While observing in several classrooms recently, I noticed teachers who had outstanding lesson plans, but many of their students had other plans—texting, engaging in sidebars, talking out, and engaging in other misbehaviors that short-circuited the teachers’ otherwise excellent lesson plans. No real learning was occurring under these conditions. Rigor and testing are the norm today and are pursued before teachers can create a respectful learning environment. My observations in schools across the country confirm that it will be difficult to close the achievement gap if a respectful and orderly learning environment does not prevail. Teachers can do several things to create a sunny and orderly learning environment.
1. First, teachers must understand that there are only two ways to gain compliance from students: make it pleasant for students to want to learn and behave, or make it unpleasant when they do not. By focusing on the first principle, teachers can anticipate students’ needs and desires and seek to meet them with relevant and meaningful lessons that engage students.
2. Second, teachers can succeed in reaching difficult students by building relationships. It is easy to ignore some difficult-to-manage students, but doing so allows them to create a toxic environment in the classroom. It’s more about relationships than anything else. Ken Blanchard’s book Whale Done! underscores this point well. How do whale trainers teach killer whales to obey commands? First, they get the whales to trust them. Then they begin developing a positive relationship with them. Once a positive relationship is in place, the trainer is able to begin teaching the whales to perform.
3. Third, it is important to understand what discipline really is. Complete the following sentence. Discipline is______________________. It is easy to confuse discipline with a series of rules or a program that one follows to secure compliance from students. This is partially true, but discipline is teaching. Only the teacher can do this—not the parent or the principal. Only the teacher knows what she or he wants from students in the classroom. Students fail to do what we expect because we do not teach what we want. We tell, and telling is not teaching. Teaching includes guiding and training, and it is a four-step process: teaching the skill, practicing the same, giving feedback as positive intervention, and rehearsing as necessary to make the skill stick. Unfortunately, too many teachers tell students how to behave instead of teaching them. Like teaching a baby to walk, the teacher has to teach and reinforce respectful behavior until it occurs. And there is no shortcut or quick fix!
By attending to the above principles proactively, we give all learners the opportunity to benefit from good instruction. Struggling learners tend to benefit more from a respectful learning atmosphere. In reality, instruction and discipline are inseparable.
Charles Beaman, a former middle school teacher, vice principal, and principal was elected teacher of the year two consecutive years in two different schools that served large populations of at-risk students. His doctoral research provided insight into reaching all students at the middle school level.
Copyright © 2011 Association for Middle Level Education