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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Tune-Ups and Teachable Moments

By Peter DeWitt — January 13, 2012 4 min read
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Children are not supposed to be perfect all the time. Adults certainly aren’t!

When I was in seventh grade I had to go to the principal’s office. My early teenage brain had gotten the best of me and I was rude to a teacher, which is something that did not please my mom and I heard about it when I got home. The middle school principal was eight feet tall. Ok, maybe not eight feet but he was huge. The mere fact that I had to go see him made me cringe with fear. To be perfectly honest, I thought I was going to be sick.

The classroom where I made my grave mistake was on the second floor of Queensbury Middle School and the principal’s office was on the first floor. Every step down the stairs seemed to echo loudly. My knees buckled and the anticipation of what was about to happen was worse than what actually did take place. Going to the principal’s office was, and still is, an intimidating concept.

The principal talked at me for about five minutes, which seemed like an hour, and I left his office vowing never to get in trouble again. Although I never got sent to the principal’s office again until my senior year of high school, I did find trouble from time to time. Every child makes mistakes that they have to learn from.

As an elementary school principal, it’s interesting to me that students may leave my office feeling the same way that I did in seventh grade. Although I do have a couple of frequent flyers most of the kids who get sent to me need a tune-up. A tune-up just means that they made a mistake and need to be redirected toward better behavior. After all, if children can’t make mistakes in elementary school, where can they make them? Children are not supposed to be perfect all the time. Adults certainly aren’t! We sometimes treat students as though they are supposed to fit in a box when we’re supposed to be teaching them think out of it.

Many parents get embarrassed when their child gets sent to the office, which is human nature. However, they need to understand that everyone needs a tune-up from time to time...even the principal. Children need to know when they do something wrong but they shouldn’t have to pay for the deed forever. It’s natural for kids and adults to have bad days where they need someone to intervene and put them back on the right path.

Clearly there are times when students make grave mistakes the require suspension or expulsion, which can provide lessons on another level. If situations are not life threatening and there was not any malicious intent, the conversation between the student and the principal can be very helpful. Typically when a student is sent to the principal’s office every student in the classroom knows and many of them go home and tell their parents. It’s the gossip of the day and the adults have to be careful that children do not get a reputation as a trouble maker.

The Principal’s Office
The principal’s office has changed. Principals are a bit friendlier than people may remember and many are involved differently than they may have been in the past. They don’t walk through the halls looking for students to yell at. They actually enter classrooms and watch teachers and students engage with one another. The more they enter those classrooms the more they have the opportunity to get to know all the students in the building.

A typical administrative goal every year is to be visible. Being visible is common sense, after all everyone should be visible. If students see the principal than they may be better behaved because they do not know when the principal might pop around the corner. However, being a good principal is so much more than being visible. It’s being engaged with students that matters most. It’s being present in conversations with staff. It’s setting the tone for the school every day.

When students get sent to the office of a principal they respect and have engaged with, they are more likely to stop their bad behavior because the principal has rapport with them. A good principal builds relationships with their students and doesn’t ruin them through scare tactics. I always feel as though the only reason I left the classroom for the principal’s office is because I would have the opportunity to work with more students and get the chance to see great teaching every day.

In the End
Parents should not be nervous when the principal knows the name of their child. From time to time many students need a tune-up at the principal level, but that tune-up offers a learning opportunity for the students. They’re not going to stop the behavior because they got yelled at, although that might work sometimes. They’re going to stop the behavior because the principal had a chance to intervene and get the student to change their path.

Principals and students can have teachable moments. The teachable moment may have started off because of a bad reason but it can end positively with a good interaction. The point of making mistakes is to learn from them and not make the same mistake again. Finding a healthy balance between that feeling of not wanting to walk down the stairs from the second floor in junior high but having understanding that everyone makes mistakes is a good place to start.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.