Before reading this column, you might want to read or review Dr. Jones's previous columns Positive Discipline Part 1: The School Discipline Code, Positive Discipline Part 2: Instruction Meets Discipline, Positive Discipline Part 3: No Joy, No Work, and Positive Discipline Part 4: Visual Instruction Plans.
As teachers, we want to have a positive classroom atmosphere. We want our students to look forward to coming to school in the morning, to love being in our classrooms, to enjoy learning. Any teacher who does not delight in those things has made a truly bad career choice.
No one enters the teaching profession wanting to nag and criticize, but many teachers end up doing so every day. At the beginning of their careers, those teachers wanted to be positive. But, wanting to be positive and having the skills to pull it off are miles apart.
It is the undying hope of green teachers that if they just love their students and are nice to them, everything will turn out fine. That is the sweet dream of the uninitiated. It will get a smile from anyone more experienced in raising children.
To succeed, you will need both love and skill. Love without expertise is powerless.
One of the key skills of successful teaching is meaning business. Any teacher can tell you that you have to mean business. But, how do you do that?
Meaning business involves your entire being. It is mental, emotional, and physical. In this segment, we will look at the mental aspect of meaning business. The mental part of meaning business centers on a clear understanding of consistency -- consistency when setting limits on children's obnoxious behavior. Effective teachers and parents are consistent, but they are consistent within the context of nurturance. Perhaps a story about my mom will set the tone.
My mom had been a schoolteacher, and I never doubted that she meant business. I have very clear memories of her meaning
business. I remember one time bugging my mom for something to eat in the late afternoon after my little playmate had
gone inside for a snack of gingerbread. I deserved gingerbread too. I opened my negotiations where all children begin
their negotiations, at whine level number one.
"Mom, can I have something to eat? Tommy's getting gingerbread."
My mother turned from the stove and said, "Fred, I'm going to have this meal on the table in 45 minutes. Now, I don't want to ruin your appetite."
Naturally, I escalated the negotiations to whine level number two.
"But Mom, can't I have something? Don't we have some ginger snaps? I'm hungry!"
My mother said, "Fred, I am not going to give you a snack now and then watch you sit at the dinner table and just peck at your food."
My mother always used bird analogies when describing my eating habits as a child. But, I knew what to do.
I went to whine level number three without missing a beat.
"But this isn't fair! Tommy gets gingerbread. Can't I have something?"
My mother put down her spatula and turned slowly to face me. She looked at me intently as she wiped her hands on her apron and said, "Fred, I said no, and no means no."
I couldn't just let go of it. After all, life had been unfair.
"But why can't I? Tommy gets..."
I was cut off in mid-sentence. My mother, with eyes squarely focused on mine, said, "Fred, I am not going to stand here and listen to your yammering. ('Yammering' was my mother's code for, 'You are really pushing it.') You may either go outside to play, or you may open your mouth one more time and end up sitting on the stairs until dinner."
My sense of injustice must have been profound.
"But, why can't I..."
Those were the last words spoken. My mother stood before me with eyes fixed and finger pointing to the stairs. I felt something inside wilt. I knew it was over. I was silently ushered to the stairs to sit.
I must have been there for 45 minutes. Mother finished preparing dinner, and Dad came home from work. My older brother, Tom, came home from playing up the street and was given a quick gesture to leave when he started to ask me why I was sitting on the stairs. Mother set the table and called Dad and Tom to dinner. When they were all seated, Mother turned to me and, without a trace of upset in her voice, said, "You may join us now." I was grateful. And I learned that Mom was not fooling around when she said, "No."
I have no idea how many times I was sent to the stairs while growing up, but I am sure that it was more than once. From those experiences, I learned two very important lessons about parenting that served me well in later life:
Rule #1 -- No means no. Rule #2 -- I am not going to stand here and listen to your yammering.
Years later, I found myself on the faculty of the University of Rochester Medical Center training interns and postdocs to work with families. While we sometimes dealt with severe psychopathology, the majority of our cases in the child outpatient clinic had to do with "brat" behavior. A typical case might have a father, age 37, a mother, age 35, and a single child, age 3. Who do you think was running the household?
"Therapy," in those cases, involved training the parents in basic parenting skills. As you might imagine, one of the cornerstones of discipline management was, No means no. With practice, my clients even became adept at saying, I am not going to stand here and listen to your yammering.
But, some parents just couldn't bring themselves to set limits. To begin a session, I would ask, "How did it go this week?" Then, the excuses would start.
"Wellll... We were in a restaurant, and we had already ordered when he started to act up. We couldn't just leave at that point, could we?"
