Rethinking school discipline…

At the start of next school year I will be embarking on my first assistant principalship. I have observed lots of current assistant principals and I have spoken with even more; a big part of the assistant principal’s job is to handle discipline.

As a German teacher for 6 years, I recall only having to write up (give a referral) to 7 students. That’s not bad, a little more than 1 per year! I also recognize that I had some really awesome students who ELECTED to take my class. No students were being forced to learn German from the crazy guy with blond hair who used fly swatters in class.

As my role changes next year, I have been doing a lot of thinking about how to handle discipline, as well as what my discipline philosophy is. As a classroom teacher I never wanted to write a student up unless it was absolutely necessary. I felt that if I wrote a student up I was “passing the buck” and ultimately missing out on an opportunity to build a stronger and more positive relationship with that student.

On the other hand, I know some teachers who don’t hesitate to write a student up because they feel it is the principal’s job to handle discipline issues, not the teacher’s job. Then there are those teachers who want the “book” both literally and figuratively thrown at some students, and if the book doesn’t work they want the “hammer” dropped with King Leonidas from the movie 300 type force.

Now, I know there are certain circumstances and situations where the book and hammer need to be deployed, but how many times do we see the same students over and over getting the same kind of discipline repeatedly? If the discipline consequences didn’t work and were ineffective the first 3 times then it might work the 4th time right, I think not! Treating students and school discipline as “black and white” scenarios just don’t seem to be working…

If a student skips school we probably shouldn’t give the kid out-of-school suspension for 3 days. If a student is late to class or unprepared we probably shouldn’t put the kid in in-school-suspension for 3 days. I know these scenarios seem funny, but they are happening ALL THE TIME in our schools.

Too often I think our discipline policies are reactive, rather than putting structures and steps in place to be proactive. Additionally, I find there needs to be a healthy balance of teacher/administrator collaboration on ways to address discipline in an educational setting. I also think we are working in isolation too often, when in fact we need to be working together to help out some of our most needy students. EVERYBODY IS ON THE SAME TEAM!

Yesterday I read this great article titled, “More schools rethinking zero-tolerance discipline stand,” which led me to writing this post. Perhaps I am being naive and I don’t fully understand what it means to be a disciplinarian, but there is a tiny part of me who thinks we might be missing a great opportunity to help those students who really need us the most by “rethinking” the ways we address discipline.


Cross posted at


  1. charles ford said:

    I dont think you are naive I believe you are inspired and you must keep that open mind throughout your time as an assistant pricipal. I like the way you think that discipline is an opportunity to get to know students and work as a team to improve behavior. Just always remember to make decisions in the best interest of the students and sometimes adults may not agree with you. If you stick to your convictions you will be an excellent assistant principal and make many lasting bonds with your students. Sometimes students need someone in their corner.

    June 8, 2011
    • Justin Tarte said:


      Thank you for taking time to comment. I appreciate your kind words of encouragement. Your point about making strong and enduring relationships with students is key, and it is my goal to reach out and make as many connections as possible with as many students I can.

      Thank you again for the great comment!

      June 8, 2011
      • charles ford said:

        I am a superintendent in New Jersey and I think it is great when i hear inspired people. Dont let that fade with your years of experience. I love education and everything that comes along with it. Dont get wrapped up in the negativity and you will do great things. Always remember you have to love education to be great at it. I am always available for good conversation.

        June 8, 2011
  2. Scott McLeod said:

    This is the second time today I’ve recommended this book…

    Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community (Alfie Kohn, Good luck!

    June 8, 2011
    • Justin Tarte said:


      Thank you for the book recommendation. Your tweets and blog posts are always very inspiring and motivating, and I look forward to continuing my learning from you. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      Thank you

      June 8, 2011
    • Justin Tarte said:

      Thank you George for all your support and encouragement. You have been and are a huge influence on me as an Educator. Thank you for all you do and thanks for being an inspiration for Educators all around the world.

      June 9, 2011
  3. Justin,

    I have been thinking about this topics recently as well. I saw a presentation by Dr. Ross Greene at the Massachusetts Elementary School Principal Assoc. conference (MESPA) in May. He discussed Collaborative Problem Solving for our behaviorally challenged students. His main point was that students want to do well if they can. Behavior problems arise when a student’s skills (emotional, social, academic, etc. ) do not match the behaviors that they are being asked to display at a particular moment. As such punishment on its own for the recurring visitor to your office is not going to solve the problem. The punishment does not help the student obtain the skills they need to respond appropriately next time they face similar expectations. Dr. Greene’s site Lives in the Balance ( discusses the approach and provides some useful documents. Dr. Greene also hosts weekly online call-in radio shows that applies the approach to problems callers bring to the show. There is a program for educators, and one for parents.

    Ultimately I think that one needs to approach discipline as a learning opportunity. That is the business we are in, finding the learning opportunity in all that our students do.


    June 9, 2011
    • Justin Tarte said:


      Thank you for the comment. I have heard of the great work by Dr. Ross Greene from several people over the last couple of days. I will definitely be checking out his website and his work in education. I love your point about students acting out when their emotional, social, and academical needs are not being met. If we can develop and implement strategies and programs to make sure these basic but important needs are met, we will be much more productive when it comes to “really helping our students.”

      Thank you again for the comment.

      June 9, 2011
  4. Ann said:

    Hi, thanks for your article. I was thinking that the scenario you described of the revolving door and doing the same things over and over but expecting different results is pretty much the case at our school. However, what do you think of having more of a structured set of school wide procedures that spell out what is office referral worthy and what is classroom territory off-task behaviors? Also with that school wide procedure, adding you take requests for discpline support if teachers need it? Those are 2 things that I think would be really helpful. It gets so difficulty because if you’re not careful, it becomes teachers against admin. and that doesn’t help anyone. I know my sister was a big help–she is practically the unnamed behavior expert on my campus, any problem i have, I can call her in, she can quickly observe, give me on the spot modeling and feedback and then she leaves and I’m able to practice and she’ll drop back in and coach me. it only takes her about 5 min. per visit and I find I am really successful with her feedback/coaching;/modeling approach but really unsuccessful without it.

