. You have earned your teaching position. You are proud of what you have achieved.
--You are in charge. You’re the boss in your room.

You might think I’m engaging in overkill here, but rest assured, I’m not. This is how you’ve got to think of yourself and the situation you’re in. Many young teachers find out the hard way that high school classes aren’t like the friendly, cooperative, academically rich classes of their junior and senior years at the university. Many of the kids in a high school class are indifferent or hostile and, as I’ve pointed out, not really very big on being there at all. Their lack of cooperation and their immaturity are jolting if you’re not prepared for it. (I sure wasn’t my first year.) So let’s look at what it takes to run the show at the classroom level.

In Your Classroom: The First Day of Class is Crucial

I can’t emphasize this enough. You have to take charge of your classroom from day one.  You’ve got to start strong. You need to be organized, efficient, and all business. You must have all the necessary handouts prepared and ready to distribute. You should have already practiced the pronunciation of the kids’ names for when you take roll the first time. (Some of the kids’ names are doozies, by the way, and you want to get these names as right as you can.) You will want to have a seating chart prepared. Above all, you must tolerate no indiscipline of any kind. If someone is talking while you are, or otherwise not being attentive, don’t ignore it. Stop and do something about it. A phrase like, “When I’m speaking I expect everyone to be quiet” or “Young man (woman), when I’m talking, you’re listening”, directed specifically at the offender, in a firm voice, sends a message. You’re not there to befriend the kids on the first day—you’re there to establish the goals and boundaries of the class.

What kinds of activities should comprise the first day of class?

1. Take roll. Insist on quiet as you do so.
2.  Assign seats.
3.  Introduce yourself. Be brief.
4.  Introduce the course; explain what the course’s goals are and what, in general, the class will be talking about this year (or this semester).
5.  Hand out the course syllabus and expectations guide. Go through the class’s rules and procedures item by item. Let there be no ambiguity whatsoever about your expectations. Let it be clear that you expect everyone to adhere to the class’s rules 100% of the time. Let it further be known that you will enforce the school’s rules and regulations to the letter.
6.  If necessary, distribute 4 x 6 note cards and on them have the kids write their name, their parents’ names, their parents’ home phone numbers, and the parents’ work phone numbers. This will send a definite message.
7.   If there is time, have the kids introduce themselves by name.
8.  Even better, if there is time, assign homework. Yes, assign homework on the first day of class. This also conveys a definite message: This teacher is in charge. This teacher means business.

Now I realize that this seems a little overly strict to some of you. I assure you, it isn’t. Later, when things in your classroom are running smoothly, you’ll be glad you started out strong.

A former Superintendent of mine had good advice for avoiding disciplinary problems in the classroom: A well-planned lesson is your best preventative measure against discipline problems. He was right. Have a definite goal and a definite method of getting there. It works wonders, as you’ll see.


Someone may have told you that you deal with disruptive students by ignoring their behavior, by not “reinforcing” them by calling attention to the disruption. This is so utterly and preposterously false that I don’t have words adequate to describe its absurdity. You deal with disruptive behavior by stepping on it immediately. You only have so much time in a period. Students who are being deliberately obnoxious are violating the rights of other students and you cannot—cannot—tolerate that and retain any professional integrity. You run the class because you are the only person in the room qualified to do so. Period.

Disruptions come in all forms. The most common ones are:
--Talking in class while the instructor is talking.
--Talking out of turn or when not called on. (Exception: calling out answers or comments that are pertinent to a discussion may be OK if not overdone.)
--Engaging in some annoying repetitive behavior (tapping, hitting an object, etc.) that interrupts the class’s work.
--Gestures or body language intended to provoke or amuse other kids.

You don’t have to make a federal case out of every minor noise a kid makes. But you do need to take action when someone is interrupting you or otherwise deflecting your class from its vital work. If you let disruptions go, they tend to worsen and spread. When a kid disrupts class, stop and look directly at them, and tell them in no uncertain terms to knock it off (if not exactly in those terms). They may resent it for a while. They’ll get over it.


As I indicated in Chapter 9, a lot of kids are tired all the time. However, you are not obligated to provide nap time for kids. A kid who’s sleeping in class is showing disrespect both to you and the rest of the class, and you can’t have that. Wake any sleeping kid up immediately. If the kid is a repeat offender, a phone call home would be a good idea. If the problem persists, use your school’s disciplinary procedures to get the kid’s attention. This will sound harsh, but a kid’s fatigue and lack of sleep are his or her problem—not yours. Don’t put up with it; if you do, other kids will start to regard your class as naptime as well.

