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How to run a school

TMAO had a couple of recent posts where he talked about the criminalization of misconduct and punishment superseding tutoring time.

This indexed put it all in relief.

In my four years of teaching, I have had 5 principals. For the most part, they have ranged from “more in the way than useful” to “dealing with the basics, but otherwise neutral”.

There was one exception: Dr. Felz.

Except he made us call him Jeff. And he made the rest of us address each other by our first names as well. The kids still called him Dr. Felz, but the way they’d say it, you could have sworn they were saying Uncle Jeff.

When he came to the school, he said that he’d make discipline the cornerstone of his administration. For about two months, I didn’t see it. The kids were still nuts, but punishment was rare. What kind of discipline was this?

Then teachers started grumbling: they couldn’t get any face time with him. They’d set up a meeting, and he’d just tell them to go ahead and do what they had to do. The best I ever got from him were a couple of snippets of conversation chasing him down the hallway between classes. And those snippets of conversation? They were always interrupted by him talking to the kids. The reason teachers couldn’t get appointments? He always had students in his office. He had an open door policy for students – they could talk to him anytime.

Well, anytime he was in his office. When the kids were out of the classrooms, he was where the kids were. He found the spot that the bad kids hung out at, and claimed it as his own. He didn’t make them leave, didn’t tell them how to act, just showed up there and said: “This is my tree – you’re still welcome to hang out here, but you’re going to hang out with me.”

There were a number of substitutes that used heavy handed intimidation to manage their classrooms. They were quickly blacklisted.

There is a disciplinary procedure called “school beautification”: kids who have been caught vandalizing or littering get to pick up trash. For Dr. Felz, he really beautified the school. Instead of picking up trash, those kids helped him plant trees. Then they helped him water the trees.

After those first two months, I started seeing a difference. Those kids wanted to be at school. It wasn’t a place they had to go to, it was a place where they could get caring and respect that they couldn’t get anywhere else. On top of that, they started caring about the school. It mattered to them (because it mattered to Dr. Felz) that there was graffiti, or trash. He’d pick up trash himself, and give candy to any kid who helped him.

All of a sudden, the idea of suspension, or worse yet, transfer, started to mean something. If a kid seriously stepped out of line, they still faced the same consequences, but now they cared about them. The biggest change was in the incoming transfers: it took them about two days to figure out that this school was different, and then you could have the “be part of this, or go back” talk. It didn’t take two months with them, it took two days.

And the change was pervasive. It was no longer individual teachers having to set a tone for their classrooms. The atmosphere permeated the classrooms and the hallways. There was no need to reset the kids behavior when they came into the classroom. They were still kids, but they came in happy and ready to get started. That year of teaching was my best ever.

So, why isn’t this more common?

  • It takes a paradigm shift: I can’t see an incremental transition from bullhorns and threats to that. You’ve got to take the leap of faith, and you’ve got to stick with it while it takes effect.
  • It’s got to be top down. Most principals I’ve worked for depend on teachers to have good classroom management as the foundation for their school wide approach. Given the turnover rate at these schools, that’s some shaky ground.
  • It’ll piss people off. The kids were happy. There were a lot of teachers, however, who were upset to be relegated to second class status after the kids.
  • It completely goes against human nature. It’s part of the reason that Mr. Rogers is the root of a number of jokes. It’s much easier (especially in American culture) to use force and punishment to achieve an end, than to build a culture where everyone wants to work together to achieve that same end. But despite despite those jokes, Mr. Rogers had that “it” that could make both kids and hardened senators want to work with him.

{ 5 } Comments

  1. Benjamin Baxter | February 13, 2008 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    What happened to him?

  2. Mr K. | February 13, 2008 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Both he and his wife developed fairly serious illnesses, and he had to retire.

    Too bad, because the way he did things was not something you can learn in a classroom, it was only something you get by seeing it in action, over and over again.

  3. Alane | February 13, 2008 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s interesting that you said he insisted that everyone call him by his first name and that faculty use first names for each other. When I first became a teacher, it felt very strange to me for people to call me by my last name all the time. It was very off-putting to me. When another teacher calls me by my last name while students aren’t around, it says to me “We’re not personal friends. There’s a wall here.” It’s fairly isolating.

  4. dkzody | February 13, 2008 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Our principal is a warm, caring man who understands our immigrant children because his dad was once an immigrant. He goes to all the kids’ performances, sporting events, and the dances. He’s at every dance, and he always takes lots of pictures of the kids and posts them on his office door. The kids hang out there to see his photos. The majority of the students have great respect for the man and he respects them.

    The problem, and he will say this too, is the minority of students who do not want to be at school and are only there to make trouble. He is sympathetic to what we teachers face everyday and he always supports us with these troublemakers. He is undoubtedly the best boss I have ever had, in education or in industry.

  5. Jonathan | February 23, 2008 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    We have something like this. I can’t say that it’s a panacea, but the positive interaction with (almost) all students has shifted the overall tone.