How NOT To Discipline in an Urban School

It was during my lone year as a vice principal that I was the disciplinarian at my school. I absolutely hate the job.

I loved the kids. I knew many of them very well because I taught them previously. They were really great kids. I hated the job because of my teacher colleagues—they saw my role of the chief discipline person as their avenue of ridding themselves of students they couldn’t handle.

Not all of my colleagues used me for that… just those who were always complaining about students. Their complaints? Students were disrespectful, they didn’t care about learning, they didn’t take the teacher seriously, some were regularly insubordinate… The truth was that those teachers lacked the necessarily classroom management skills to get the respect they desired. Also, they didn’t really like the students either.

I offered constructive criticism, but it wasn’t taken. Maybe it was me. Maybe, there was some animosity (unknown by me) directed towards me because students listened to me and not those teachers. Maybe they thought they could do my job better than I was doing it. Maybe it was because detention nor recommendations for suspensions wasn’t my first resort—they definitely believed I gave students too much latitude.

What’s funny is that those teachers who actually enjoyed students, enjoyed teaching their content and acquired baseline classroom management skills rarely if ever came to me with discipline issues.

There was this one teacher; they were either new to the school or new to teaching, I forget. But they were green. I am not exaggerating when I say that 4 days out of a 5 week, he had at least 1 discipline issue a day that I had to deal with. He wanted me to give out detentions for everything. I refused many times because the tension between he and students was of his doing. He didn’t think highly of me. The feeling was mutual (professionally speaking).

I know that he wished to have a more hardcore and zero tolerance type of school disciplinarian. No doubt, he would have become my bestie. But that type of person isn’t who I am. When working in another district, the administration was big on students walking on specified tiles on the floor when transitioning in the hallways. I caught myself becoming a taskmaster in that way (as directed by the school). Once I heard myself, I stopped that nonsense. Again, that’s not me.

But I am familiar with those types.

I’ve worked in numerous schools with that drill sergeant type of disciplinarian, dean, vice principal, etc. This individual that relishes the significance accompanied with the role of supervising students. The role offers them a level of significance they may not otherwise have doing something else. These folks often portray themselves as someone who cares so much for students, saying that their often times disrespectful treatment of students is justified by the care and love they have for those very students.

That’s a very warped outlook, as well as manipulative… and toxic.

Sometimes these folks are hired to be that specific somebody… truthfully, it says more about the administration than the drill sergeant disciplinarian. My old school wished me to be the drill sergeant; believing that because they students listened to me (because I was Black), that they’d be more apt to follow rules coming from me. I was being taxed as a Black educator.

Sadly, they didn’t realize that my credibility came from building relationships with kids—based on teaching them truth within my content and about life. When you disciple students, you can discipline them. But too often, urban schools—schools where Black and Latino/a/x students are the majority—don’t want discipleship… they want punitive measures.

But if you’re a disciplinarian looking to disciple students rather than simply discipline them; if you really want students to trust you enough to listen to you, here is what NOT to do:

  1. Tough love is not a strategy—so don’t use it. For some odd reason (I mean, I know the reasons), many educators believe that Black and Latino/a/x students need tough love. White children are generally treated with more trust, compassion, and lighter discipline. Black children typically face harsh disciplinesurveillance, and aggressive enforcement cast as “tough love.” Being policed isn’t what Black and Latino/a/x students need. They need teachers and administrators that use the classroom as the mechanism to teach young people about who they are culturally and historically, to utilize skills obtained through content to impact their communities and thus change the world. They need a helping hand, not a heavy hand. They may need correction, but certainly not corrective services. Stay away from that as a strategy.
  2. Schools don’t need a Strongman. A strongman is typically a term reserved for political dictators, but it can apply to educators. These are individuals who rule by force with threats of violence and acts of violence. Educators cannot put their hands-on students, although there are cases where that has happened, but I digress. Choosing violence isn’t limited to physical violence. Words and deeds done to students can be equally as violent. Schools don’t need individuals like that; definitely not a disciplinarian. Lord over students like that and you’ll be hated, untrustworthy and ineffective at doing your job without being even “stronger.”
  3. Broken windows break spirits. There is a concept in policing called “broken windows theory.” This means that that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes—therefore policing methods should target smaller crimes to prevent an atmosphere of lawlessness. This is why in a previous school, much was made about kids walking in a straight line on a specified set of floor tiles silently. Sure, it garnered some assurance of compliance, but those many of those young people hated that building for it. That’s not the desired response (I don’t believe). For the record, broken windows theory is behind the racist disaster of a policy called stop-and-frisk that terrorized Black and Latino/a/x communities. So, applying this theory to urban schools may get you the compliance you seek, but it can also turn students off to school forever. Seems like that’s antithetical to the mission of the school.
  4. Discipliners mustn’t take themselves or their job too seriously. I knew of a disciplinarian where I worked that loved to hear herself talk. She loved to “lay down the law.” It appeared that she felt important in those moments. The students viewed her as a caricature of sorts for her over the top declarations, overly serious nature, and her belief that when she walked in a room, everyone should be quiet, intently waiting for her to speak unless she signaled otherwise. The shtick was only effective for 2 months. Overtime, her words carried less significance. Her tone didn’t strike with the same urgency as it had. She lost a level of credibility and power because she overpromised and underdelivered. You can say that was her… but she assumed that role and it didn’t work. None of us should take ourselves too seriously.
  5. Keep that same energy for teachers and administrators. Adults are ready to go at students… hold students accountable… demand their best… I often wonder if that same energy is pointed towards the adults in schools also. I don’t mean making sure that adults are where they’re suppose to be and policing kids. I wonder is the same energy for kids aimed at adults to ensure that they’re teaching in culturally responsive ways, that they’re teaching skills that can be applied to strengthen the communities of the students they teach, and teaching the truth with respect to the history of this country—which can be taught in all content areas. Disciplinarians should have that same level of energy for teachers because if teachers taught all those things in those ways, the role of the disciplinarian would have less to do with policing and more to do with guiding and directing young people.

I totally understand that young people need discipline. They also need to be discipled: guided, directed and walked through things in love and support. So, let’s discipline our students (Black and Latino/a/x students) with love and support. Let’s continue to press towards the mark!


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