One of the significant conflicts in school and in our homes is the balance of being fair and equitable. I have often heard over the years that a student’s punishment is not enough or it was not fair. I am a firm believer that each situation is different, and we cannot always apply rules and discipline universally. Consistency is important in disciplining, but empathy plays a role too. In order for students to learn they need to understand the value in what we are teaching them or in this case why they are being disciplined; The goal is to positively change behavior it is not always about enforcing a rule.
What is fair and equitable?
What is the goal of disciplining a student or a child?
What is the outcome?
What will the impact be?
Will it change behavior?
What caused this behavior?
Is what I am seeing caused by trauma?
These are some of the questions I would ask myself when handling discipline issues. Some could not be answered or the outcome was not always predictable. Often times when the student felt safe enough to tell their story, the answers came.
It was a warm June night; the wind just started to blow. The seniors were excited. The year was 2000, and it was graduation night. I was one of the class advisors for the Class of 2000 and many of these students I had known for four years. Walking across the basketball courts, I smiled at the students, high fived and got and gave hugs. The energy was building as we prepared to walk out to the field. Tears were already starting for some. Graduation! Such a surreal and traditional event. Years of school, classes, projects, all coming together in one night. The year 2000 made it that much more special.
I was talking to a group of boys, laughing, giving exuberant hugs. Doug, a muscular “wakeboarding” senior, had just set me down from a hug, he was emotional and trying not to show it. His friend had just died recently from a tragic accident out of state. It was an endearing moment from a young man who was a mix of emotions. “Doug, come here,” I heard as I turned to look as I was walking away. The interim principal had walked up and wanted to talk to Doug about his cap. She proceeded to tell him to take off the symbol he had attached to it. The rule was caps and gowns could not be “decorated.” I had no time to react. Doug started yelling, he was swearing, he was mad. I quickly stood between him and the principal, and I asked him to breathe and assured him “it will be okay.” At that point, she proceeds to tell him he had a choice to follow the rules and remove the cap or not walk. Doug tried to explain it was his friend’s symbol, his brand, it represented everything about him. I began to negotiate, but my efforts fell on deaf ears. She pulled me away and told me it was a “teaching moment.” That it was necessary to enforce the rules. Doug pointed to every student whose cap was decorated. I looked at her and repeated what Doug had said. “Are you going to have all of them change their caps?” She repeated it was a “teaching moment” and that I needed to support the rules. I simply said, “all you taught Doug was you don’t care and rules are more important than his loss.” She said something else and my frustrations filled my ears instead. I then said, “I don’t know what your goal is here, but you have other students to talk to,” as I pointed at some student body officers with decorated caps.
Doug, still upset, got back in line, and we walked to the field. Speeches were given, and diplomas were handed out. Later that night he came over to me hugged me and thanked me for not letting him punch the principal. I apologized to him and told him that I was sorry. What else could I say or do? It was an ethical dilemma for me. This person was my boss, and I thought the rule was pointless. I valued Doug, and I agreed with him. I also think he put his friend’s symbol back on his cap when she couldn’t see him or get to him.
“Stop being a critic and be a light; don’t be a judge, be a model. I think we are far too critical. I think the best way to correct behavior is to accentuate and affirm positive behavior and to ignore negative behavior. Generally speaking, there is a time to correct, of course; but my biggest advice would be, Affirm your child.” — Sean Covey
Sean Covey is right, there is a time for correction. Graduation tonight was not that night. Doug’s pain needed to be affirmed, and consoled. Honoring someone’s feeling and showing empathy, not apathy, that’s what Doug needed that night. Sometimes you have to ask why do we have this rule? Why is it in place, who is it supporting? If it is not keeping kids safe or supporting their academics, then why do we have it? Is it equitable or is it targeting someone, not something? These are questions I find myself repeating in my current role. What behavior were we trying to change?
There was a teaching moment, but it was missed. Doug wanted to honor his friend. What he was taught was only some are allowed to break a rule. He learned those in power can exercise their power over someone else. Nothing on the cap was indecent, rude, or derogatory. At that moment I was reminded of stopping and listening to hear both sides of the story. I often told students in my office as a principal, “I will always hear you out.” An assumption was made that night that Doug was breaking a rule simply to be breaking it. That night I saw what he was doing as connecting a significant event in his life with a friendship that meant a great deal to him. I saw Doug recently, he is a police officer; he picked me up and gave me a giant hug as we reunited (I had just set off the alarm to my school). I find great irony in the fact that Doug is a police officer today enforcing rules and the interim principal today…. I have no idea. 🙂
With something to think about…..
Your Friend Chris