When I first became a campus administrator, I put a lot of thought into how I would manage student behavior. It is a right-of-passage that assistant principals handle the majority of the discipline problems that arise throughout the day. I knew I didn’t want to be a known as being “soft,” but I also didn’t want to be known as someone who rules with an iron fist. I wanted to be consistent and fair. Being fair will gain you more respect from students, especially high school students, than anything else you can do. Kids know when something is fair or not. You can’t trick them.
I felt fairly confident as I entered my new position on a high school campus of 726 students. The school board had recently adopted a discipline grid which was going to streamline the discipline across the district and make the punishments consistent from student-to-student and not arbitrarily assigned. In theory, if a principal tends to be more heavy-handed, it should temper his punishments and on the other hand, if a principal is too lenient, it should help that principal tighten up. Seems simple enough.
But it’s not always black and white. For example, the discipline grid has a punishment for “minor insubordination” and also for “disruptive behavior.” By definition, insubordination means refusing to follow orders. However, if a student has disruptive behavior, then he or she is clearly not following orders if they are disrupting the classroom. By this time of year, teachers have routines and procedures in place and students know they should come into the classroom quietly and get started on their assignments. If a student is disruptive, then they are also insubordinate and not following orders. The discipline grid allows for one day of ISS for disruptive behavior for a first-time offense, however, if the teacher deems the conduct to be minor insubordination, then the punishment is a phone call to the parent and redirect the student to a more appropriate behavior. That’s a big difference. As an assistant principal, when I get the referral, I have to assign the punishment based on which offense the teacher chose. After all, I wasn’t in the classroom, so I don’t know what happened. All I have is the referral the teacher sent to me.
Now that we are thirteen weeks into the school year and becoming familiar with the new discipline grid, I am starting to see that the grid is not so black and white. If a teacher wants that student out of class, then he or she will assign “disruptive behavior” to the student. Otherwise, the write up will be coded as “insubordination.” So, what to do?
I don’t want to see students sent to ISS for disruptive behavior for a first offense. Time out of the classroom is not time well-spent. It’s lost instruction time, and a student can’t ever get that time back. On the other hand, I also do not want to override the teacher and change the referral code. I cannot build trust with my teachers if I engage in that practice. My solution is to gently remind teachers of the subtle differences in the offenses so that they are acutely aware of the punishment. If I can get “disruptive behavior” changed to “insubordination,” then that is a win for the student. If I can get a teacher to make that phone call to a parent before the second or third offense, then we have built a relationship with that parent that says “we care”. And that’s a win for the district.
This is just one example that the discipline is not always black and white. There’s usually the gray area. I have learned to look for the gray area and embrace it. It’s the area that gives me room to be flexible and work with both the teachers and the parents. It allows me not to rule with an iron fist and shows students that I am fair and I am willing to work with them, not against them. That’s how relationships are built, and relationships are the foundation of education.