Be Nice. Work Hard.

I did my classroom observation last week in the room of a legendary teacher. The mature behavior of his 5th grade students is famous. Classroom management is an area of particular interest for me so I was excited to see what his class looked like for an entire day. It was extraordinary. At 7:10 am, during pre-school music practice, I was immediately offered a bottle of water by one student, then a minute later, by another. The students were quiet and respectful throughout the day – without exception. To be sure, when they played baseball first period, they were normal kids – except that they were uniformly supportive of their teammates and their opponents. It was extraordinary how much time was saved and how much less tiring the day was (especially because the day was 7 am to 4 pm…).

The reason I bring this up here is that taking risks and making mistakes is such a critical part of learning. Creating an atmosphere where that can safely take place is perhaps the hardest thing for a teacher to do. Even extraordinary teachers often don’t intrude on (or know about) the subtle interactions between students. I am coming to believe that the classroom atmosphere has to be something that follows my students 24 hours a day. While this sounds over the top, a classroom can’t be safe if the students are mocked for their in class mistakes away from my sight. Of course, such an intention can’t be fulfilled through coercion. I have no reach beyond the classroom. However, it can be achieved (as demonstrated above) with the proper teaching as the school year begins and reinforcement as it proceeds.

The classroom I observed has a motto, “Work hard, be nice.” Nice is a core value reinforced everyday. Students who misbehave while other students are talking are asked, “You’re acting as if Jorge doesn’t matter. Does Jorge matter?” Harsh, but very true and very effective. As for discipline, the teacher has a simple rule: the class activities have to be interesting enough such that not being allowed to participate is punishment enough. The teacher holds himself and all his students to an extremely high behavioral (and academic) expectation. It works beautifully.

In his class, there is no issue pursuing questioning with struggling students. There is no issue when students make mistakes. In fact, he said at one point, “Thank you for getting it (a math problem) wrong and allowing us to learn with you.”

I think the ultimate testament of how effective his strategy is came in reviewing the answers to the same math quiz. When the teacher asked if anybody had gotten a particular problem wrong, one of the students raised her hand and said that she’d gotten the problem right but didn’t really understand it. Now that’s something special and something to aspire to.

Rules in Schools

The idea that if a rule does not merit a major consequence, it does not merit being a rule applies in schools too.  Establishing rules that are not enforced or, worse, are only infrequently enforced is more than a waste of energy.  It’s actually counterproductive, accommodating a certain lawlessness that is ultimately corrosive.

I see this in the “Raise your hand” rule too.  It seems to me that students should not be allowed to shout out answers, except in chorus.  It is much too difficult and takes too much management to allow shouting out of answers sometimes but not other times.  However, rare is the teacher who consistently enforces this rule and, therefore, rare is the classroom where shouting out is absent.

In my classroom, non-verbal symbols will be followed with rigor.  Likewise, shouting out will not be tolerated, rewarded, or even occasionally condoned.  The central rule in my classroom will be respect and major violations of that principle will receive quick, firm intervention.  Minor departures from the principle of respect will not be treated as rules violations.  Rather, they will be treated as teaching moments or ignored, as the case may be. 

What will not happen in my classroom is the proclamation and subsequent ongoing violation of rules.  Any rule discovered to be unworthy of consistent enforcement, will be considered unworthy to be a rule.


It seems to me, that the breakdown of the non-verbal cue environment is frequently a function of fatigue. 

After a certain period of years or after a certain number of routines are imposed, it just takes too much energy to demand consistent obedience.  Unfortunately, this leaves those routines in a broken state, halfway between useful and purposeless.  The students sense that lack of seriousness and the routines become mere speed bumps, occasional interruptions to be tolerated but not respected.

One of the very first principles we established for raising our daughter was to draw the circle of rules tight enough to cover the major infractions but loose enough to need only infrequent enforcement.  This was based on the observation and belief that kids have considerably more energy to chafe against relatively pointless restrictions than parents have to enforce them.  This leads to the “Don’t, don’t, don’t… ok” syndrome that eats many parents alive.  We try to only establish rules that we are willing to us overwhelming force to enforce.  If it is not worth a major consequence, it is not a rule in our house.

Nonverbal Communication

I have found non-verbal communication in the classroom to be somewhat ineffective. 

