A Principal's Case for Choosing Certainty vs. Severity

Working with students, and being in the principal’s office, I know there are often many different viewpoints about how we should deal with individual students.  I have certain philosophies on this that I believe help lead students in the right direction, and also help build relationships with students, parents, and staff in the process.

My mentor, our school division’s Associate Superintendent, shared a phrase with me that I have put into my bag of tools and use on many occasions when talking with staff and students.  The saying is, “Certainty vs. Severity.”  The “certainty” in any situation is that students are CERTAIN that their misbehaviour will be addressed fairly and in accordance with our school’s values.  Severity, on the other hand, is an outdated way of thinking and acting about student disciplinary issues.

Severity (an outdated way of thinking)

It was once believed (including by me), that when students “mess up” they need to know there will harsh consequences. Furthermore, that knowing this will somehow ENSURE the student would NEVER make the same mistake again. This heavy-handed approach does not lead to the student quitting the behaviour. In the majority of cases, it does not help to build any type of relationship with the student. The student may end up fearing the consequences of messing up again, but his or her fear does not guarantee improved behaviour.

A Case for Certainty

Establishing a rapport. It is important to me that I have a rapport with students before I deal with their disciplinary issues. The principal as a “boogeyman” is not how I want to be identified. Instead, I am a principal who cares and respects the integrity of each person in the school. I work diligently to get to know students by visiting classes, for example. Students know who I am, and more importantly, I know them.  Establishing this type of rapport with students helps when they visit my office. They know I will listen and work with them to help solve their problems; and no matter what the outcome, the students know I care for them.

Due diligence. Collecting information and coming to an equitable solution is essential under the principle of certainty. When an incident occurs, I talk with each student involved individually. This approach allows me to understand each of the different perspectives involved.  My first question to students is “Why are you here?”  With this question, I help students focus on the situation and not me.  Students must be provided the opportunity to speak and share their version of the event.  Being diligent throughout the endeavor demands I gather all the pertinent information from all of the participants–this could entail several conversations with various students.

Gathering information is essential to making determinations about consequences. My second question to students is “What would be fair?” When we talk about consequences for misbehaviour, students will typically suggest disciplinary actions that are WAY WORSE than I would have ever suggested.  Together, the student and I, identify a resolution and consequence that more often than not has students saying “thank you” when they leave my office (which is much better than being thought of as a “boogeyman”!).

Dependence upon the community. After meeting with students, I typically speak with the parents or guardians about the situation. I depend upon the primary adults in the students’ lives to support their children in all instances, even when a little trouble arises. I want parents to be aware of what has happened in the situation.  Sometimes I call the parents during the meeting with their child. I pursue this course so they can be a part of the solution, especially if there are special circumstances.  The majority of parents are thankful for the opportunity to know what is going on with their child at school; while I appreciate having the opportunity to depend upon parents when issues arise affecting their children.

Teachers are the other key community members I depend upon to uphold the principle of certainty. Teachers who work with the students involved are always part of the conversation.  Teachers often deal directly with conflicts in their classrooms. They definitely have the strongest relationship with the children and have built a strong environment of trust.  This is something that I am very thankful for and certainly makes my day-to-day job easier.

Understanding the Whole Child

Student disciplinary incidents are fairly low at my school. Repeat offenders are few and far between.  Is our system perfect?  Nothing is perfect, but I believe that it is pretty good. Ultimately, when operating from a perspective of certainty it is important to

  • Listen to the child and give them the opportunity to work through their problem,
  • Help the child figure out how he or she could have constructively handled the conflict,
  • Trust students are more often than not, trying their best to do what’s right,
  • Accept responsibility as guides in the lives of our students,  and
  • Treat each child and situation as unique.

Understanding the whole child (emotional, intellectual, social, etc.) is a key element in my enacting the principle of certainty over severity when addressing disciplinary issues in my school. Establishing rapport, collecting information, and promoting community involvement in our students’ lives are the three essential tasks I believe address disciplinary issues under the principle of certainty. If we adopt these practices we can be certain that even when conflicts occur, we are still helping our students grow into responsible adults.

Do you believe in me?

One of my favourite videos that I have seen is of Dalton Sherman, a young student in Dallas, Texas who did the keynote for education staff at the beginning of the school year.  What I find absolutely amazing about this speech, is the confidence and maturity this young man has as a speaker.  He does not only have a great message, but he also has the talent to be engaging and humourous, way past his years.  These are characteristics that I strive for anytime I speak to any group, but Dalton seems to hit it better than I ever could.

