I graduated from high school in 1990. In my generation (and this is also true of generations before us), if we were told to do something by a person in a position of authority, we typically did it--often without question. If we were asked to do something, we did it, perhaps out of fear of the consequences otherwise.
Fast forward 30 years, and I have now been in a position of authority with students for nearly two and a half decades as a teacher, coach, guidance counselor, and principal. During this time, I have seen a shift in the student mindset as it pertains to authority.
It is the nature of our society, represented through each generation, for there to be significant changes in perceptions, including the perception of authority figures. By and large, it's no longer the case that students think, "I need to listen to what you tell me because you're an authority figure." It's not that students are any worse or better; it is just that this generation wants to see the why behind the what. This reality, in conjunction with other significant characteristics of "Gen Z," calls for a shift in the realm of education and teachers' and administrators' approaches to discipline. I believe that a more modern approach to discipline that meets the needs of today's students must consider the following...
Relationship-Focused vs. Rule-Bound
Nineteenth-century British education reformer Charlotte Mason is credited with promoting this principle of education: "Education is the science of relation."
In my experience, the ability to build a relationship and establish rapport with students is critical to an educator's ultimate effectiveness and ability to nurture them. Relationship is also a crucial foundation for a healthy, modern approach to discipline.
This generation of students is highly relational--the stronger the connection established with someone in authority, the greater their respect and receptivity are.
At the heart of any disciplinary matter, I believe there should be the assumption that teachers want to have healthy relationships with their students. If this is the case, when discipline issues arise, they are not transactional encounters but relational ones.
Caring for the Heart vs. Curbing the Behavior
Rather than simply levying a consequence when a boundary is breached, I believe it is more valuable to consider the factors of a situation and seek out the root of the matter beyond the visible behavior.
Take a circumstance such as defiance in the classroom as an example. It's easy to say, "If you are disrespectful in class, then a teacher will write you up. If you get five write-ups, that's an automatic suspension. After you serve that suspension, we go back to business as usual."
The problem with this approach is that a student may go through this entire cycle without anyone identifying the root cause--why is this student behaving defiantly in class? Maybe there is a core reason this behavior is manifesting itself. Behaviors must be addressed, and sometimes warrant immediate consequences depending on the severity of an infraction, but it is so important to seek out the heart of an issue for true change. It's the difference between addressing discipline matters from a retributive perspective or a restorative perspective. One perspective is focused on punishment, while the other is about restoring a student to a healthy place.
Parents as Partners vs. Parents as Opponents
Not only have I been an educator for 25 years, but I am also a parent of five children. As parents, we have a protective instinct for our kids. We are hard-wired to battle for them when difficult situations arise.
In dealing with student discipline issues as a high school administrator, I have seen a wide range of parent reactions to an equally wide range of disciplinary infractions.
I believe that the best approach to discipline and interactions with parents is to establish a relationship as partners in caring for their children, not opponents. Dealing with a disciplinary situation with parents from an attitude that says, "I'm going to tell you how I'm right, and you're wrong," is never the right approach. Parents love their children and ought to be their child's primary advocates. We, as parents and educators, have a tremendous opportunity to choose between being an adversary or a partner. Ultimately, we all want students to grow and learn, and this is best done in an environment of partnership.
This more nuanced, relational, student-centered approach to discipline is not without its challenges. It takes time to build relationships. It also takes time to consider the various angles of a conflict or discipline issue in order to get to the root of the matter. It also can be difficult to seek out unity between educators and parents in moments of conflict. Ultimately, though, changing the way we approach discipline in education is necessary for meeting each individual child's needs to help them grow into who they were made to become.
[To hear more on this topic, make sure to check out the accompanying podcast episode on Navigating Your Child's Education, a podcast for parents.]