When I was a new teacher, the first few years of my career, I remember struggling with the tone of my classroom discipline. I started out with the intention of being like those favorite teachers I remembered from my own childhood – so likeable and strong of character that we students would do anything to please them. But without much idea of how to make that happen, I found myself gradually reverting to a list of rules for kids to follow: keep your hands and feet to yourself, clean up your own mess, walk in the hall, raise your hand when you want to speak, etc. I had an elaborate system of rewards and punishments to enforce these rules, and it worked. My kids were well-behaved. But I was exhausted. And my bank account was dwindling as I spent more and more on prizes to entice the kids to follow the rules.
I began to value the good behavior of the kids more than the evidence of their learning, and became annoyed by eager interruptions and messy activities. Around my second or third year of teaching this newfound power to control behavior began to seriously conflict with my beliefs about active learning for kids. I had to make a decision about which I valued more.
Fortunately, I moved to a new school with an experienced principal who helped me realize that I didn’t need to spend quite so much energy on discipline if my instruction was strong in the first place. Kids who are engaged and challenged are rarely off task.
The number of rules, rewards, and punishments does not determine the quality of classroom management, she taught me. Rather, rely on something the army calls “Commander’s Intent”. The army famously believes that “a plan never survives its first contact with the enemy”. Therefore, a group of soldiers is advised of their commander’s intent for a specific battle: “defend the south side of the village” or “take control of that hilltop”. When the inevitable manure hits the metaphorical fan, every soldier in the group is able to adjust and make decisions on the fly because they know their commander’s intent – the ultimate goal of this battle.
The same applies to a classroom. If the teacher’s intent is made clear in simple terms – “be kind to others” or “we’re all here to learn” – then when troubles arise, students can be taught to make all decisions around that one principle. If Billy is interrupting classroom discussions by sharpening his pencil or calling out, he’s interfering with others’ learning. The same applies for bullying, running in the hall, stealing, not completing work, etc. One simple rule can summarize the intent of an entire discipline plan, and all decisions thereafter revolve around it. It’s simple for kids and for the teacher, and it gets at the heart of why we’re at school.
Think about the message you send to your students each day in your classroom. What do you think they believe your commander’s intent to be? Is it the message you want to send?