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Published in Print: September 15, 1999, as What Every New Teacher Should Know About Discipline

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What Every New Teacher Should Know About Discipline

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Daily discipline can be a real grind if a teacher doesn't have a good system.

No time in a teacher's career is more exhausting or exhilarating than the first year in the classroom. Late August is full of promise, learning, planning, and meetings. A new building to navigate, bulletin boards to create, staff names to remember, endless paperwork to fill out, and the gathering of supplies. But all this is simply a backdrop to the excitement and jitters of the first day with the kids. What will they be like? Will they like me? Will I like them? I hope my lesson plans will fill the time. Should I have gone to dental school as my father suggested? Few new teachers get much sleep the night before that first morning in September.

And oh what a day that first day turns out to be. The kids are great, the plans more than fill the time, everything goes smoothly. Tomorrow's lesson will be sure to include ... And the rest of that first week is more of the same: fun assignments, maximum participation, and laughter. Then on Tuesday of the second week, a student forgets her book. On Wednesday, somebody throws a crumpled piece of paper across the room at a friend during lecture. That Friday, a scuffle breaks out at the pencil sharpener, and Tuesday's child has forgotten her book yet again. Even these disruptions will seem minor by Halloween. What happened? What happened is that the honeymoon ended. Most students are simply not cooperative beings on a day-in, day-out basis. That first day, that first week, were the exception and not the rule. So, what's next? Next is the continuing, time-consuming task of keeping order while trying to teach as effectively as in those first few sunny days of autumn. For beginning teachers, this is complicated by the fact that they must learn how to quickly and accurately mete out justice without disrupting the educational process. That may not sound too difficult to those who have never had to do it before. But those with a few classroom miles under the belt know that daily discipline can be a real grind if a teacher doesn't have a good system.

What follows is an outline suggesting that three basic components form the foundation of every effective discipline system. Using an approach based on these components can aid any teacher in maintaining a well-run classroom and will help teachers carry the day when their discipline practices are called into question. And make no mistake: Anyone who spends a career teaching in public school classrooms will have his or her practices questioned.


Here, then, are the basics, with suggestions on how they might best be implemented:

  • Listen. Always let students tell their side of the story. This is essentially the classroom version of "due process under the law"--a hearing. It often can be done at the student's desk, the teacher's desk, or in the hallway. Sometimes, however, that's not possible--for example, in the middle of class. If there isn't time at the moment of the infraction, a teacher can ask the student to stay after class. In this way, the lesson can continue, and the student will usually understand why the request to remain is being made.

Staying after class to explain can itself be a punishment (or part of one), since socialization time between classes is a highly prized commodity among students. If, on the other hand, the student's explanation gives some justification for his act or clarification of whatever occurred, the time spent after class will represent to all concerned the student's "fair hearing" time--time that was obviously well worth spending, since it enabled the student to exonerate himself.

The key point is this: Even when a teacher is sure she knows what happened, every student should be given an opportunity to be heard before sentence is passed.

  • Be consistent. If there is a handmaiden to listening in the art of discipline, it is consistency. The single trait most likely to affect a teacher's level of respect and compliance from students is his or her ability to be consistent. No creatures on the planet have a more finely tuned sense of fairness than young people. (Ironically, this usually relates only to how they are being treated and not to how they are treating others.)

Consistency in discipline is the classroom version of "equal treatment under the law"--to be treated the same as anyone else would be. Most teachers have a set of classroom rules and the consequences for breaking them posted somewhere or written into the syllabus. First-year teachers sometimes get themselves into trouble either by neglecting to follow their own guidelines or by administering those rules and consequences unevenly. Once a teacher sets expectations (behavioral or otherwise), he must hold students consistently accountable to those expectations.

If teachers implement their rules with equal treatment for all, the only room for discussion in such meetings is over the rules themselves.

But the sword cuts both ways. Students have a right to expect that they will be held no more or less accountable than any other person in the class. Yet sometimes teachers find it tempting to let a misbehavior slide in the afternoon class of a long day or to treat a surly student just a little more harshly.

The most difficult way a teacher can learn the consistency lesson is to be called on it during a conference with students, parents, and the principal. If teachers implement their rules with equal treatment for all, the only room for discussion in such meetings is over the rules themselves. And there, the case can be made that, since the rule was known beforehand and had been implemented consistently, the only reason to argue against it is that a student has broken the rule and wishes to escape the consequences. If teachers are consistent, they will leave little room for arguments.

  • Know when to go higher. Sending students to the office is sometimes necessary, but first-year teachers often have a hard time knowing when. The front office represents the classroom version of going to "the court of appeals"--a second hearing by a disinterested third party. And this is the most difficult part of the classroom/courtroom analogy.

If a teacher sends students to the office too soon, over something small, her classes will perceive that she lacks the ability to control them. The perception may be shared by those in the front office, who may begin to question her classroom-discipline skills. If, on the other hand, a teacher waits too long to send a disruptive student to the office, some situations could become more nettlesome than they needed to be. The answer to "when" is probably best arrived at through experience, something that, by definition, a first-year teacher lacks.


To compensate for inexperience, new teachers can employ a number of tactics to gain insight. Most schools, for example, have handbooks for students and staff members that set forth the guidelines and policies for student behavior on campus. A first-year teacher would be well advised to read carefully both the teacher and student versions. (This will put the teacher at a distinct advantage, as most students never read their copy.) Another possible resource for beginning teachers is to find themselves a mentor, someone to discuss problems with and bounce ideas off at the end of the day. Many districts have programs that provide mentors for first-year teachers. But if an assigned mentor is not available, a young teacher needs to ask for assistance. Most veteran teachers love to share their knowledge.

Still another approach is for the first-year teacher to sit down with the principal, vice principal, or dean of students and talk about expectations. This is probably best done after the first few weeks of school are over, so that the new teacher has some "for instances" on which to base discussion.

Whether it is done by employing these or other means, gaining an understanding of when to use administrative personnel for help with discipline is critical for new teachers. Called upon at the right time, the people in the front office can be great partners, but misuse or overuse of the office in disciplinary matters will only make life harder for everyone involved.

The first year of teaching is always an education--and almost never easy. But a well-thought-out system of discipline, one that accents listening, consistency, and wise use of the office, will allow teachers and students to make the most of the instructional time available.


John E. Keating is a vice principal in Rathdrum, Idaho.

Vol. 19, Issue 2, Pages 51,54

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