    June 9, 2011
    • Ann said:

      in continuation of my previous post, her help is not limited to me alone. the principals also send kids to her as a last resort or to deflate situations, as well as many subs and other teachers. I think its so vital to have concrete aspects like this to the whole team work ethic.

      June 9, 2011
      • Justin Tarte said:

        Thanks for the two great comments Ann 🙂

        I can only hope to find someone like your sister to have in my building.

        June 9, 2011
  5. Kyle Timms said:

    I totally have to agree with you Justin, and I’ve been there and am still there in terms of administraotr as the heavy-handed disciplinarian. I think it will be most valuable to put your beliefs right out there to your staff as you take on your new role. Be an educator, not an enforcer. My post echoes your thoughts and the thoughts of many of us.

    June 9, 2011
    • Justin Tarte said:


      I really enjoyed your blog post. It is very relevant and applicable to my blog post. Thank you for sharing and taking the time to comment.

      June 12, 2011
  6. Glen Lawson said:

    two questions to always ask: what is the goal of the misbehavior? and what is the goal of the redirection? (punishment)
    one of our most effective discipline consequences is Saturday school. it is from 8 – 12 on Sat morning and takes the place of a 3 day ISS placement. many parents choose this because it keeps their child in class and they get to play a role in the discipline.
    also, I have found that sometimes there is a 3rd reason for an office referral (the first two are “I want you to handle my discipline” and “throw the book at them”). Sometimes the rest of the class needs a break. One kids issues may be more than they can handle and it can be amazing how much they can accomplish with one less personality in the room. At our school we take “interfering with the learning of others” very seriously.
    good luck and always fight the 80/20 rule “20% of the issues will take up 80% of your time, if you let it.”

    June 9, 2011
    • I really like your 80/20 rule, I have never heard that before! That is definitely the truth. I also like the fact that you allow parents a role in the discipline. Great idea and I think this would be a positive approach towards prevention in the future. As you, I take ‘interfering with the learning of others’ very seriously as well. As administrators, we must provide a climate in which teachers can teach and students can learn.

      June 12, 2011
      • Justin Tarte said:

        Glen and Shawn,

        Thank you both for taking the time comment. I appreciate your commitment to helping others.

        Thank you again.

        June 12, 2011
  7. Justin–

    I sometimes wonder if teachers really know how to handle discipline issues. That’s definitely true for me! In my first few years in the classroom, I did “pass the buck” because I didn’t know what else to do.

    What helped me become more effective in the classroom were the “debriefs” I would have with colleagues I trusted and respected. Their examples and advice have been helpful to me. Maybe all discipline issues ought to have two parts:

    1. Support the student and get to the bottom of the issue.
    2. Debrief with the teacher and plan for next time.

    I don’t want student referrals or disciplinary notes to vanish into the ether. If it’s important enough for me to write a disciplinary note, I want to know the outcome and what I could have done differently. Ultimately, I want the student’s behavior or attitude to change for the better–or to address a problem before it becomes a habit.

    I also wanted to know that my assistant principal and the principal were open to mentoring me. It’s funny how that doesn’t always come up in conversation. Sometimes I don’t want a “solver” to fix my problems for me. I just need a sounding board to give me some perspective or to challenge my assumptions.

    Best of luck with your new role!

    June 9, 2011
    • Justin Tarte said:


      I appreciate you taking the time comment. Your insights were well thought out and very well presented. I think the most important part of your comment was the connection between administrators and teachers; they must be willing to work together to do what is best for our students. Additionally, it also means that administrators and teachers need to understand each other’s roles better because then and only then will both parties be able to work together effectively.

      Thank you again for the excellent comment!

      June 12, 2011
  8. What a terrific philosophy. This type of perspective will allow you to build strong relationships with your students. I encourage you to share your philosophy immediately with your faculty because as you stated, your best teachers will send a student to the office wanting prevention while the poor teacher will expect revenge and will want them to leave the office mad – Todd Whitaker. I have a very similar philosophy and students know that I listen and care about their side of the story. As a result, many times they will blame the teacher every time. And some times they make a great point and the teacher must be addressed. However, I work very hard to get them to focus on only their actions and to find a solution. I am a middle school principal and what also works very effectively is that I call parents everytime a student enters my office – good or bad. The good phone calls home are fun to make. Students know that if they are sent to my office, regardless of how minor, mom/dad/ or guardian will be called. I would want to know if my child was sent to the principal’s office. I also agree that suspension must be the last resort. We need our students in school. We are ultimately responsible for their learning! Thanks for your post and good luck!

    June 12, 2011
    • Justin Tarte said:


      I definitely agree that parents need to be involved as often as possible. I also agree that we need to truly research each referral before determining an appropriate response. Your point about having the student focus on his/her actions is also a great point. I will definitely keep this blog post readily available once I start dealing with discipline referrals. So many great comment and points!

      Thank you again!

      June 12, 2011
  9. Mike Jankanish said:

    Just curious: Why, after 6 years of being a German teacher, do you think you are qualified to move into adminstration?

    July 1, 2011
  10. Marie said:

    What about the student who continues to harass and bully other students on many settings over a period of years? The classroom interventions are not working and the suspensions do not work either. Doesn’t a classroom teacher at least have a responsibility to document what they have tried and report it to the assistant principal?

    November 20, 2011

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