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Put your name on the board! Those words spoken in a very stern voice accompanied by a teacher look was enough to whip the toughest student into shape. Except when it didn’t which for me was enough times to make me wonder. Could my discipline systems really be thrown out and replaced with nothing? Would chaos then reign supreme?
If you had come by my room last year you would have seen them. Those sticks in the cups or the names on the boards with checks, sometimes double checks and plenty of stern looks to go around. I was doing exactly what I had been taught in school, exerting my control as the main authority figure and if students misbehaved, well, then there was some form of punishment. Oh don’t worry; there were plenty of rewards as well. If students didn’t move their stick or get their name on the board for a week then their name got entered into drawing for pizza with me. At the end of the month if they didn’t have their name in my book for not doing their homework, they could also enter their name, and then I would finally draw names and five lucky students would have pizza with me. Confused? I was! I could hardly keep check Of all those names, checks, and punishments.
However, last year I realized something after reading Alfie Kohn; I knew I had to change. By perpetually focusing negative energy on the same students, who, lets face it, are most often the ones having their name singled out somehow already, I was indeed just adding more to their self doubt. While I believe in discipline for all students, I also believe in compassion and that philosophy simply was not fitting in with my chosen system. So I did as many teachers may do; I threw it all out. However, instead of hunting for a new system, I decided to detox myself, start this year with no system for reward and punishment and instead strive to create a classroom community where students just know what the expectation is.
I was petrified that first month. I run a tough classroom in my expectations for my students and I know that if you do not set the tone those first weeks, it can be detrimental to the rest of the year. And yet I held strong in my conviction that even the more unruly students would eventually figure this out through repeated conversations and respect. And boy, did we talk. We talked about expectations, rules, how to speak to one another, and what to do when something goes wrong. A lot of the time, I just listened to these amazing students come up with solutions to problems, listened to them explain how they envisioned our classroom, how they wanted fourth grade to be. And I was in awe; these kids knew how to behave without me telling them over and over. And they certainly would figure it out without me alternating punishment and rewards.
So after the first month I started to breathe again. I let our new system flex itself and watched the students help keep the classroom stabile. Sure, there are times when I think ooh if I just had a way to “punish” it would fix this and this and then I realize that perhaps I just need to find some time to speak to that particular student. Now instead of an exasperated tone and a system to keep them in check, we discuss, we try to fix, and we reevaluate. I don’t run the classroom with a complicated system of checks and balances, rewards and punishments, but rather with an atmosphere of community, of belonging. Is it perfect? No, but neither am I, nor my students. I am just glad I believed in my own skills enough to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, my students would know how to behave without me rewarding them for it. Once again, they blew away all of my expectations.