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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Better Return on Office Discipline

A Better Return on Office Discipline

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

            I often say I should have been a career Assistant Principal. 
Many years ago, I found that I did some of my best teaching when students were sent from class – to my office.
            My approach worked, yet wasn’t as popular with those who wanted children scolded, stressed, consequence’d, and healed.  It provided the groundwork for years of professional and personal reflection, inspired by the occasional, happenstance’d meeting of a former student, who was gainfully enjoying adulthood as we reminisced.
            Those conversations have convinced me that my time and attention were well spent.
            Now with time to write, I’m convinced that those entrusted with school discipline (i.e. student discipline) can yield a better return on investment, if they consider playing an age-ole’ game a different way.
            Our game as typically prescribed involves an oft-drummed mantra of “protecting academic time at all costs,” moving as many students as we can through the office and back to class during “non-instructional” time.  We have become efficient in imparting consequences for behaviors, ironically influenced in part by adult dysfunction and our inability to control our own profession’s drama. 
Capping this all off is our concluding sayonara to office-goer’s -- where we note the progressive, corrective nature of future visits, if they grace our revolving doors.

            I’m not sure who really ever wins that game, except for the adults in schools who resist changing their approaches.  Thus, I have long suggested a game played with better investment, one that would yield a better return on student discipline. 
It would include the following moves:
            Move One – Connecting:  As school disciplinarians, we would not have students summoned to the office as a rule; we would instead meet them where they are, both literally and figuratively.  Our office visit would start with our walking about the school and strolling casually with those whom we need to meet.  We would shift both style and location to meet students where they are.  Everything about our persona would indicate that these students are not necessarily “in trouble”; rather, they are instead having a chat with an adult who cares.  We might even stop along the way for a conversation on a bench or in the commons area, if privacy can be maintained.  If students are sent from class directly to our office before we can reach-out to them, we might ask that they stroll with us as we run a short errand, something inconsequential or manufactured.  One example might be running something to the cafeteria staff, or grabbing something from the custodial lounge – places “safe,” never the teachers lounge.  The key here is to de-escalate calmly -- with finesse; sans threat –providing unwavering positive affirmation before official business is conducted.

            Move Two – Redirecting:  After listening to the student’s story (listening; not waiting for a pause in which we interject), we then do what is most-urgent:  replace the lost classroom instruction with something of our own, a teachable moment designed under a curriculum that we ourselves write, with or without our teachers’ knowledge.  This may or may not have anything to do with direct handling of the current situation and getting the student back to class.  It’s our gig.  It’s what we want to say and feel compelled to do so – it’s what we can share through story, possibly something that we know about communications and how adults and students can get along as members of different generations. Might even be something we learned from a mentor.  This is OUR opportunity to teach, to play the game of school discipline differently by ensuring that every time a teacher sends a student away from classroom instruction, we will replace the lost time with instruction of our own.  Students will never really get back those lost academic minutes, ones they may not remember anyway, from Mr. or Mrs. Mediocrity, so why not teach them something they will.

            Move Three – Contextualizing:  We can then begin the process of doing what most think we should do, admittedly something important:  discussing “what happened” with this student and unearthing an important take-away, more rehabilitation than retribution, yet the latter is not always off limits.  This is where we offer context and consequences in a way that students can understand, with clear implications regarding what they were doing, what others perceived, how folks were affected, and what they can do in order to get past, learn from, and move on.  This is most certainly the part that we report back to the teachers, whether or not we ever share with them our time spent in Move Two above.

            Move Four – Reframing:  In this very important follow-up step, we begin to have an even closer relationship with students, not so much by reminding them of Move Three; in fact, that would be counterintuitive – rather, through continued interest in who they are as people, and along the way, tactful revisits with Move Two.  We see them more often.  We notice them.  They know that they matter to us.  This amounts first to a continuation of Move One and a deepened potential for mentorship.


In a larger sense, we might even think of playing our different game by creating our own classroom – by intentionally supervising After-School Detention or Saturday School, where students who spend time with us are granted the opportunity to continue learning more about “our thing,” teaching’s and learning’s that over time can rapidly become theirs, if they accept the invitation.  Just think how often we sound like our parents when we get older.  Well, if these children lack parents (or good parenting), wouldn’t it be of benefit if they start sounding like us, once raising their own children?  Those are the larger implications here – generational impacts, if we let them take root.  If we’re good, students will remember what we taught them, years hence, when life requires those skills.

            I once knew a pair of school leaders who played a different game of school discipline in a secure detention center.  They found their “curriculum and instruction” of such interest to (and impact on) students, that children would violate their own court orders once released, just so that they could be sent back to the juvenile home. 
They had no support structure on “the outside.”
My colleagues solved this dilemma by starting their own school outside the detention center, so that students could attend while not necessarily adjudicated.  Generations of their students have been making better choices now for 30 years, with the founders’ finding that many “children” have raised their own children under the light, warmth, and guidance of a school disciplinarian’s care and tutelage.


Dr. Ryan Donlan has a specific curriculum and instructional design established for “Move Two” above, and he plans on putting it in book form, two or three book projects away.  He is not so naïve to think that this “better return” will come about easy; pockets of toxicity lie await in even the best schools, hoping that just such a discovery falls left or right of the monopoly on teaching and learning.  If you are interested to hear more about Move Two, please do not hesitate to contact Dr. Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at


  1. There are some great things to think about here, Dr. Donlan.
    As an assistant principal, when teachers ask me a question in front of students that begins with, "Back when you were a teacher..." I am sure to remind them that I am still a teacher, a teacher of behaviors.
    Rehabilitation over retribution. How often is "restorative justice" neither?

  2. Both your teachers and students are very fortunate to have you, JP!