What I really need is….a sharper stick?


Educational reform is not easy. Never has been, never will be. Our schools are, by their very nature, resistant to change. Schools represent the longest arm of socialization in our societies. We are responsible not only for teaching educational content but for passing along all the social mores and values requisite to being a participant in our society. It is a tremendous, albeit unwritten, mandate and it all but insures the system is set up to change slowly.

As an administrator I have become used the resistance. I count on it, and try as often as possible to turn it to my advantage. In this Blog entry I would to discuss one particular kind of resistor: The Draconian. The draconian would have you believe that success is well within your grasp and all you need to do to grasp it is to crack down on those teachers, and students, who are not in full compliance. They would have you believe all we need to fix everything in the school is to punish people into submission by means of ruthless application of existing policy.

Case in point: tardies. Tardies have been a constant thorn in my side as an administrator. I am privileged to work in a 6-8 middle school building. My students are high energy, and have a social motor that does not stop. Often, getting to class on time is simply too much to handle, they cannot get it done. Our tardy policy is, in my estimate, very reasonable. A student can accumulate four tardies during a nine week term. After they accrue their fifth, they are assigned a session of Saturday school, or a day in In School Suspension (ISS). I assign way more Saturday school than I do ISS, for tardies, because I want my students in class as much as is possible. The punishment for being late to class is that you don’t have to go to class at all? That never made much sense to me.

The draconians in your building would argue that if we increase the penalty, or tighten the policy, we could eliminate tardies entirely. In essence, what we need is a sharper stick. The stick we have been using does not hurt enough and so we need ensure we make them understand we mean business when they cross the line.

I disagree with this line of thinking. The policy, as it is written, makes sense as does the punishment. Increasing the penalty will not reduce the number of tardies, it will simple result in harsher punishments when a student does cross the threshold.

I would rather attempt to solve the causal factors in the problem. Why are my students tardy? Is it a scheduling problem? Is it a locker assignment problem? Is it a restroom facility problem? Is it a teacher supervision problem?

I became an educator to help students. I moved into administration for the same reason. Punishing students is not what I do best. I am a teacher, always will be. I will resist the urge to search for a bigger stick. I will be vigilant in my efforts to teach my students how to exist within the rules. I don’t need a bigger stick…..I need a bigger mind. I need the collected wisdom and experience of my teachers, my administrative team and my PLN.



  1. Make the environment a better place to be so students won”t want to be late. I read somewhere how a school dealt with that by putting couches in the front of the classroom. The first kids that got there, would get the seats. Lates went down dramatically because just a simple change in the setting of the classroom and making it more of a place where people would want to be (I don’t want to sit in a desk all day) changed everything.

    Thanks for your post!

    July 9, 2011
  2. Ryan said:

    Bravo! I also get frustrated with this response.

    Actually, I think you might be able to use their theory outside of just the classroom too. For example, a great deal of what we see happening in American education seems “draconian” to me. Student performance is not improving, so we legislate that students will improve. When that didn’t work, we tied funds to performance.

    What’s coming next?

    July 9, 2011
  3. MsFIlek said:

    Funny, is have 6 exercise balls in my classroom and my gr 8’s run to get there first. Even helps with some of the senior students

    July 9, 2011
  4. While I agree with your thinking about tardies, Scott, I’d question your decision to use the word “draconian” to label any group of teachers simply because demonizing never leads to productive change.

    I see this kind of language being used more and more often by authors and experts on school leadership. The Ellers have derogatory terms like “on the job retirees” “whiners and complainers” and “the challenged.” Anthony Muhammad has “fundamentalists.”

    As a guy who pushes back against poor choices all the time in schools—and generally does so only after building a strong case for moving in a different direction—these kinds of labels worry me at best and anger me at worst because they make it all-too-easy for school leaders to dismiss criticism instead of build consensus.

    The Crucial Conversations folks recommend that when faced with any kind of resistance, a leader should ask themselves, “why would a reasonable, rational person act this way?”

    When we promote derogatory labels for resistance, there is automatically an assumption that anyone who challenges the thoughts of the leaders ISN’T reasonable or rational. Instead, they’re just a “draconian” or a “fundamentalist” or a “whiner”—-or better yet, they’re just “challenged.”

    That’s an unhealthy environment for encouraging any kind of meaningful conversations about change.

    Any of this make sense?