Dealing With Fights

A fight in your class doesn’t simply erupt out of nowhere. A good teacher is cognizant of situations that threaten to get out of control and stops them before they reach critical mass. Sometimes, however, smoldering anger explodes right in front of you without warning, either in the halls (most commonly) or in the classroom. When it does, you need to think fast:

--If the kids fighting are physically small enough for you to break up by yourself, place yourself directly between them immediately and loudly demand an end to the fight.
--If the kids are too big for you to handle (and some high school kids are) get help immediately. Two or three other teachers may be necessary to restore order.
--If a weapon has been produced, call your school’s main office at once. Don’t try to be a hero. If a kid’s life is in immediate danger however, you may have to intervene. (I hope this never comes up for you, but it has on occasion in some schools.)
--Once a fight has been broken up, personally hand the combatants over to a dean or escort them to the school’s disciplinary office. The officials will take it from there.
--You will probably be asked to fill out a disciplinary report on the incident.
--If an injury has occurred to one of the kids, you may be asked to answer questions posed by a law enforcement officer or an attorney.
--And note this: fights between girls can be just as savage and bitter as those between boys. Don’t think you won’t need help in breaking up a female fight.

Dealing With Insubordination

Insubordination occurs whenever a kid refuses to comply with a lawful request on the part of a staff member. It also occurs when a kid insults or otherwise verbally abuses a staff member. The immediate imposition of a disciplinary referral may be warranted, as well as kicking the offending kid out of class. There is no reason on earth you should tolerate insubordination as long as what you have told a kid to do is legally defensible. Period.

When You Have to Remove a Kid From Class

Your options, depending on your school, may vary. Here are some common ones:

--Putting the kid in the hallway.
--Putting the kid in an office supervised by other teachers (but only if they consent to this).
--Escorting a kid to the Dean’s office. (This would be for big infractions.)

I favor putting a kid in the hall, isolated from other kids, if you need to remove them. When the opportunity arises, you chew the kid out for the infraction for which he or she has been removed in a one on one situation. Remember, as a general rule for dealing with problems, the old teacher saying is still valid: Praise in public, criticize in private.

And what do you say? Explain clearly why you’ve ejected the kid. And afterward, let him or her know how it is and how it’s going to be. Here are some examples:

-- “When you act like this, you get me angry and you force me to respond. And I will—every time.”
--“Your conduct isn’t going to be tolerated.”
--“I expect an apology from you before you set foot in my class again.”
-- “We have work to do and you’re disrupting it.”
--“You have one option: straighten up.”
-- “This is my show, young man [woman]. Things in my room are done my way, and that’s that.”
--“There will be detentions because of this; next time, there will be more.”

Common Punishments for Violations of School Rules

Referrals to Guidance Counselors; Warnings. This is the mildest form of giving a kid an official reprimand. This method is usually used for minor, low level, chronic misbehavior.

Detentions. The old classic of making a kid stay after school. If your school’s administration is on the ball, the students all know, beyond a shadow of a doubt the ways in which they can be assigned detentions. Typical offenses for which detentions can be assigned tend to fall into the following categories:

·        Failure to have identification.
·        Using obscenities, either written or verbal.
·        Eating in class.
·        Excessive tardiness to class.
·        Excessive incidence of being late for school.
·        Harassment; categories include physical, verbal, and/or sexual harassment.
·        Insubordination to a teacher or other school official.
·        Cheating
·        Disrupting class
·        Ditching class

 In-School Suspension. A student is compelled to spend a long, boring day working on schoolwork in an atmosphere of complete silence and isolation. Used for more serious offenses, such as fighting or deliberately damaging another kid’s property.

Out of School Suspension. Assigned for several days, this is the school equivalent of house arrest, although personally I think it’s more like a minor vacation for those on whom it’s imposed.

Expulsion. The most drastic of the school’s legal weapons, this requires (in my state at least) a hearing before the district’s Board of Education. Expulsions tend to be automatic for such infractions as possession of illegal or unauthorized drugs; possession of a weapon; repeated incidents of fighting or assault; physical attacks on members of the staff; and possession and transference of stolen property on school grounds. This is a pretty serious affair. The school has to arrange for some form of alternative schooling during the period of the expulsion.  (Some school districts maintain permanent schools for chronically disruptive and nasty kids.)

Really Bad Methods of Discipline

Hitting or otherwise manhandling a student. Corporal punishment is now widely forbidden or frowned upon. In addition to straight out punches, grabbing and shaking a kid, ramming them up against a wall, or otherwise inflicting bodily harm are forbidden. (Exception: self-defense.)

Swearing at a student. Kids can make you unbelievably furious at times, but you should avoid using obscenities when dealing with them.

Public humiliation. A school asks for legal trouble if it uses such methods (for example, having a kid stand outside in the rain for misbehavior, especially in clear view of other students.)

Working or exercising a kid into exhaustion. The risks of inflicting injury from doing so just aren’t worth the lesson taught.

From all we’ve discussed in this chapter, you might conclude that high school is a constant battleground. It isn’t. Most kids are good human beings, and a kid can make a mistake or screw up in class and still not be a bad person. Our discipline must be fair, consistent, calmly applied, and clearly explained. The procedures necessary to provide an orderly and safe environment for the kids may cause them to grumble—but in the end, most of them are grateful that we kept the school a sane place for them.

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