Superheros, Superegos, and Student Discipline

cc flickr photo by brettjordan

How we treat our best students shows our aspirations; how we treat our most challenging students shows our values.  ~ Mendler and Curwin

This past Friday, an incident occurred at school that had me seeing red.  While supervising in the cafeteria during the lunch period, I was asked by our one of our cafeteria staff members to address a group of boys who had been leaving trash on their table, and arguing with one of our lunchroom monitors when asked to clean up the mess.

When I caught up with the boys, near the center of campus, they immediately began to provide a litany of excuses, and one particular student began to argue that he had done nothing wrong.  I asked the boys to go into the administrative building where we could speak privately.  This is where things began to go wrong.  One of the boys began moving in the direction of my office, while the other continued to chirp about his innocence stating, loud enough for all in the area to hear, that he didn’t need to go into the office.  When I heard a few directed barbs of profanity, I lost it.

Those who know me would likely describe me as relatively calm and even keeled.  It is unusual for me to become visibly upset, but this student had managed to push the right buttons.  In spite of knowing better, I fired back, with a raised voice, demanding that the student get in the office or face a suspension.  A few seconds, and several regretful statements, later (with some encouragement from our school resource officer) the student was in my office shouting about how I had “pissed” him off, while I angrily pulled up a copy of the student conduct referral, intent on sending him home for the remainder of the school year.

But as I sat at my desk, looking at the student sitting across from me – eyes down, refusing to face me – I realized that in spite of his disrespectful attitude and defiant behavior, I was the one who had made the mistake.  I consider my ability to work with at-risk youth to be a strength, but on this particular day I failed.  I allowed the issue to become personal and pride got in the way of effective decision-making.  I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that even at this point, I considered going ahead with the suspension.  After all, the student had been disrespectful, had used profanity, and displayed open defiance in front of other students.  I couldn’t allow that to happen.  Right?

But then I made a decision to end the cycle of poor decisions (both mine and the students) and I apologized.  It was not easy, but I think it was the right thing to do.  Taking the first step, opened the door to a conversation, which lead to some reflection by the student, and eventually to a certain degree of contrition and a plan for handling things more appropriately in the future.

As relevance would have it, I have been reading Discipline with Dignity for Challenging Youth by Allen Mendler and Richard Curwin.  Just today, I read the following passage related to the importance of helping our students develop a remorseful attitude (when appropriate).

In order for children to learn remorse, they must see others demonstrate it publicly and learn its value.  In addition, remorse must be expected of them.  One of the most effective lessons you can give is to show genuine remorse when you make a mistake.

It should come as no surprise that this is an incredible challenge for educators.  It is difficult enough to own up to our mistakes with other adults, but to do so with children (especially when we feel they have contributed to the problem) requires an extraordinary degree of humility.  Students need to see our human side.  They need to understand that we are not superheros, that we make mistakes, and that we are willing to take ownership.

Mendler and Curwin go on to discuss ways in which educators can help students develop this sense of responsibility.  They encourage teachers to “be a role model who shows remorse by apologizing and correcting yourself when you have done something you regret, even if it has not hurt someone else.”  The authors make it clear that modeling how to behave in challenging circumstances is one of the most effective lessons we can teach students.

I can’t be certain that the way I handled this incident will have any lasting impact on the young man involved.  But, I do know that if I had followed through on my initial inclinations (driven by pride), I would have destroyed any semblance of a relationship and I would have confirmed his notion of adults on our campus.  Hopefully, he caught a glimpse of humanity and he will be better for it in the long run.

I am not a superhero.  I have to keep my ego in check.  I make mistakes.  And I am ok with making that admission.

(Cross-posted on Jeff’s blog, Molehills out of Mountains)

24 comments for “Superheros, Superegos, and Student Discipline

  1. May 20, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Great post. This is a lesson that lots of educators still need to learn. In today’s world, you have to earn the respect of many students. This doesn’t seem fair but it is what it is. You do this by the example you set when you ask them to do something. Rather than barking orders, try please and thank you. The main point is not letting your ego get into a situation. If a child is misbehaving try eye contact first. Then you might say “can I help you” or “are you finished.” This works way better than yelling. If yelling worked, we wouldn’t need assistant principals. Keep up the good work and thanks for posting my tweets at this site.

  2. Phill Klamm (@phillklamm)
    May 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Great post. I am going into my first year as principal after 7 years as a high school at-risk teacher, 8 years as a treatment level foster parent, and 24 years as a foster brother to over 60 kids. This lesson of showing remorse is very important and one that I am trying to learn as well. It goes back to modeling, if a student hasn’t seen remorse before and had someone sincerely apologize – how would they know how to do it, or that it is important? Throw in some at-risk factors and some kids believe there are two types of people those who do wrong and those who do not do wrong. We all make mistakes, do your students and staff (may I add) a favor and when you make mistakes, admit them and apologize, start with the little ones it will be easier that way.

