Late for supervision one day about five years ago, I was slightly speeding to work (it was about 10km over the speed limit) as I was going to be late. Of course, on the day that I was going to be late to work if I did not drive a little faster, I was pulled over by an officer. When I pulled over on the road, I expected that this was going to end in one way; with me receiving a ticket.
As the officer came to my window, he surprised me by not telling or asking me if I was speeding, he started with the question, “why were you speeding?”, understanding that I obviously had the common sense to know exactly why he had pulled me over. When I told him that I was actually speeding because I was going to be late for supervision and that I was the only teacher on duty that morning. I was speeding because I was concerned about the safety of the kids. He looked at me and said, “make sure that you leave earlier next time”, and then told me that he would follow me to work to ensure that I was there on time. My amount of respect for that specific officer went up tremendously because he had actually listened, evaluated the circumstances, and made a decision based upon his judgment, not simply on a list of rules and consequences. I always think of that day and I have not had a ticket for any violation since as I have been a much more conscientious driver.
But this could have ended in another way. It could have ended in the idea that because I broke rule ‘A’, that I need consequence ‘A’. Simple, cut and dry, and easy for the officer to decide. Take the thinking away from the situation and you can easily do your “job”. I was actually surprised that it didn’t end this way because of my preconceived notions of officers. The reality is that when things do end where broken rule leads to a specific consequence, the first thing that most of us think regarding the cop is, “what a jerk”, or something similar (or even more harsh); we tend to focus very little on what we had done wrong and shift the focus on the person dealing out the consequence. This makes us no less wrong, but we learn little from the situation. Schools need to be more than this.
Often we hear about behaviour programs that are very similar to this. Create a list of things that a student could possibly do (which if you have been an administrator, you will realize that this list could be infinite), and here is a list of consequences that match the action. This is not only what is done by an administrator, but set out by the school as the “standard”. These rules, many will feel, will provide order.
But do they? Or do they create a poisonous culture that build an “us vs. them” notion. If I, as a principal declared to our staff, “If you are late for work, here is the specific consequence that will happen. Do it again, and here is the next consequence.” How would that build our staff culture? Many would think that they are being treated like ‘children’, yet the way that we treat children should not be the lowest common denominator. We need to treat each other as humans, individuals, each with our own set of circumstances and personalities. Although the intent is to always make people feel safe and comfortable, in the long term, we often create a culture that can be poisonous and subversive.
Here is a question I often ask…Is the consequence for fighting the same for every child? If we are being ‘fair’, many would say it should be. The follow up question that I have though is, what if one of the kids just had a parent that passed away or had dealt with some other traumatic event? Still the same? Fair and equal are not always the same thing.
The thing is that we should never liken ourselves to an officer handing out tickets for offenses. Our job is to create great men and women to lead us into the future. Conversations that have full participation from the student need to be had whenever something happens that we know is wrong. Kids need to learn from this and it is important that we always deal with things that happen in school; we do not need to deal with them in exactly the same manner.
Just like creating differentiated learning opportunities for students, behaviour should be dealt with in a differentiated manner as well. Barry Schwartz talks about the importance of “wisdom” and I believe that if we hire and trust teachers to work with our students, we need to trust them to build strong relationships with these individuals and use their wisdom to deal with each situation as they best see fit. We need to embody this as administrators as well.
For more discussion on this, the Barry Schwartz video is a great video to share with others.