Originally published on Edutopia.org on 6/29/2015.
I’ve learned that the most impactful form of discipline isn’t a reactionary approach, but a proactive one. A mentor teacher of mine once told me something that I think about every day:
“Always remember: there are more important people in the room than you.”
In my first five years of teaching, I haven’t thrown a student out of my room yet. Don’t misinterpret: I’ve come close. I’ve been lucky enough to figure something out pretty early on in my career about the way I want to teach. I certainly don’t think I have found the way to promote a culture of respect and authenticity in my classes, but the very least, I’ve figured something out that works for me, something that’s at the root of who I am as a teacher and what I think the profession of teaching should be all about.
I work every day to build and maintain positive, meaningful relationships with my students. It’s a long, hard process that often takes a while. I’ve noticed that when mutual respect is achieved between me and a class of high school students, great things can happen. Powerful conversations take place. The best part? The need for “discipline” disappears. You just don’t need it. There’s no room for it. My classes are respectful of me and interested in what I have to say simply because I reciprocate.
When I was in high school, I respected the teachers who respected me back. I took interest in those teachers who took interest in me. When we reminisce on the “glory days” of high school, I’m sure we all can think of a teacher or two who was more interested in hearing their own voice than relating to teenagers. It’s funny, because we often forget that students (really at any age) are much keener than we presume – they know which of their teachers are interested in establishing relationships, and which aren’t.
As teachers, we show up at work every day for one reason: our students. We are invested in them: their well-being, comfort, and learning rest and rely on the learning community that we establish in our classroom every day. It’s our responsibility to give those students a safe place where they feel valued, accepted, and cared for.
Students need fewer people in their lives telling them “this is how it’s supposed to be” and more trusted adults saying “this is who you are right now, and thats okay.” I try to meet my students where they are when they walk in the door, but not forgetting about where they could be going.
At some point during any given school day, I’ll hear or read about an initiative that doesn’t necessarily make me uncomfortable, but perks up my ears. Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that new ideas or policy in education are important, and promote and foster change in the “business” of what we do. Common Core is a good thing. New policies and procedures in educator supervision and evaluation are good things. It is important for the culture of education to continue to evolve, shift, and change based on the world in which our students live. This is a fact. Things are changing, so teachers must too.
But, with that being said, one thing that shouldn’t change is our commitment to the social and emotional well-being of our students. This is at the center of what I do.
High school, like many of us can remember, is a weird time for a lot of reasons. Spoiler alert: most teenagers are more worried about who they are going to sit next to at lunch than their English homework. Instead of condemning this mindset - only continuing to fulfill the role of being the mean adult looking over your shoulder - it’s important for trusted adults (in and out of school) to recognize that adolescence is a critical point in a young person’s life. Neurons are firing on overtime trying to make sense of the stresses of seeking a place to fit in. Of course, social pressures and mores take precedent. It’s natural.
As teachers, we have to make a choice: We can either ignore this behavior, putting it off as just a “phase” and playing down the social-emotional needs of our students; or, we can recognize that this stress has a direct impact on student learning and develop and implement effective strategies that teach our students how to cope with this very normal time. The strategy I’ve chosen to focus on is creating and maintaining positive and meaningful relationships with my students, and when I leverage these relationships to promote a culture of understanding and respect in my classes, amazing things can happen.