New Teacher Help: Student Discipline

Q: What is the difference between discipline and classroom management?

A: Discipline refers to the actions you take when a student is in trouble. Classroom management refers to the procedures you follow to run your classroom smoothly and efficiently, and which might prevent students from getting into trouble in the first place.

School Disciplinary Procedures

How you handle discipline is often dependent upon your school’s established procedures. Hopefully, your administration has outlined specific actions to take in specific situations and follows those procedures consistently. For example, the dress code will probably specify that female students wear blouses that completely cover cleavage. If a young lady shows up at your door showing three inches of the aforementioned cleavage, then your school might dictate that you write her a dress code violation and send her to the discipline office, where she will either call home for a different blouse or spend the rest of the day in in-school suspension. Two students caught fighting might be sent home and then enrolled in alternative school for thirty days.

Reality Check

Your campus leaders will more than likely go over discipline procedures with the faculty in the week or two before school starts. You’ll also want to discuss discipline in private with a veteran teacher, though, because sometimes (it pains me to say) admins will tell you they handle discipline a certain way but in practice do something quite different. A veteran teacher should be able to tell you, “Yeah, they make a big deal about dress code for about a week, but after that they get busy and don’t really care about it. At that point, if you send a student down, they’ll most likely get sent back to class with no consequences. Then you have to deal with major attitude, so it just isn’t worth it.” I hope that isn’t the case at your school, but it’s better to know the truth.

Your Disciplinary Procedures

But other disciplinary issues will depend on your judgment – whether you send them straight to the office or talk to them or call their parents or assign detention – and it pays to figure out ahead of time how you’re going to handle these things. Some scenarios to ponder:

  • Two students are talking to each other while you teach the lesson. They continue even after you ask them to stop. Some eyes are rolled and lips curled.
  • A young man draws pictures on the outside of his closed notebook while he’s supposed to be writing an essay inside the notebook. You prompt him to get started and he totally ignores you.
  • You catch a student doing something covertly on his phone during a test.
  • You made two versions of a multiple choice test in order to foil cheating. While grading, you catch a student with all the answers for the version of the test she didn’t have.
  • A student drops the F-bomb during class.
  • A large percentage of one class seems to enjoy derailing the lesson any way they can. One student clowns a bit, perhaps not quite enough to get into trouble, but then the followers in class laugh loudly and for a long time. It is very difficult to get them settled back down and back on track. This happens frequently.
  • A student gets angry about the way you graded his assignment. He argues with you in class and refuses to postpone the discussion for another time – he wants to have it out here and now. Loudly.
  • You walk past a sleepy-looking student and think you smell marijuana.
  • You catch a student playing a video game (or worse, looking at porn) on his school-issued laptop when he’s supposed to be working on a research paper.
  • You send a student to the office with a dress code violation and they never arrive. Instead, they ducked into the restroom and spent the rest of the period there.
  • You discover that a group of students has been discreetly bullying a classmate right under your nose (and yes, they can be very good at hiding it).

There’s a balance between being your students’ buddy and being Severus Snape or Dolores Umbridge. Neither extreme is advisable. A lot depends on your personality and what mixture of students hits your classroom door, but here are some general tips:

  • My first mentor advised, “Don’t escalate too quickly.” Best advice ever. Even if some sixteen-year-old boy seething with testosterone is standing there pushing every one of your buttons, you need to keep your cool, even if you’re shaking with rage inside.
  • Try not to respond with anger or yelling or sarcasm or insults. These things will make it very hard to rehabilitate your relationship, not just with that student but with that entire class. Worse, the reputation for being a mean teacher might percolate through the student body, making even the next year harder for you.
  • Try not to say anything you couldn’t defend to their parents or the school board – or that you would be embarrassed about if it hit YouTube.
  • The next day is a new day. Find a way to talk to the student when things are calm and work out whatever is going on.
  • Keep in mind that, however petty or ridiculous the student’s issue might seem to you initially, there’s obviously something behind it. Listen to the student and ask questions, if you can. Their stated concern might be more valid than you thought at first, especially if they simply didn’t word it well.
  • It’s also possible that the flimsy issue they’re raising is masking another, more valid issue. Maybe they get angry when you call on them in class because they’re afraid people will discover they can’t read above a third grade level. Maybe they had a big fight with Mom that morning or broke up with their significant other. Try to approach every situation with compassion.

For further reading, check out “Discipline – Order in the Classroom!” from the National Education Association:

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