George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

The Dances of Student Discipline

Teachers, when it comes to student discipline: Do you do the foxtrot, the tango, or swing dance?
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Educational consultant Lee Canter had it right when he presented his concepts of positive discipline. Yes, we need to have consequences for student behaviors that we want to eliminate and rewards for behaviors that we want to encourage.

But let's face it. Students mostly think of the consequence only after they have done the deed. The real truth is that good discipline is not a one-sided endeavor, but it requires cooperation from both the student and the teacher -- as if they were dancing.

In my undergraduate years, I enjoyed learning to do the ballroom dances of the foxtrot, the tango, and the swing. What I would like to discuss are the various dances of discipline administrators have with students and teachers.

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The Foxtrot

This dance of discipline happens when teachers rigidly send students to the office for minor offenses. The students are trotted to the office, and the administrator trots them right back to the classroom. When the student comes right back into the classroom, this frustrates teachers immensely. They feel that the administration is not supporting them in their effort to teach. In their view, the best thing to be done is to get the unruly student out of the classroom so that orderly classroom learning can continue.

Teachers often do not consider that this habit of sending students to the office also frustrates the administrator. Students arrive with a hastily written referral. The administrator was not in class, did not see what happened, and will not get a true picture of what happened when he asks the student. (By law, though, the administrator has to ask this question in order to provide what is called due process.)

So the student minimizes his or her own behavior and emphasizes the teacher's overreaction. What is the administrator supposed to do? Most administrators err on the side of leniency and assign detention, so the student gets off easy, especially if the administrator is too busy to check whether the student attends the detention (a risk most students would be willing to take).

Imagine if the teacher had skipped the referral step and simply assigned his own detention. The power stays with the adult who sees that student every day, knows the parent, and knows what that student needs to do to get back into good his or her graces again.

The Tango

The next type of discipline dance is the tango. The teacher and the student face off in a mock battle of wills reminiscent of the matador and bull. For every aggressive step the teacher takes, the student responds in equal fashion. The lead dancer vigorously controls every movement of his partner. Neither is willing to take their eyes off their dance partner as the grim dance cadence rumbles on, often for long periods.

Students and teachers often become quite adept and following the other's lead, but unfortunately, this is a dance that neither the student nor the teacher enjoy. The irate student takes advantage by throwing paper, talking, or annoying the teacher. The angry teacher threatens the students with extra work or other dire consequence unless the misbehavior stops. The administrator gets involved with this dance when one or the other of the partners makes a misstep.

When the student talks back, or worse, cusses out the teacher in frustration, the teacher has won and can finally send the student to the office with satisfaction. Sometimes the student gets the upper hand when, after pushing the teacher's self control to the limit, the teacher blows up at the student.

The administrator provides the student due process, but the documentation the teacher has provided may leave little room for doubt about what has been going on for quite some time (not much learning and lots of effort to control behavior).

In the case of the teacher in tango trouble, the administrator cannot condone the teacher's behavior and must endure the ire and scorn of angry parents. At the very least, the administrator must issue a formal reprimand. Many good teachers have lost the tango dance because they focused more on the tango than on the learning that should have been taking place.

The Swing Dance

The ballroom dance that I enjoyed the most was the swing dance. It is a dance to perky, lively music and requires the cooperation of both partners. If the dance frame is maintained, both the lead partner and the following partner have an enjoyable experience. In order to maintain a proper dance frame, the dancers must work together to exert a positive feedback pressure so that they don't get too far apart or close enough to hurt each other.

This positive pressure is maintained in how the dancers hold their hands and keep their elbows slightly bent. When the lead dancer pushes his partner in one direction, the partner knows to follow the pressure by maintaining a feedback pressure in the hands and arms. Things literally fall apart when the arms are loose. When the lead partner pushes and finds no feedback push, the spin, twist, or twirl will not work. When the feedback push is present in both partners, magnificently complicated dance moves are easily performed because both dancers know what is expected and how to follow the other's lead.

The Ideal Dance

The swing dance analogy for teachers is that learning should be fun even though it is not easy. It requires practice and constant feedback from the teacher and the student. The learning and behavior expectations are clear, and for each lesson they are framed before the first step is taken. The positive feedback pressure is maintained through out the complicated footsteps of the learning.

When the feedback pressure is lost, the obvious consequence is to try the move again until it is mastered, rather than sending the student to the office with a referral. A student slams the door. Instead of ignoring the behavior or causing a referral scene, the swing response would be simply, "Please try entering again without slamming the door." When a student does not respond correctly to a question, "I know you can answer the question appropriately. Please give it another shot." As necessary, a teacher can stop the learning swing dance and take a misbehaving student into the hall with similar words: "I have seen you behave much better. How can I help you learn at your maximum today?"

I am not saying that there is never a reason to send the student to the administrator. If a student is a danger to himself or others, then he should be sent immediately. What I am saying is that most referrals can be handled by the teacher who does not do the foxtrot or the tango.

Just like experts in the ballroom, the swing dance must maintain a firm dance frame to perform magnificent routines, and the teacher and students produce fabulous things when discipline is meshed with the process of learning through clear expectations and positive feedback pressure. Done correctly, teachers and students can have a swinging time learning together.