On the one hand, it often does not get attention like verbal communications.  In the case of the “quiet” symbol, it frequently takes a while for all the students to notice the symbol is “up” and quiet down.  The noisier the student is being, the longer it generally takes to recognize the symbol, unfortunately. 

This leads to the second issue.  If the point of non-verbal cues is to provide information in a non-intrusive, quiet way, these symbols need to operate in silence.  This is how it works in the military.  On patrol, the only language is the silent world of non-verbal communications through commonly understood symbol language.  Unfortunately, in schools, this is not the case. 

Frequently, the “silence” symbol is accompanied by “shhh!” from the teacher and/or other students.  More perversely, the “I want a drink” and “I want to go to the bathroom” symbols more often than not provokes a whole conversation between the student and the teacher.  “Do you have to go now?” or “No, you have to wait, you should have gotten a drink at recess.”  Both the silence and the class focus are broken.

Ask the Students!

Reviewing the success of lessons is a critical element of improving as a teacher.  In the end, if the lessons are effective and entertaining, learning and learning retention will be high and discipline problems will be few.

One of the things I have learned along the way in this class it to involve the students in how they are taught.  This is a little tricky.  Students cannot have control over standards and objectives.  Nevertheless, they can have major input into how those standards and objectives are achieved.

It seems logical that getting their feedback on lessons would also be a good idea.  It would be useful to know what they liked and where they struggled.  Different students would most likely have different preferences as well.  Those preferences would reveal learning modalities and help broaden and focus pedagogical choices going forward.

The classroom culture would need to be setup appropriately to support those conversations.  Nevertheless, in an atmosphere where the respective roles are clear and respect underlies every interaction, it could work very well.

Discipline, Part Five

There was a fantastic article in the New York Times last week. The subject of the article was current initiatives in improving teacher effectiveness. It cites some interesting statistics including “a student with a weak teacher for three straight years would score, on average, 50 percentile points behind a similar student with a strong teacher” and “while the top 5 percent of teachers were able to impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one school year, as judged by standardized tests, the weakest 5 percent advanced their students only half a year of material each year” (Green, 2010, para. 4).

In discussing what makes an effective teacher effective, the article says, “what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise” (Green, 2010, para. 12). But what are these techniques? It turns out, one of them is ”Positive Framing, by which teachers correct misbehavior not by chiding students for what they’re doing wrong but by offering…’a vision of a positive outcome’” (Green, 2010, para. 29).

This ties nicely to the conversation of how to celebrating students’ success to encourage continuing improvements. While the article doesn’t discuss specific techniques, it does say the “techniques depend on his close reading of the students’ point of view” (Green, 2010, para. 32). It also gives a description of the kind of positive framing it suggests, which are of the “catching students doing it right” variety.  Across the literature, this positivity seems to be preferable to the more conventional “correct what they are doing wrong”  and “do what I say because I am the teacher” approaches so familiar to all of us.

Ultimately the goal is for the children to operate from Kohlberg’s sixth stage of moral development (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 351). They need to learn to do the right thing because it is right, not because they get a reward. The best structure I’ve seen to positively reinforce desired behaviors without tangible incentives is to base the classroom around mutual respect. Students want to behave according to standards because it feels good, they earn respect in their classroom community, and  it is the right thing to do. They behave well to honor themselves and their community. This is my vision for my classroom. 


Bee, H., & Boyd, B. (2007). The developing child (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Green, E. (2010, March 2). Building a better teacher . New York Times. Retrieved from

Discipline, Part Four

If we think of a child as starting the day with a certain self-esteem level, our goal as teachers should be to find a way to send those same children home with more self-esteem. That is so hard for me. I am wired to expect good behavior and punish disruptive behavior and/or inattentiveness. I’m not a disciplinarian and I hold relationship with the class, even in corrections, but I still work from that instinct. Fortunately, the teacher I work with is a model of positive reinforcement. She is constantly scanning the room in order to find a student “doing something right.” It works. Our class is orderly and quick to settle down. Perhaps more importantly the time and stress of strict discipline is avoided. The children, even the boys, feel loved and appreciated. Even the boys with higher natural physicality, lower maturity levels and bigger cognitive deficits feel taken care of and safe. It’s rare and wonderful.

