Be the change, being a teacher, discipline, punishment, reflection, students

Put Your Name on the Board – A Tale of Why I Gave Up Classroom Discipline Systems

image from icanread

When I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress last summer I mistakenly assumed that all posts would seamlessly transfer.  I have since found the error in my thinking and have decided to re-post some of my more discussed posts.  This post first appeared in June of 2011 but still rings true to me. 

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.


32 thoughts on “Put Your Name on the Board – A Tale of Why I Gave Up Classroom Discipline Systems”

  1. Awesome. If and when I get back in the classroom i will try this out. I remember one of my best teaching moments. I taught seniors. One day they erupted into mutiny. At first I thought about cracking the whip. Then an idea came to me, talk it out, find out what their expectations were, listen to them, get ideas from and implement some of those ideas. It changed the dynamics of the classroom. tIt changed how my students acted. It changed how I taught.

    1. Yes, what a great way to approach it. I know seniors are much different than my 5th graders but I have definitely had crazy moments too where we have acknowledged and worked with it, rather than punished our way through it.

  2. This is the article I read when I was first introduced to your blog. After 1 year working as a sub before finding my teaching job, I realized once a student had gone down all the levels there was nothing else to do with them and no ‘threat’ hanging over their head. Students have to buy into being a part of the management system not threatened by it. Thank you!

  3. The problem I’ve run into with that is when you have 3-6 students in the room who want to form a negative community and the rest of the class can’t overpower them even with your lead. Youc can only have so many “come to Jesus” moments before it becomes clear that some students just would rather disrupt, derail, distract, and antagonize each other than be part of a positive community.

  4. The worst year of my teaching life was when “Assertive Discipline” strategies were mandated. I felt like a pinball reacting to behaviors and everyone resented everyone else. Such negative and unproductive work. Great article. Thanks.

    1. And often when discipline systems are mandated, they fail to fit the needs of every students. Just as our students are not standardized, neither can our classroom procedures be.

  5. When I first began teaching I relied heavily on turning cards etc. now almost 2 decades later I’m so much more confident and feel comfortable not using any system. It is not perfect but we are all happier.

    1. And I think the “not perfect” is vital here. There is no system that will ever provide us with the perfect classroom and yet we strive for it, hell-bent on having it. I think realizing that we will have our great days and our wonky days is a huge step in the right direction.

  6. Good for you but this would never work at my school. The challengers would run the room without a strong deterent.

  7. What about in upper grades where kids aren’t in self contained classrooms? How does this work when the other teachers are using reward systems? Not doubting, genuinely curious.

    1. I think it can work as well. Then it has to do with respect and getting to work and also very much depends on what type of work they are doing. I know many teachers that do similar things in middle and high school. It also teaches the students that not every teacher will do the same thing (as far as having rewards or not). I disagree with having to teach a certain way just because another teacher teaches that way and so my students know that.

  8. I teach some difficult kids in a course they mostly hate. I don’t have a system, possibly because the concept of ‘fair’ would turn consistency into a gong show. Sometimes we have some bad days – but the good kids band together, they push forward, they empathize with me, and the bad kids either get their way, don’t show up, flail, or finally jump ship… I think it’s a bad ‘passive system’ but I promised myself that it’s not in my job description to be angry, militant or vengeful. Not worth my meagre salary. 😉 Works for me.

  9. I am happy to read this. I teach EFL in South Korea and as the foreign teacher I do not have too much say in my classroom but keep begging my head teachers to stop the reward programs… I recently read the book you mentioned and it just reaffirmed how I felt. The feeling in my chest when a student demands a stamp for doing something good… It breaks my heart. Glad you made the change!

  10. I can see where this would work with older students. For my kindergartners, I think our “clip chart” helps them monitor how they are doing during the day and it gives their parents feedback at the end of the day regarding their children’s behavior.

  11. I agree totally with your approach! Also tried many of the systems (both positive and negative) Have determined that the students who are going to disrupt will not respond to anything, and the ones that are going to follow the rules will just bankrupt your budget and time accepting rewards for doing what they would have done anyway! And if there is any statement I hate, it is “What will we get if we do it?” We have transformed education in to a system of rewards and punishments for doing what you are supposed to. How will that work out when they get to college, or a job?

  12. You should read Andrian Hoppel. It’s called the “Gift Economy.” I’ve implemented it in my class for the second semester. I expect an even better classroom. It started small with me, if you forget to bring your many passwords to class, you contribute whatever you can to an end of school party. If there are none who forget, I pay for the party. Either way, they get a party. And something as simple as a day off, popcorn, and a piece of candy is party. Students are bring dimes, nickles, quarters, pennies AND their passwords to class.

  13. If you really are interested in changing your classroom dynamics forever, read Teaching with Love & Logic by Fay and Funk.

    I attended one of their seminars back in the 90s, lost track for about 10 years and for the last 13 or 14 years I’ve based my home life with my own children and my classroom teaching on principles of Love & Logic.

    I especially love how forgiving they are, how REALISTIC they are, and how much easier and happier my life has become.

    My students were shocked every year as I told them, “We have one rule in this classroom…..Feel free to do anything that doesn’t create a problem for anyone else in the world; and I’m in the world too. An addendum I also add (as per L&L) is: If you do create a problem, solve it in any way that doesn’t create a problem. If you refuse to, or can’t, I will.
    We then have a conversation about what would create problems for others and how we could handle those. You’ve got to let them mess things up, learn, and find ways to get support from your principal if you really want to change your classroom climate.

    It’s all about slapping on a calm and loving facade until you actually feel it …and you do. It’s about realizing that the purpose of teaching is to help kids understand themselves, the world, and to help them become learned individuals.

    It DOES work. I lived it and still do.
    When I find I’m stressed out, I find that I’ve forgotten L& L and go back to it. by

    They have some free resources for teachers at

    Click to access how-to-create-a-love-and-logic-classroom.pdf

    Actual comments from students (and my own children) in reaction to my L&L style,

    “Why do you always have to make us think?”
    “Why do you always give us choices?”
    “When you say, “If you think so”, I know what you’re thinking.”

    Love & Logic has saved my sanity over and over and helped my students and my own children make reflective choices.

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