Classroom Leadership: From Compliant Kids to Ethical Thinkers

A student walks in late to my class for the fourth day in a row. I pull him aside and explain authoritatively that I will not tolerate his misbehavior.

“This is unacceptable. Your education is important. You need to be here on time. I don’t waste class time and so I expect you to honor our norms.”

He stands there silently, looking away. I move into his vision and add, “Does that make sense.”

He nods his head.

“You’re a good kid,” I say. “You’re a deep thinker and you’re creative and you’re compassionate. I see that in you. I just need you showing up on time. Do you understand?”

He looks at me stone-faced and says, “I understand.”

I leave the conversation feeling good about this interaction. I didn’t shame him. I didn’t yell at him. I didn’t write him up and send him to the office with a fat stack of referrals. Compared to an earlier time in my career, this is a success.

Except it doesn’t change the next day. He walks in again fifteen minutes late. I let it slide. I’m busy and I’m tired and honestly I don’t want to engage in the conflict. So, it slips away that day. And the next. And the day after that. And the next week.

Two weeks later, I pull him aside and point to the attendance sheet.

“You can’t be doing this. What kind of bad habits will this form throughout your educational career?” I use the term “career,” despite the deeper reality that learning doesn’t have an on-the-clock and off-the-clock button.

He shrugs his shoulders.

“I can’t have you showing up late like this. It really is a bad habit. They won’t put up with this in high school.”

“I know,” he says.

“I need you to promise me that you’ll show up on time tomorrow,” I tell him.

“I can’t do that,” he says.

“Fine,” I say, trying my best to keep my composure. It feels like a very deliberate attack on my authority. “But there’s going to be consequences.”

“Okay,” he says.

As I turn to leave, he adds, “I was thinking maybe I could stay after each day and earn those fifteen minutes. What do you think of that?”

“Or you could show up on time,” I tell him.

The day progresses and he shows up on time to everything else. He asks and answers questions. On most levels, he’s thriving. Except, there are times when I sense a vague distance between us. There’s an unspoken tension.

I leave that day realizing that my approach has been all-wrong. I’ve focused on the behavior while ignoring my student. I’ve asked him to make commitments that he outright refuses to make. I’ve threatened him with a punishment. I’ve lectured him on his responsibilities. However, in this obsession with the external behavior, I never bothered to ask for the whole story.

So, the next day when he arrives late, I pull him aside. He looks scared this time.

I ask, “Hey, you’re not in trouble. I said that I was going to give you a consequence, but that was a threat. And I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he says.

“No, it’s not okay. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”

“Yeah,” he says.

I look him in the eye and add, “I haven’t even bothered to listen to the story. I trust you. I trust who you are and I’m convinced that this wouldn’t be a pattern if it there wasn’t a logical reason.”

“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” he says.


It’s awkward. I want to jump in and fill it up with more reassurances. However, this action of vulnerability is a first step toward repairing trust. I know it sounds weak. I know it feels like I’m giving him all the power. However, there’s a paradox at work here: a leader is only powerful through humility. By voluntarily serving, the leader empowers those he or she serves and the result is a trusting submission from the student.

After school, he stops by my class to explain the story. “So, my sister is being bullied really badly. This started a month ago or so and I promised her that I would stay with her until her classes start.”

“Why didn’t you tell someone?”

“She asked me not to tell. She’s worried they’ll retaliate,” he explains.

“Don’t you trust the school to keep her safe?” I ask.

“Not as much as I trust myself,” he says.

So, with this, I am able to engage in a conversation about responsibility and trust. The student agrees to report the bullying and together they solve the problem.

What’s the Goal?
When I share this story in the staff lounge, the two other teachers disagree with my approach.

“You totally let him off the hook,” a teacher says.

“Yeah, that’s not how the real world works,” the other says.

“But in the real world, I want him showing up to think because he wants to be there. I want him
valuing family and job and education.”

“If he pulls that crap in the workforce, he’ll be fired. Nobody cares in the real world.”

“I disagree. I think people do care. And I think that ultimately, our job is to prepare students to think ethically. I want them to be empowered to do the right thing, not because they might get in trouble, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

A teacher shakes his head. “How many people would speed if we didn’t have cops?”

“How many speed anyway?”

“But that’s not the point. People don’t speed, because they want to avoid punishment.”

“I don’t speed, because it’s dangerous,” I say.

They laugh. “Sure you do.”

“So, you just enforce the rules regardless?” I ask.

“Yeah,” they say simultaneously.

“And what if the rule is bad?”

“Very few rules aren’t bad,” a teacher explains.

“Do you always follow the rules?” I ask.  “I mean, do you do everything right on your lesson plan format?”

“No,” he admits. “But it’s a joke. Why are they making everyone do the exact same thing?”

