School Climate & Safety Opinion

School Leaders as Guardians of School Culture Via Student Discipline

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 16, 2017 4 min read
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Student discipline is defined in Codes of Conduct and lives within schools’ culture. School leaders and boards of education with input from school attorneys and others develop Codes of Conduct. They reveal and inform the belief system of the adults responsible for supporting appropriate conduct of the students each and every day. Discipline begins in classrooms and, if necessary, progresses outward. In most districts, the discipline buck stops in the principal’s or the assistant principal’s office. In larger districts it is possible for the person responsible for discipline may be further away from the leader’s office. No matter where and by whom discipline is handled, the responsibility for school culture remains in the hands of the leader and those who share leadership.

Schools, Rules, Discipline, and Learning

Rules are developed in schools to protect a civil and respectful environment, and a safe one. In the effort to keep the environment civil, respectful, and safe, expedience permits swift action. In many cases, this swift action results in appropriate punishment. A message is sent to the student and those who witnessed the infraction that the behavior will not be tolerated. If it works, then the civil, respectful, and safe environment returns to the balance that existed before the infraction. The lesson learned is that a particular behavior is unacceptable and that to repeat it is not worth the punishment.

But what happens when that isn’t the way it goes? What does it mean when the flow into the office of whomever is responsible for discipline is constant with new referrals as well as repeat ones? When managing one’s responsibilities, it is not uncommon to continue doing the job that has always been done, dealing with each situation as it comes. When leading, however, there must be another option at work.

Punishment is Not a Good Teacher

Children either follow rules or don’t. It is in the manner in which they are handled that learning is vital. Punishment is not a good teacher. Discipline holds potential for aiding in the development of civil responsibility. We need that and so do our children. Viewing the videos of graduating college students turning their backs and booing their commencement speaker Education Secretary Betsy DeVos raises a question. When will we begin to see this behavior in our high schools? Turning their backs did little harm but it surely caused distress. There is a societal shift in behavior and it will most certainly find its way into schools. Where is the place of free speech in schools and how do we walk the line to protect free speech and to maintain the environment that is safe and civil. We think back to the sixties when civil disobedience spread across the country.

Now is the time for questioning the standards for behavior and discipline, renewing a common belief and practice among the faculty and staff. It seems more important now than ever that we remain on top of the education of our students, not only academic education, but the civic education. We are teaching young people how to behave in the enclosed environment of schools, in preparation for their lives as adults in the larger society. Punishment may seem effective in the short term and it may be necessary, but it can also create a divide. Punishment absent supportive counsel can alienate and, in turn, result in the opposite outcome than intended.

Is it possible to suspend a student, for example, and protect their relationships and connections to teachers and administrators? It is important to protect those relationships while following the discipline code, even for the most serious infractions. Are students receiving referrals in certain areas of the building? At certain times? From certain people? Engaging students in their learning and in school activities helps to develop and protect those relationships the prevent rule breaking. A biblical reference that we all know to be true is Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. It is surely a time to double down and recommit attention to the living demonstration of school values.


There is a balance to be managed between keeping the environment safe from rule breaking and keeping the environment safe from broken relationships. Educating all students means keeping all students engaged and connected. Our thoughts turn to the little 8 year old boy in Cincinnati who recently committed suicide. We cannot judge the leaders there but we can call into question whether to trust an 8 year old who is severely injured to tell adults whether he fainted or was assaulted. We do know a life was lost way too soon. We also know that something bad happened to a child in a bathroom. It is an all too familiar story. We also know there is at least one other young child out there who crossed all kinds of lines and needs intervention soon.

Leaders and School Culture

School leaders are the guardians of the school culture. Student discipline is a most valuable informant of the state of the school’s culture. The safety of the school is only one of the reasons discipline is important. Make no mistake about it, learning and behavior are interconnected indicators of the quality and effectiveness of the school culture. Whether they are 8 years old, or high schoolers or college graduates, leaders define what behaviors are acceptable form them.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration by Felix Pergande courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.