"Wellll... We were in the supermarket, and he kept pulling the cans off the shelf. The faster I put them back, the faster he pulled them off. Then they all fell down. I didn't know what to do."
"Wellll... We were at grandmother's, and I didn't want to make a scene. She is an old woman and easily gets upset."
"Wellll... It was his birthday party, and I didn't know what to do when he started running around and hitting the other children. I couldn't send him to his room in the middle of his birthday party, could I?"
Those parents just could not bring themselves to say "No" and mean it. The nickname around the clinic for those parents was "weenies." You will have conferences with many "weenie parents" in the course of your career.
Consistency is a word that everyone knows but few people understand. We all know that it has something important to do with child rearing. But, exactly how does it work?
One of my weenie parents said, "But, Dr. Jones, I think we are being pretty consistent."
When I told this to my colleagues, we had a big laugh. We had a bigger laugh when one of my other weenie parents said, "But, Dr. Jones, I think we are consistent most of the time."
What weenies fail to understand is that consistency is all or nothing. There are no degrees of consistency. There is no such thing as "pretty consistent" or "very consistent."
Consistency permits only two conditions. You are consistent or you are inconsistent. There is nothing in between.
Imagine that my mother, instead of being consistent, had been pretty consistent. Four out of five times, no meant no. But, one out of five times she "cracked." Maybe she had a good excuse -- she was busy or stressed or distracted. So, in a moment of weakness, she blurted, "OK, take some ginger snaps, go outside, and leave me alone! I'm tired of listening to your yammering!"
If my mother had cracked, she would have taught me: "When the going gets tough, the tough get yammering."
"If at first you don't succeed, yammer, yammer again."
"Never give up! Have hope! Today might be your lucky day."
When parents crack, they teach children that yammering pays off. Children learn that they can and will get their way, but first they must wear down their parents by acting like brats.
The irony of consistency is that the closer you come to being consistent before you fail, the worse off you are. If the parent cracks easily, the child does not need to be a world-class yammerer in order to succeed. But, if the parent does not crack easily, the child must learn to play hardball in order to win. By making kids work hard in order to win, we train them to be ruthless and persistent.
If you want to act like a teacher, you must think like a teacher. For starters, you must be truly consistent. Very consistent won't make it. We all know how obnoxious brat behavior is. We have friends and loved ones who have raised brats. We shake our heads when thinking about their weenieism and say to ourselves, "That will never happen in my classroom." But beware! Weenieism can sneak up on even the most experienced of teachers. It can easily go unnoticed.
In the classroom, weenieism is more subtle than at home. Imagine, for example, that you want students to do their own work during this particular lesson without talking to one another. As you are helping a student, you catch some whispering on the far side of the room. It is not serious talking -- just some whispering between two students. You are busy -- in the middle of an explanation. This is your moment of truth. Will you stop what you are doing to deal with the infraction? Or, will you continue instructing?
If you continue instructing, you might as well make the following announcement to your class:
"Class, do you remember what I said at the beginning of the school year about high standards and time on task. Well, as you know, words are cheap. What you just saw was reality -- what I actually do. As you may have noticed, I find discipline management to be well inconvenient. Consequently, when I am doing something more enjoyable, like instruction, I will turn a blind eye to your fooling around if it is not too bad. In other words, as you can plainly see, my classroom rules are nothing but hot air. Now that you know this, I hope we will have a good year together."
Green teachers tend to think of classroom rules as a behavioral wish list. Natural teachers know that each classroom rule comes with a high cost. They understand the following axiom:
Never make a rule that you are not willing to enforce every time.
Consistency begins with thinking long and hard about which classroom rules you are willing to enforce every time. You might find that some, while they sound good, will not be worth your time when you are forced to choose.
I have rarely met a green teacher who understood consistency. To the green teacher, consistency is just a word. People who enter teaching after they have raised their kids are miles ahead when it comes to consistency. They know that consistency is serious business. Their kids taught them how serious it is when they went through the "terrible 2's." They know what brat behavior looks like. And they know that the sweetest child in the world can be awful under the right circumstances.
Green teachers are focused more on nurturance than consistency. They tend to take the notion that there are no degrees of consistency as a bit rigid and authoritarian. They are more concerned with creating an exciting and friendly atmosphere that causes children to quicken their step as they approach the classroom door.
Green teachers are absolutely right to have that focus. But, unless they can balance nurturance with firmness and consistency, they will inadvertently produce brat behavior. And then, without wanting to, they will have to struggle to maintain order. Without wanting to, their voice will become harsh as they nag and criticize.
In later segments, we will look at the emotional and physical skills of meaning business. But these skills are nothing in the hands of a weenie.[content block]