What is discipline? What is its purpose? I think all educators, at least all reflective educators, struggle with this question. I am not always sure what discipline is, but I am sure of what it is not: punishment, vengeance, revenge, comeuppance, payback.
Today, I want to share a brief story that exemplifies what I believe discipline should be: natural consequences that lead to a change in behavior.
During my fifth hour, a student, let's call him Paul, came in about two minutes late with a pass. He immediately asked me to help him get out of a detention.
I put him off to get our "Do Now" completed and out lesson started.
Paul persisted. He asked if I remembered giving him a detention for being on his phone when he was asked to put it away. Of course I did. He explained that his principal told him I could get rid of it if I wanted to. Then he explained that he really really didn't want to miss track practice and he smiled.
Now Paul has had a rough semester. First semester, he did quite well. He had decent grades and behavior. We had been informed that he struggled in middle school and was considered high-risk. For most of 8th grade Paul had been on an extensive behavior plan.
I saw glimpses of the problems Paul might have had and the behaviors that caused his past troubles, but never gave it much thought.
Then in January, it all came crashing down. Paul started skipping classes, talking back, playing around, and refusing to attempt academic classes. For the past 7 weeks, he has had single digit percentages in most of his classes.
Last week, I started to notice a change. Paul was back. He was smiling and showing up and trying.
I thought about his request for the remainder of class, but still hadn't made a decision. I told Paul I would speak to his administrator and get back to him.
The administrator in question rolled his eyes hard enough to sprain an eyeball and told me that Paul was only half right.
"Here's the thing," I said, "Paul deserves a consequence, but I really don't want to discourage him when he is FINALLY getting back on track, so I don't care if he serves his detention before school or does something else."
The response from this administrator was inspired: "If you want to, you can offer him a deal where he can give up his phone during the school day for a few days. If he forgets or doesn't do it, he can get In School Suspension. If he doesn't want to do it, that's fine, he can serve his detention."
"Ok," I said, "I'll talk to him and see what he says."
I went back to my classroom, looked up Paul's schedule, grabbed a sheet of paper, wrote out the deal, and sought out Paul.
As soon as I showed up at the door and he saw me, he jumped up, glanced at teacher for permission (a triumph all by itself!), and approached me with a huge smile.
"So, Paul, here's the deal: You can get out of detention together by signing and following this" and I held up my hastily scribbled contract.
He glanced at me hesitantly, "What's that?"
"Read it and find out."
He read it and said "So, for the rest of the week, I have to give my phone to the office every day?"
"Nice try Paul. For the next 5 school days."
"Man, it can't be just some hours of the day where I get on my phone?"
"Sorry" I said,"You have gotten away with playing on your phone way too many times."
He sighed, "What if Mr. C ain't there? Cause sometimes he's not in his office."
"You're right," I said, "If he isn't around, you can bring me your phone instead."
Paul took a deep breath, snatched the contract out of my hand and signed it (before he could change his mind, I think).
I stopped and made him take a picture of it, so he couldn't say he didn't know what I was talking about later. I also suggested that he put a reminder in his phone for the morning.
He smiled, shook his head, and returned to class.
I hightailed it down to the office, only to find Mr. C was not available.
The secretary, however, immediately took the contract, scanned it, added it to Paul's on-line discipline file (we use a big student information system), and crossed his name off the detention list.
I had meetings upon meetings after school. Mr. C was in my last meeting of the day. I showed him the picture I took of Paul's contract.
He grinned, "Now that is what I call creative, change based discipline."
I agree. Too often, school discipline leaves me feeling dirty somehow, like I have participated in mis-serving a child, in perpetuating problem behaviors rather than improving them.
Participating in another approach, an approach new to me, was awesome. There was no anger, or resentment, no refusal to take responsibility. There was acceptance and there was hope. It was an intensely respectful way to address Paul's need to run track and to experience a consequence for his actions.
It was a good thing.