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Somebody Needs You

Discipline With Love

This strategy is one that Larry Bell includes in the "Five Inadvertent Actions By Loving, Caring Teachers That Alienate African-American Students from Their Teachers" section of his "The Power of a Teacher Through High Expectations" workshop.

Teachers have a tremendous ability to make a difference in the lives of their students, especially their African-American students. But sometimes loving, caring teachers inadvertently alienate their students of color when it seems to those students -- and I emphasize seems because, for students, perception is reality -- that the teacher disciplines some students but punishes them.

Disciplining vs. Punishing is one of five inadvertent actions that loving, caring teachers take that can alienate their students of color. The line between those two actions can be a fine one, but the main distinction is that we discipline with love; we punish with vengeance. WHAT DOES PUNISHMENT LOOK LIKE?

Clearly, it can be very, very difficult for students to respect a teacher they feel treats them differently, a teacher they perceive is punishing instead of disciplining them. That issue is magnified even more if the teacher is one who doesn't look like them.

So what does punishment in class look like to an African-American student, especially an African-American male student? It looks like this:

A child of color sees another child act up. In his or her mind -- and, again, perception is reality -- the child hears the teacher discipline a student in this way.

Now Mary, you are much better than what you just did. You know I expect better than that out of you. You are too fine of a person to do that. Now go over there and have a seat. Thank you, Mary.

However, that African-American student might see himself or a peer of color get disciplined in a different way:

Kuame, stop that. I know you did that. Now sit down.

First of all, that child has seen and heard a different tone in the way the African-American child was disciplined. Mary got a soft "Mister Rogers" voice, but Kuame got the teacher's heavy, "Mr. T" voice.

Beyond the tone, there were the actual words. Mary was told that she was better than her actions, that the teacher expected better out of her. But Kuame heard a harsh "Sit down."

I don't know how true this is, but this is what many African-American students tell me. This is their perception. I think it might be likely that the teacher has inadvertently treated Kuame in a different way. As a matter of fact, that inadvertent treatment might even have nothing to do with the color of Kuame's skin. It might be that the teacher treats boys and girls differently.

Whatever the case, this distinction between disciplining and punishing is something teachers need to be aware of because when a child perceives that a teacher is unfair or unjust, it is difficult for that child to listen.

And this possibly inadvertent treatment can have a tremendous impact on whether that student will learn.

These teacher actions I have shared are things that students tell me. These actions are their perceptions. But I have a good sense of what their point is because, as an adult presenter, I have witnessed that people are listening intently early on in my workshops to see how I am going to react to them when they ask or respond to a question. I find it extremely fascinating that these are adults and even they are greatly influenced by the way I respond to them.

When they are comfortable that I will listen to them, and respond to them in an interested and fair way, they relax a bit. From that point on, they will hear better and learn more from what I say. My awareness of that has helped me to be more aware of what it might be like for a child to be sitting in a classroom where there are two distinct -- to them -- types of treatment.

What does all this say to me? It says that to increase learning and achievement, teachers must avoid punishing. We need to discipline all students with love. We need to say "You know I expect better from you than that" or "You are too fine a person to do that" instead of saying "Sit down" or "Get out." We need to say "That's an excellent try, but that's not quite what I'm looking for" instead of "You really don't get this, do you?"


Homework is another one of those situations where different treatments often arise. Have you seen or heard teachers make comments such as these when a student forgets his or her homework?

Mary, I am surprised at you. I don't believe you didn't do your homework. You are so much better than that. Now go ahead and do that homework tonight. I'm going to call your mother, because I know she would not expect this out of you.

Gosh, Kuame, you don't have your homework again? I should have known.

Notice again the difference in tone and language. Our tone and our wording should always reflect the same discipline with love for all students.

Every teacher should act shocked for every child who does not have the homework.

Every teacher should say to every child, "I am personally hurt that you don't have it."

Every teacher should say to every child, "You are better than that."

Every teacher should say to every child, "I want you to do that homework tonight even if you're only going to get partial credit for it, because you're going to need this and I want you to be somebody even greater than the person you are now."

Discipline is an issue -- the one issue -- that will get African-American parents to come to school. You don't even have to call them. Many African-American parents will show up at school unannounced if they think we have done something wrong to their baby. If they think that one child got one kind of treatment and their child got another, they will show up because, as Ruby Payne says her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty (page 59), "The number one possession of people in poverty is other people."

Call those same parents about a non-discipline issue and they may not come in, because they are working or because the school intimidates them or because of a cornucopia of other reasons. But never make the mistake of assuming that it's because they don't care about those issues. All parents have one thing in common: they want what's best for their child. Some parents might not be in a position to know how to give it to them, but it's not because they don't want it.

But if they believe that discipline has not been administered fairly, they will show up.

So my message to all teachers is this: Fair discipline is very, very important to all students, but especially to students and other people of color. So discipline with love.

My friends, somebody needs you.
Larry Bell