• Brent Kaneft

Discipline and Default in Education, Part I (Impulsivity)


I am grateful to the Focus 3 Podcast with Tim and Brian Kight for their work on how to live with "Discipline over Default." If you don't know about this podcast and Focus 3's work, do yourself a favor and listen to the podcast I embedded. Start there, and I bet you won't stop.

Here are the distinctions they make between discipline and default. Over the next month, I am going to apply some of the characteristics of disciplined behavior and default behavior to the educational world. This post is about "Impulsivity."

"Default-driven behavior" is impulsive. It's emotion run amock. I'll start by considering the POV of the teacher. Every day you know what challenges await you. There is no secret here, whether you're a first-year teacher or a thirty-year veteran. Here's a short list of what a teacher faces every day:

___ Students who are tired, hungry, bored, and restless.

___ Students who constantly need their attention.

___ Administrators who are deaf to their concerns or opinions.

___ Critical feedback about their practice.

___ Parents who are uninvolved or over-involved.

___ Etc., etc., etc.

I don't focus on the negative every day, nor do I think anyone else should; however, if you know the

possibilities of what you may be faced with every day, there's no reason you should be unprepared for them. Take the first example on my list: "Students who are tired." I've experienced this a million times. You walk into first period and a few of your students have their heads on their desks. They are done before you've started. You haven't prepared yourself—disciplined your practice—to address this fatigue and use teaching methods or exercises that would get them up and moving, despite the fact that you knew it was coming. So what do you do?

A default-driven response berates the student for being lazy; the teacher unleashes their "undisciplined emotion" on the student for "staying up too late on their cell phone" or for "doing their homework at the last minute." They let this event determine how they feel for the rest of the day (e.g. Why am I here teaching these kids who don't care about what I have to teach them?). Later, at the lunch table or in the teacher's lounge, they rail against this generation's many sins. All of a sudden, these few students in first period have compounded and now represent every teenager living at this moment. I have done all of these things, and I bet there are few teachers who haven't. But what's the reality?

We weren't disciplined enough to respond appropriately to those kids. We either hadn't pressed pause and gotten our minds right or we hadn't done the necessary work to arm our tool belt with activities that wake kids up during first period. We didn't build skill. We decided to complain instead. And because we were undisciplined in that one instance, we had a profoundly negative impact on our community. We spread our emotional dysfunction to students and colleagues.

What challenges do administrators face every day?

___ Negative feedback about your initiatives.

___ Angry parent phone call.

___ Undisciplined teacher behavior.

___ Resistance to change.

___ Budgetary concerns.

___ Etc., etc., etc.

Again, let's look at the first challenge on the list. Effective leaders move an institution forward, whether that's championing pedagogical innovation, moving past a traumatic event, or cleaning up a toxic culture. Never in the history of improvement was there a time that negative or critical feedback didn't start from the bottom and make it to the ears of those people leading. Here's a shocking epiphany, leaders: Not everyone is going to agree with the direction you want to go. As long as that's a small minority, that's OK. But here's what a default-driven response to negative feedback looks like:

You've been working on implementing a new student feedback tool for two months. You've done everything you think you need to do to prepare teachers to receive the feedback from this tool in a way that will help them improve. Gameday arrives and students use the feedback tool. For the most part, it's a success. A few glitches, but nothing you can't fix. You're feeling great! Then, out of nowhere, a colleague or fellow admin drops by to report back on how a few teachers are handling this feedback. Hint: they're upset about the critical feedback they received, and now they're questioning the legitimacy of the tool you chose. So what do you do?

A default-driven response unleashes all of the anxiety, excitement, and fear you've had about this tool. The administrator goes off on a tangent about teachers who can't "get with the program" or "get on the train" and begins grabbing for more superficial evidence to use against these teachers who are causing him/her so many problems. Cursing becomes easier in these moments. What's worse, they use the colleague at the door to verify their frustration, to join in and indulge in this moment of impulsivity. What's clear about this situation?

They didn't prepare themselves for the critical response they knew was coming. They risked putting themselves in a reactionary position. They thought they could handle anything in the moment. They were wrong. Disciplined behavior is intentional, not impulsive. And in my next post, I will talk more about how disciplined behavior plays out in the educational world.


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