Equity & Diversity Opinion

Should We Differentiate “Discipline?”

By John T. McCrann — October 26, 2016 6 min read
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Last year, around this time, I published a guest post by my colleague Myles Brawer in which he described his philosophy of “easing the sail” when it comes to guiding students’ behavior choices. Since then I’ve written a few more times about the way I think about social emotional learning (here and here for example) while continuing to write predominantly about making math and science instruction accessible to all students through differentiated curriculum and assessments. What I love about the following piece by my colleague in the New York Educator Voice Fellowship, Amber Chandler, is the way she braids together these two strands of the work that so many of us are doing every day. All teachers want our students to learn content. All teachers also want our students to learn how to be thoughtful and caring people. Amber’s idea is to apply the things we know about good teaching towards teaching students how to “be good.” The care she has for her students comes through in her vivid descriptions of them as well as in the thought she puts into every one of their interactions. I hope you enjoy her perspective as much as I have and that you’ll let us both know your thoughts on Twitter and in the comments. - JRTM

I have this horrible story.

So, once upon a time, about ten years ago, Kelsey was a bubbly, funny, social butterfly who also happened to be a good writer and avid reader. She had a problem though. Kelsey was late every day the first week of class. Perpetually. Kelsey’s class before mine was pretty far away, but without fail, just as I had finished attendance, taken my I’m-getting-ready-to-teach-big-breath, Kelsey would make a Kramer-like entrance, apologizing profusely. Second week of school: she’s still late every day. We had a little talk. By the end of the third week, middle school students have their schedule figured out and routes adjusted. Not Kelsey.

“Kelsey, why are you late? No, don’t tell me. I don’t care because you are late. Every. Single. Day. Enough is enough. If everyone else can get here, why can’t you? Go to the assistant principal.”

Kelsey burst into tears, and made an exit that rivaled anything she’d ever done on the way in the door. Kelsey did not get detentions. Kelsey got 100’s and lots of stars and checkmarks. This was not a girl who was going to understand how to look appropriately bored and detached in detention, and I was immediately remorseful that I had been so rough on this happy-go-lucky twelve year old. The more I imagined her in detention with her Minnie Mouse t-shirt (I’m not making that up), the more I worried that I was scarring her for life. I wanted to just drop the whole thing. But, back then, I had one little problem: I was fair.

When you are fair, as I was back then, I had to dole out the same punishment for every child. Over time, I found myself more and more uncomfortable with this approach, but somehow being accused of not being UNfair was enough to keep me from making any changes. What finally happened?

Differentiation is what happened. Academically, I had come to see the importance of meeting students where they were, personalizing my approach, and allowing choice. You might say I took Differentiation to the extreme as I launched a project based classroom a few years ago where I now act much more as an educated facilitator than the boss of any room. Yet, for many years, Differentiation was an academic concept, and for almost everyone I know, it still is. In the last year, as I wrote The Flexible ELA Classroom, I came to realize that there was a layer of Differentiation that doesn’t seem to be occurring, and that is in the realm of social emotional learning. Why would I think that meeting kids where they were was a good thing academically without logically knowing that the whole child requires more than academic Differentiation, the whole child requires flexibility?

If, like me, you have that “F” word, fair, stuck in your thought loop when you consider handling even the most minor behaviors from children, here is how I’ve come to accept that there is a need for a Flexible Classroom, one where teachers Differentiate for children academically, socially, and emotionally. This is a whatever-it-takes approach, but I think the results are worth the additional scaffolding up front. How can we go wrong when pouring our time and attention into a child’s well-being anyway?

Problem Solve, Don’t Punish

Sometimes, the problem isn’t really a discipline issue, but rather an issue of responsibility, maturity, or
development. I’ve written about this idea recently, in “Let’s Stop Grading Students on Responsibility, and it evoked quite a bit of conversation. The reason is that many teachers are unwilling to consider that fair is not usually appropriate — in the sense that so many of us think about it (everyone receives the same punishment for the same infraction). Most teachers I know understand and implement Differentiation on some level, but this behavioral component seems to be a sticking point. I’m wondering, and I’d love to know what others are thinking, that this social emotional frontier is the last stronghold because we are such a “law and order” society where we expect fair to be the primary factor in considering punishment? The next time you feel you may need to “lay down the law,” try to see where a problem exists, not an infraction.

Just last week, a substitute left me a note complaining about a student’s behavior. I looked, first thinking that she had the wrong kiddo, next thinking I hadn’t learned last names well, and finally realizing that there must be something that I don’t know. I knew this child as one who behaved in a respectful, clever, and polite way. At that moment, it became clear: this student had acted the exact same way with a substitute as he normally does in our class. He does make funny comments, and he is a little bit of a showman. But I love his positive energy and enthusiasm as well, so we have struck a balance. This substitute had no way of knowing that this student was being himself, but the context was different. My guess is my student didn’t see it that way either, rather he was just being himself.

My “rule” is that if a substitute teacher ever complains about you by name, you need a meeting, with our assistant principal, and likely detention. Even as I write that, I’m shaking my head. How can I be so naive? So, there I was last week, actually considering if this was trip to the assistant principal’s office was fair punishment, for an infraction that the student most likely didn’t even understand. I overcame my fear of being unfair, and instead had a conversation with this boy. It was quiet, and ended with him saying:

“Thank you Mrs. Chandler for not writing me up. I didn’t know that she wouldn’t understand that I am funny. But, that makes sense. Next time, I’ll just be boring when there is a substitute.”

While encouraging boring-ness wasn’t my goal of course, I think we are on the right track, not sobbing through a detention, convinced that the only way a situation can be “handled” is by punishment. Please don’t miss the point: these are small stories, but they are real stories, and though they don’t cut to the serious matters of institutional power or disenfranchisement, they do speak to the everyday decisions most teachers make. I’m not arguing to drop disciplinary consequences, but I am suggesting that in a Flexible Classroom—a place committed to Differentiate academically, socially, and emotionally—we first seek to solve the problem before we dole out the punishment.

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