  3. Rick Curwin
    May 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Thanks for mentioning my thoughts. It is great to know that my work can influence for the good.

    Rick Curwin

  4. May 23, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    “I was the one who had made the mistake. I consider my ability to work with at-risk youth to be a strength, but on this particular day I failed. I allowed the issue to become personal and pride got in the way of effective decision-making.”

    There was a time, when America was still a great country to live, work, and prosper in, that the above would have been unthinkable for a grown man in charge of kids who do not respect authority.

    To those of you who believe the “touchy feely” overly-feminized way of dealing with kids like the ones described in the story is the best way to go, I would suggest that you are part of the reason why so much of this behavior continues to exist to the level we often witness, especially in urban environments.

  5. May 23, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    As for Dr. Curwin’s view of at-risk youth, I would also suggest that like his naive take on the Trayvon Martin case detailed on another blog (edutopia.org), that he and the rest of the education establishment elite should stop assuming any culpability for this malaise going on in many schools. Grown educated men who did not sire this generation of virtually feral children should instead be pointing their fingers at those who did. They should also be pointing their fingers at the politicians who have allowed dependency classes to perpetuate, thereby creating conditions for men to easily escape their fatherhood responsibilities. What is the incentive for some women to stop procreating if they know they can sign up for as much welfare as they want?

    As long as handwringing progressives dominate the stage and substitute pity for demanding personal responsibility from ALL people, no matter what race, ethnicity, culture, or gender they arrive from, then nothing will ever change.

    • Allen Mendler
      May 24, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      I believe Mark Hauck’s comments represent those of the relatively few educators who believe little if anything is possible to positively influence students because of social malaise, political enabling and personal irresponsibility. In our books, Curwin and I have clearly pointed to the many out-of-school factors that are the cause of problems at school, but that realization is no excuse for educators to abrogate their power to influence change. The best way to influence change is by connecting with students. Kudos to the author of the blog for reminding us that we gain credibility and influence by walking the talk and modeling what we want.

  6. May 25, 2012 at 4:18 am

    Mr. Mendler: I know enough about the social scientist mentality to understand that “out-of-school-factors” is code for acceptable claims of victimhood among urban populations. Guilt over the plight of the unfortunate must first be purged in order for any real solutions to be implemented. “Change” has been relegated to the status of a trite buzz word used by opportunistic politicians and their followers. The concept sounds noble but in reality, few, if any, have a cogent idea of how to go about it. Certainly our present Presidential administration is a perfect example of offering the hungry masses optimistic bromides and eventually falling far short of expectations.

    I am of the pragmatic mindset of never attempting change unless success can be reasonably guaranteed. I believe doing anything for the reason of “we have to do something” is a ridiculous waste of time, energy, and unfortunately, money (usually taxpayer money). This why I rarely, if ever, champion any cause, except for the cause of my own ambition and purpose in life.

  7. Sarah Shainfeld
    May 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    In an admin. internship this year, I have dealt with very similar situations to the one in which the author found himself. In a perfect world, I would have 20/20 vision when I make split second decisions reacting to student behavior, keeping my cool and creating a learning experience for the kids. But, school leaders usually have a lot more on their daily plates than a singular cafeteria issue. The human component you bring up in this blog – emotions – cloud the 20/20 vision.

    I’m reminded of my college years working in a hospital before moving into education, working alongside my mother who has many years in the field. I once came home from work and told her I had made a clerical mistake. She picked up the phone, dialed the department that would be affected and said “tell them what you did. Lives are affected by even the smallest mistakes we make”. I was embarrassed, but I got over it. I feel when we make mistakes with kids; the outcome is the same as those in the hospital. Admitting error is a more significant lesson for a child than standing by decisions (perhaps even bad ones) with conviction. Thanks for this great post.

  8. May 27, 2012 at 11:35 pm

    I think you took the high road…however there is still something to be said about the students behavior and how it influences the other students.

  9. May 29, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Mr. Huack’s last sentence of his last post reveals his true nature. He is a self promoter. Dollars to donuts he home schools his children, or will. Because no “community/public” education system will meet his egoism.

