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Principal I.J.'s Story

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Principal I.J.'s Story

(The following scenario is a fictitious amalgamation of scholarly research and observations across schools and not intended to single out any current or former school leader. Similarities to any principal with the initials I.J. is purely coincidental).

Principal I.J. was known as a firm disciplinarian. A very dutiful child, she was raised believing that children were supposed to sit still (as best they could), pay attention, not “talk back”, and respect adults by doing as they’re told. Her mother grew up in much the same way. She went to a Catholic school outside of the country where they too were strong disciplinarians - so much so that students were spanked by teachers in front of the classroom for inappropriate behavior. 

While Principal I.J. strongly disagreed with spanking, she did believe that there was something to be said for having a classroom modeled on the formula of “sit down, do as you’re told, and speak when spoken to”. She’d seen it work first-hand after all during her K-12 experience as a student in a very affluent private school. Granted, the students weren’t perfect all the time. In fact, they commonly goofed off when substitute teachers were present. However, it was all in good fun and most of the students were serious about academics. And she was determined to bring the gift of this same structure and expectations to the Title I school she began working in this year.

During Principal I.J’s classroom observations, she notices that students get up and walk around during class, play games, talk back, dispute the teacher’s assessments of their behavior, and find other ways to be disruptive during class. After about two months observing this, Principal I.J. tells teachers that they need to enforce a zero tolerance policy to get students in line, especially since students like them were in special need of discipline and structure. 

The very next day teachers begin issuing more detentions than before. This led to an increase in the number of referrals to the Dean’s office. And in an effort to curtail future visits, the Dean called caregivers to inform them that their child will get suspended if this continues. Some caregivers express their anger with their child’s behavior and the number of referrals to the Dean’s office go down; however, many of the children of those caregivers noticeably withdraw from participation in class. On the other hand, the other caregivers that the Dean called were angry with the school for waiting until that time to decide to communicate with them. There was little change in those student’s behaviors.  

After feeling unjustly disciplined, students began to complain to their parents and other school staff that they felt they were being treated unfairly, remarking that teachers “just didn’t like them”, or had clear favorites, or were “constantly finding something wrong” with what they were doing, or were outright racist in some cases. The complaints, however, were all dismissed as overreactions because school policy dictated that everyone be held to the same standards and expectations. As frustrations simmered on both sides, detentions started to rise, as did referrals and suspensions. Some students decided they didn’t want to be there anymore and became chronically absent. Other students ended up being referred for special education services.  In many ways, things were worse than before.  

Remembering an incentive plan that she heard had great success in another district, Principal I.J. decided to implement it in her own school. Students and/or classrooms were eligible to receive an activity day, pizza parties, or a special field trip if they demonstrated positive behavior and did not get a certain number of detentions during a specified period of time. Teachers reported that this idea met with a lot of excitement from students. However, after a couple of months, the number of detentions, referrals, and absences started to pick back up.  

Exasperated and nervous about her upcoming meeting with the Superintendent, Principal I.J. wonders how things ended up this way at her school.


What do you think?  What would you say are the reasons Principal I.J. is experiencing so many problems in the very area she values most -- school discipline?

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