    July 10, 2011
    • Scott Dill said:

      First, thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts down.
      Second, thank you for your recent book and posts throughout the educational community. You are making a difference out there and it is both noticed and appreciated.

      I completely understand your perspective on this issue. Labels of any kind can be dangerous and counterproductive. The same people whom I have, in my mind, slotted as draconian also have a full complement of other personality traits that round them out as individuals. I would do them, and myself, a disservice by believing they were defined by a single position or a single conversation.

      Every one of my teachers has at some point disagreed with me on some aspect of the change process. I encourage it. I repeatedly tell them that if they see me doing something stupid I want to know about it ASAP. My point in singling out this aspect of resistance was perhaps not communicated as thoroughly as it should have been.

      I have witnessed, what I consider, overly harsh policies in classrooms throughout my career. My concern is, specifically, that we maintain our focus on student learning and not get caught up in punishing students at the expense of ensuring they learn. The draconian (perhaps Machiavellian) application of policy without regard to situation nor the needs of the learner is not, in my estimate, what the educational process is all about. Punishing a student into submission will not inspire them to greatness.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to let me know your mind on this. I will not pretend I have all, or any, of the answers. I am but a traveler on the road, seeking counsel from those who have been there before me, and those who would reach the same destination.

      July 10, 2011
      • I’m with you on your attitudes towards overly harsh grading practices, Scott. I see the same flawed approach towards grading all the time.

        At a recent PLC Institute, Mike Mattos challenged this kind of thinking by asking anyone to show any research that more failure was effective at helping students to succeed.

        When it is put that way, it’s difficult at best to embrace the kind of policies that you’re fighting against.

        That being said, my bet is that if you asked the teachers who use these policies why they’re doing what they are doing, they’d give you an honest answer that makes sense in their own thinking. They’d probably say, “I’m trying to help kids to be more responsible” or “I’m trying to prepare kids for high schools that won’t be flexible in their grading practices.”

        While neither answer is—in my opinion—a legitimate reason for giving zeros or for failing to give students second chances, neither answer is evidence of a hateful, incompetent person either.

        In fact, both answers are reflective of individuals with a legitimate–albeit flawed—desire to help students succeed.

        Basically, my current fight is against our tendency to use harmful labels to describe the practices that we disagree with simply because those harmful labels often misrepresent the intentions of the people who are using those practices and create hurt feelings across faculties.

        In the end, whether you think the practices of teachers on your staff are draconian or not, they are teachers who you need on your side because they’re on your staff. Calling them draconian—-or fundamentalists, or whiners, or complainers, or “the challenged”—-isn’t going to create the kind of open and trusting culture that results in change.

        Does that make sense?


        July 11, 2011
  5. Tina said:

    This post got me thinking and that is why I enjoyed it so much. I too agree that a sharper stick does not make a lot of sense. I try to put myself in the other persons shoes when a situation occurs. I also know that some of the educational professionals that ‘whine or balk’ are the best on the team when they see the reasoning behind a decision.

    July 10, 2011
  6. TMSillis said:

    A good post that about an attitude that many educators have about their students. I am a strong believer in the fact that essentially we are teachers and our students are the learners. That means that we have to teach them how to behave in all types of social settings, not just within the classroom. Obviously there is room for consequences when things don’t quite go the way they should but the consequence must fit the ‘crime’ and the students must learn from this experience. I also believe that your point about what may be causing the behaviour is one that is often overlooked by many who believe we should essentially go straight to the punishment. What is the precursor to the behaviour? Is it something within our control, or the control of our students, to rectify? Let’s be ‘proactive’ rather than ‘reactive’.

    A thought provoking post. Thanks.

    July 11, 2011
  7. Fred De Sena said:

    Thanks! I needed that. We work in the cyber environment and punctuality is also a problem. Usuually the excuse is my computer froze up or my link doesn’t work. Usually some other factor is really at play. Showing support in this environment with an emphasis on consequence usually works. Thansk for your comments. Fred

    July 11, 2011
  8. Wafa said:

    I am very pleased to have found this article and the comments. I started working as Principal of this international school inin thye Maldives in February. My school was opened three years ago.
    While I do not favour labeling students, I must say I have quite a few students who take their own time in attending classes. I feel that the reason for this in my school mostly is because teachers do not expect children to be punctual and somehow pupils know that they don’t mind it either. I am working on this with them and would welcome all suggestions.

    July 13, 2011

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