Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Best Lesson I Ever Learned

It happened early in my teaching career. A student came into class and accidentally knocked another student's books onto the floor. Instead of doing the right thing and picking the books up, he just kept walking to his desk like nothing had happened. The other student was upset. He could have picked up his own books, but didn't feel like he should have to, since it was the first student's fault. Needless to say, he asked the first student to pick them up. Again, the first student could have done that, but instead, decided to say that he wasn't going to. Before it was over, the incident escalated into a verbal fight and almost became a physical fight.

During the incident, I did my best to keep it from turning into a big fight, but I was inexperienced and just kept telling them to stop. I tried to reason with both of them, but there was no listening to reason. I thought the student who knocked the books off should pick them up and asked him to, several times. As it turned out, I ended up sending both students to the office where they were both punished with an in-school suspension and detention.

Later, the assistant principal came to talk to me about the incident. She wanted the details so that she could explain to the students' parents why their children were in detention. I went through the entire incident. When I was done, she just looked at me and said "Why didn't you just pick up the books?"

I was floored. Suddenly the fight between the students had become my fault. I was upset that she was blaming me and it evidentally showed on my face. She explained that the students would get their punishments and that they should have controlled their behavior in the classroom. But she also explained that if I had just picked up the books at the first sign of trouble, there would have been no problem. There would have been no verbal fight. There would have been no students sent to the office. There would have been no incident reports to write. There would have been no punishments. Class could have continued and learning could have taken place.

I'll tell you, I didn't like it. And even though I hated to admit it, she was right. It would have been such a simple thing for me to do that. That's all I had to do. Just pick up the books and avoid the whole situation.

The next time a similar incident happened, I took the assistant principal's advice. The whole episode was over in a matter of seconds. Both students apologized to me and said that I shouldn't have had to pick up the books. No one got in any trouble. Class started. Students learned.

And I learned that I didn't always have to punish students for misbehavior. I learned that I could correct their misbehavior in much simpler ways. It was a lesson that stayed with me for the next thirty years. It was probably a more valuable lesson than all those I had learned in college. And it was so simple.

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