There are two things that REALLY stick out to me in this video.  First and foremost, is the message.  As an educator, I truly believe that we need to find a student’s passion and help them build upon that.  Dalton may not be the strongest student academically (I honestly have no idea how his academics are nor to be honest, do I care), but he does have an obvious passion for speaking.  Students should not have to work with educators that do not work their hardest to find and empower students to find their talents.  Engaging students in their passion is our number one job as educators; this will definitely give them the opportunity to become leaders in their lives.

The second thing that stands out to me is that SOMEONE believed enough in this student that Dalton could be the one to inspire educators at the beginning of the year.  It is a monumental task to speak in front of such a large and diverse crowd, but someone believed enough in Dalton to get him up there, and let him lead teachers.  Great to see that such a large group of educators is happy and eager to learn from one of their students.

Enjoy the below video of Dalton; it is definitely one that sticks with me.

Happy Easter!

Having family that is located in different areas of Canada (not one of my siblings, or parents lives in the same city) is tough, but it is always good to connect with each other when we have the opportunity. I was glad to make my way home for the weekend, get my mind (mostly) off of my career, and hang out with my family.

It is really interesting how the dynamics from my childhood always take place immediately when we are in the same room with my brothers. I am the youngest in the family, and my brothers are both very intelligent and opinionated people who have very interesting (and loud) conversations based on their different views. Most people that know me, would be scared to know that I am the “shy” one of the three, but I just really like listening and hearing what they have to say. I learned so much from my brothers, and grew up very quickly listening to them when I was a child. It was great to hop into my older brothers lap and pose for a picture, and even though I am a good 10 cm taller than him, he always makes me feel like the baby brother.

Being away so much has taught me to appreciate, in my own way, seeing my family. We are not the most talkative bunch, but we all feel comfortable when the other is in the room. The safety and certainty of being around one another, knowing that through all times we will back each other up, is a great feeling. It is nice to know that as we grow up and go in our own directions, I feel more connected with my family than I ever have.

I hope everyone had a great Easter with their family as I know I did with mine!

University of Regina Presentation

I had the chance to work with and learn from some of my brother’s (Alec Couros) university students this week during spring break, and I was blown away by some of their blog posts that they wrote about the lecture after.  It was absolutely wonderful to see how reflective they were in their own practice, and I realize that they are WAY ahead of me at this early time in their career, from where I was.   It is great to see how blogging helps teachers not only to be reflective of their practice, but also gives them the opportunity to learn and collaborate with others.

Reading through all of their own individual blogs and seeing the portfolios that they have created, actually inspired me to create my own personal blog and portfolio.  I said yesterday that a “true master teacher continuously grows and knows that their learning is never done”, and these new educators in the field have shown me that they are willing and wanting to grow in their careers.  This is so motivating and inspiring for me as someone who works with teachers, and I know that the future is definitely bright for students in our (and my) schools, because we have teachers that care and truly “get it”.

Although the presentation was mostly used for talking points to help me navigate and have conversation with these students, I encourage anyone to use it for their own professional practice, or as a guide if you are going into leadership and/or wanting to improve on professional practice.  I made it clear to both of Alec’s classes that these are things that I look for, and not everyone is the same, but I do truly believe that helping students find their passion and learning to recognizing them as “whole people” should be a practice that is done in all school.

University of Regina Presentation

Leading by Example

I would like to first welcome everyone to come and see my new blog and soon to be comprehensive digital portfolio.  I am principal of a K-6 school and K-12 Outreach located in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada.  I love my job and appreciate all of the staff, students, and parents that I work with.

As we are moving in both the area of successful technology integration, along with embedding critical thinking into everyday practice, I have decided to try and lead by example by creating a digital portfolio through WordPress, similar to my brother Dr. Alec Couros, amongst many other successful educational practitioners.  The vision is that students and staff would be able to learn from my own practice, with both the success and failures, to develop their own portfolios.

As I start on this journey, I am looking at what different things I would include in my own portfolio to show my growth as a professional.  I have included pages based upon the Alberta Principal Quality Standard and will build upon those in the near future, but what would people suggest that a principal also include in their own portfolio?  I have talked to students in the University of Regina Education program about branding their name and creating a positive online presence, so this is just another way that I think could help to build upon this endeavour.

I know that I do not have much information included on my portfolio and have thrown out the bare bones version to the world, but a famous quote that I stole from the movie, “Coming to America”, which was used from Nietzsche:

“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.”

I guess today I am learning to stand.