    • May 31, 2012 at 11:07 pm

      Thank you, Shame, I take that as a compliment, because my own cause is my preferred cause. I am not interested in acquiring a collective following. I’m not like the “shameless” self-promoters that infest the blogosphere, such as “21st Century Innovation” darlings like Sir Ken, Daniel Pink, and Seth Godin. Interestingly, the last two men never taught one day in a K-12 classroom, yet they believe they hold all the answers for the future of K-12 education. What a joke.

      As for home schooling, I am fine with it as long as the home school teachers are certified to teach by their respective states. If they are not, it’s a sham education. I am not a proponent of non-certified teachers in the K-12 realm to begin with, which is one of the big problems I have with private schools who do not require their teachers to be certified.

      By the way, in case you were wondering, I do not home school, because my wife and I have to work for a living.

  10. May 30, 2012 at 12:57 am

    Even when I was a first year administrator, I always treated students with respect. I never even yelled at them. By the time they got to me, they may have already been yelled at. Im not very good at snappy or sarcastic comebacks, so i don’t even try. I focus on the issue at hand, and tried my best to provide an appropriate consequence. Since then, my respect for students has been rewarded a few very key times in my career. The most memorable being when I had to send a student home for fighting in school. When mom stormed into my office, obvioiusly loaded for bear, it was her son who came to my rescue. He told his mom I had been nothing but fair and respectful to him, and avoided a potential volatile situation.

  11. Danyelle Maddox
    June 6, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    Honest self-reflection is a sign of a great practitioner. With that being said, I commend you on the manner in which you were able to salvage the discussion with the student. I encourage you, if you have not already done so, to share this experience with your teachers. Your example can help teachers,in similar circumstances, establish a rapport with the students in their own classrooms. Pride aside, they may find themselves writing less discipline referrals and reaching more students.

  12. kharris
    June 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story. There are numerous people who have experienced similar situations and probably need an alternative response and reflection. Inaddition, thank you for sharing the book concerning challenging youth. The key concepts that resonate in your piece are professionalism, humanity, and pride. It is essential for students to know that you are human. One must maintain their professionalism while remaining human and ignoring issues of pride. It is easy for individuals to allow pride to get the best of them, but it is a difficult task to recognize it and reflect on it to allow the best possible solution for the issue at hand, the students involved, and the learning environment. Students should have a voice. Allow them to be heard, demonstrate humility, and expect the same in return.

  13. Anthony Mooring, M.Ed
    June 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    That was a bold move on your part. Not many have the ability to make decisions that are counter-productive to their ego and pride. What you did could save that student. He now has someone to talk to and trust. So many of our students do not have an adult to talk and teach them by example. This is also a teachable moment for your staff, they to my follow in your footsteps and become to build better relationships with students.

  14. Brian Scriven
    June 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    I commend you on being reflective and agree that the ultimate goal is correcting the inappropriate behavior. Relationships are crusial, as Principal I pride myself on knowing our students, however with a mobility rate of over 50% that is not always the case. I’ve found that when faced with instances when I don’t know the student, deferring to someone who has a relationship can help defuse a situation before it goes to the next level as well. Not taking it personal and being reflective with modeling ones expectations are crusial as we strive to use suspension as a last resort.

  15. Stacey Enty
    June 8, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    Often teachers and administrators do not see themselves during the act of discipline. I have observed teachers going back and forth with students, and at the end of the day, the teachers end up being emotionally upset. Not only are they not modeling appropriate behavior they have lost the opportunity to make a positive impression on the student. The idea of self reflection is probably one of the best ways to grow professionally.

  16. Thomas Tyler
    June 10, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    I have seen that insubordination is the leading reason for suspension. If this student either continues the behavior of leaving the trash, or not following the directions of adults in the building, would the suspension be a just consequence or are you saying that there should be a total different view of behavior management?

  17. June 12, 2012 at 3:23 am

    Thank you for this post. I think it takes a great deal of courage to share your experience in a forum like this. I
    Have had a similar experience several years ago on a class trip to New Orleans. Inexcusable, regrettable, unpublishable. The only way to resolve the situation was through frank honesty, contrition, and a public apology. I know that experience really shaped who I am as a professional. Thank you for letting me see that I am not alone.

  18. June 13, 2012 at 4:33 am

    Jeff, the hardest element of a discipline policy is the administration of wisdom, especially when one has an emotional reaction in a situation. I worked as a high school AP for about 10 years and I literally suspended hundreds of students. I can’t think of one suspension that changed a students’ behavior. Now, most of them were deserving of consequences, no doubt. However, what did change behavior was the relationships that I built with students and the lessons they were taught by caring and committed educators who took the time to listen, coach, encourage, teach, admonish, and guide – much like what you did that day.

    Cheers

    Dan Winters

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