Thursday, February 13, 2014

To Stop or Not To Stop Teaching to Discipline

When a teacher is still working to develop her discipline chops, she may find herself deliberating about whether she should stop instruction to redirect a student or issue a consequence. For years, I heard that a good teacher refuses to stop teaching for discipline. She should simply indicate the consequence for the student's infraction and keep the lesson moving. Don't dignify the objectionable behavior with any attention.

Don't Stop Instruction to Discipline

Harry Wong advises teachers not to stop teaching for discipline. "If you stop a lesson to penalize a student, you disrupt the lesson, interrupt an important point you are making, or disturb people while they are working," he writes.  He does not mean, however, not to issue consequences during your lesson. He goes on to say that you should "implement the penalty quietly as you continue with the lesson" (The First Days of School, p. 154).

I agree that teachers should correct students as privately as they can. Even if it is obvious that everyone can hear you, you can interact with a student in a pseudo-private way that lets others know the issue is none of their business. All young people appreciate this consideration of their need to save face, and you are likely to avoid a student's impulse to defy or disrespect you in front of his peers.

Do Stop Instruction to Discipline

Fred Jones adds some insight to this dilemma. Jones's stance is that our body language telegraphs our intention. If we are slow to give up instruction, we cannot signal that we are committed to discipline. He advises stopping all instruction, committing to deal with disruptive behaviors with your body by squarely facing the students you want to address, looking straight at them, and waiting calmly, with your teacher look, of course.

He shows how slower and quieter movements signal that the teacher is in full control of her emotions, and her intentions are clear. She is not angry or upset (at least not outwardly), but she is prepared to deal with the interruption.

Jones points out that students' body language telegraphs their intentions as well. Two students who are visiting without permission may turn their shoulders away from each other when the teacher starts to correct them, but if their feet and knees remain facing one another, the teacher can count on them going back to their chatting as soon as she resumes instruction.

Jones advises teachers to require the body language that will help students comply. So, he urges the teacher to direct the students to sit squarely in their seats with their feet pointing forward. This is just the beginning of Jones's fascinating study about reading and responding to students' body language in his Tools for Teaching.

Do We Stop Instruction to Discipline, or Don't We? 

Like everything else in education (whole language vs. phonics, a writing formula vs. authentic composition, memorized math facts vs. applied concepts), the answer is never "either/or" but always "both/and". 

Use each technique when the situation calls for it. If your quiet correction is met with belligerence or non-compliance, then you will want to stop teaching, make Jones's "six-second turn" and rivet your attention on the offender, ready to correct a student's body language or take another action.

Years ago, it was common to see teachers write a student's name on the board for their first infraction of a rule. For the second infraction, the teacher would silently add a check mark to the student's name. Another infraction, another check mark. Each added check mark indicated another consequence - nothing too severe - a 10-minute timeout, a 15-minute timeout, a detention, a visit to the office. Because the teacher did not engage the student in discussion or entertain any remark from him, she could proceed with the lesson.

This system, called Assertive Discipline, was the first to claim that all students had the right to learn, and teachers had the right to teach and the right to control their students' behavior. Teachers were thrilled to have a method by which to manage unruly students.

Like any other system, the way a teacher implements is as important as the steps she compiles for her system. I saw teachers who broke the chalk three times while forcefully writing a name on the chalkboard. As they added marks, the checks got bigger and bigger. Secondary students were (and are) likely to object with hostility when they are corrected publicly or angrily.

Remember that scene from Dangerous Minds, when Louanne wrote Emilio, the trouble-maker's name on the board for making an insolent remark? All the kids just cracked up and hooted and hollered, effectively running poor Miss Johnson out of the classroom.

There Are No Shortcuts to Discipline

My system isn't much different from Assertive Discipline. I just tally students' discipline steps on my "pink pages" instead of on the chalkboard. Once I have made believers of students, meaning, once I have consistently implemented the consequences I said I was going to implement, I can easily just raise a finger to indicate "step one" to a student who is chatting. After demonstrating I meant business by taking action and enforcing consequences, I experienced little disruption and even less hostility from my students.

So, yes, it is wonderful if and when you can barely raise an eyebrow to manage student behavior, but it doesn't come without a significant investment of consistently enforcing your system, usually over several months.