I took a class from a wonderful student of matters educational, Gary Benton. His argument is that at a minimum, children need to receive three positives for every negative. With troubled children, his ratio goes to seven to one. I remember him saying that, if the situation is challenging enough, it may be necessary to say something like, “that’s great, I really like the way you threw yourself against the wall.” Obviously, that’s an extreme, but his point is that almost any positive becomes a way to slowly walk the child back from the self-destructive cycle of punishment and failure. I believe he’s right.

Having said that, I guess it depends on what a teacher sees as his or her role. I see my role as bringing out the best in each and every child. And I believe each and every child wants success. Maybe I need to think of praise as praising their aspirations AND their behavior at the same time. Anyway, I’ve seen how well it works and I want more of it.


Benton, G. (2004). Fire spitters: a workbook for parents (and others) who want to successfully deal with a difficult and angry child. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford.

Benton, G. (2008). Succeeding with the difficult young child (preschool – second grade). Bellevue, WA: Bureau of Education & Research.

Discipline, Part Three

I’m intrigued by your idea of having children who act out write you an apology letter on the spot. I write this speaking as a former boy who spent a lot of time in trouble in school for “disruptive behavior.” If statistics hold true, roughly 3/4’s of your discipline will likely be directed at boys. Your average boy will be far more physically active than your average girl (hence the discipline ratio) and, at least in the lower grades, less capable of both the fine motor skills and verbal skills necessary to easily write you an apology. It was humiliating enough to be in trouble for reasons I only dimly understood. To then be tortured by having to write, of all things, an apology letter would be doubly bad. Obviously, you’re free to do whatever you think is best in the classroom, but I’d like to suggest a slight variation. Perhaps you could allow the disciplined children to choose the media in which they expresses their apology. Letter, artwork, poem, even a song or dance might resonate better and have a stronger effect on long term behavior. I’ve never tried this and I wonder what some of the implications of an ‘apology dance’ might be, but I can tell you I was gritting my teeth at age fifty-one just thinking about being one of those kids. It’s worth a try, I’d say.

As long as I’m advocating for boys, I’d like to add a couple of quotes:

“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” – Friedrich Froebel (Froebel Web, 1998-2009, para. 2)

“Boys get unfairly labeled as morally defective, hyperactive, undisciplined, or ‘problem children,’ when quite often the problem is not with the boys but with the families, extended families, or social environments, which do not understand their specific needs as human beings and as boys“  – Michael Gurian (Gurian, 1999).


Froebel Web. (1998-2009). Friedrich Froebel created Kindergarten. Retrieved February 22, 2010, from

Gurian, M. (1999). The good son: A complete parenting plan. East Rutherford, NJ: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Discipline, Part Two

I am looking forward to learning more about classroom discipline. It seems like an essential part of maintaining an optimal learning environment. It also seems like a far more subtle art than it sometimes appears to be. 

So far, I have seen two systems in action. One, in kindergarten, involved turning the Childrens’ behavior cards from green to yellow to orange to red over successive behavior violations. The second, in 1st grade, involves a lot of positive reinforcement for positive behavior and occasional expressions of disappointment and disapproval for disruptive behaviors.

There are clear developmental differences between first graders and kindergartners. Also, both teachers are caring and experienced, suggesting that they have wisely chosen their discipline strategies. It may well be, most likely is, that different developmental stages require very different tactics.

The card system probably succeeded in damping down unwanted behavior. However, in functioned it more like speeding tickets in effectiveness. This is to say, it restrained behavior but didn’t intervene much in the desire to repeat the behavior. The more cognitive positive reinforcement strategy probably effects the child’s core behavior more profoundly. It does, however, lack the crispness of a good stiff threat.

I have also noticed in both systems that some children on some days seem bent on maximizing their punishment. I don’t mean that they have particularly unruly days. I mean there is a clear sense that they’re pursuing some self-destructive agenda by deliberately racking up the violations. I’m sure it’s some psychological tick I haven’t yet read about, but it’s there from time to time and unpleasant to watch. The rules are there to set boundaries on behavior, not to become the rocks the children break themselves upon.

One final note related to my prior post on gender, the vast, overwhelming majority of infractions belong to boys. Probably eight of ten girls in kindergarten never once got on yellow. Two or three of the boys probably never had a day where they didn’t get to yellow and only getting to yellow was a very good day indeed for them.