I’m struck by this mindset that students should be compliant rather than critical thinkers. For all the talk of higher-order thinking, schools rarely ask students to think about the ethics of their behavior. For all the talk of "self-directed learning," schools rarely ask students to participate in self-directed discipline. For all the talk of “citizenship,” there is rarely a call to fight injustice, to think well about moral philosophy and to go beyond simply “being nice.”

When I look at the teacher cheating scandals, the bailouts of unethical banks, the steroid use in professional sports and the lack of ethics in politics, it seems that simply avoiding “getting caught” and staying within compliance are a real danger. When I think of the “I was just following the rules” argument of Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa, I sense the dark side of compliance.

Classroom leaders understand the goal of discipline is to redirect a child to think better about how to live. If we truly believe in self-directed learning, we need to embrace self-directed discipline. Students need to learn to manage, analyze and reflect upon their behaviors and how they connect to their own personal, ethical framework.

Rules are not a set of arbitrary ideas that one enforces, but a set of guidelines that a community hashes out through democratic debate. They are deeply rooted in an ethical framework.

What This Means
The experience mentioned before reinforces some fundamental truths about what it means to lead a student rather than simply manage a class:
  • Listening is as important as speaking. Compliance is almost always about following rules rather than engaging in a dialogue, while empowering students begins with listening. You never know the whole story. Never. The best you can do as a teacher is to draw out the story through a conversation.
  • Change happens relationally and it requires trust. Humility is the catalyst for this type of change. On the other hand, compliance breaks down trust and causes students to hide.
  • The goal of classroom leadership should be empowering students to be responsible decision-makers. Or, to put it more simply, I want students to make wise decisions. It’s important to talk students through their decision-making process and their own sense of ethical development.
  • Humility and vulnerability are not signs of weakness, but signs of a mature teacher that students can approach with confidence.
  • Quit bribing kids for good behavior. Ethical people do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. I wouldn't stop by a stranded motorist and say, "I'm sorry, but I'll need a set of stickers before I help you out." 
Photo Credit: by Jabiz Raisdana - one of my favorite photographers and bloggers

John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. Great post, John. I always say to our school staff that if a student is "stepping out of line", it is a great chance to make a connection with that kid. Your approach with the student in your story (beautifully told BTW) worked to build a relationship with your student. Often student "misbehviour" is a result of something much bigger. You obviously cared enough about your student to find out the reason for the lates.
    Thanks for sharing your learning!

    1. I agree. It's a chance to build a relationship and it's a chance to help that student think about his or her decision-making.

    2. John, I don't know you, but we must be brothers from another mother. I've lived this relationship with various students over the year. You've said things in this article that have come out of my mouth, exactly, and I've learned, more than once, that there's the story I am failing to ask about. I keep learning. I think I'm getting better. Trust. It is ALWAYS about trust. I don't know how others attempt to teach without working on TRUST. And those two in the faculty lounge? Arrrrrgh. I know them, too, unfortunately.
      Thank you for this article. I've shared it on FB.

    3. I agree, Bob, that it is always about trust. Thanks for sharing the article on Facebook.

  2. Love this approach John,

    Definitely have been working towards this model of thinking this year, but it can be easy to fall back into old ways especially when tired or frustrated. I have shared this blog series with my colleagues and I hope they read it this summer and it sparks some good thinking and conversations.


    1. I fall back into my old ways, too. Fear and insecurity will do that. Thanks for sharing the blog series.

  3. You really hit the nail on the head here. By only seeing things black and white you get so many arbitrary rules that do not make any sense. You get unethical behavior because people are just doing what they are told.

    As for the response, "If he pulls that crap in the workforce, he’ll be fired. Nobody cares in the real world."

    I would have answered, and if no one cares for him now, then he will be the person who doesn't care for others when he is in the "real world," and that would be a tragedy.

    1. I love your response. Shouldn't compassion and empathy be life-long skills as well?

  4. Great story. I'm a fourth year teacher in an inner city high school labelled as one of the worst in the country. The ethical foundation of my students is shaky, ambiguous, or even absent in many cases, very much reflecting a broken and dysfunctional family history. I have come to realize that my role as teacher of "history" is very much secondary to my role as ethical leader and role model. My most important teaching moments have come from the many one-on-one encounters described by Mr. Jennings. However, every teacher regardless of subject matter must recognize and respect their ultimate responsibility of instilling civic and personal lessons of morality and ethics without bias or religious conviction in the way. Not an easy task or one most teachers are willing or capable of doing, but as my education professor once said, "the world could always use more doctors and lawyers."

    1. I think you hit on something important there: helping them see things ethically without having a religious or even a cultural bias can be challenging. However, that's why philosophical thinking is such a powerful force that is so often ignored in schools.

  5. I've learned to say, "Talk to me about the obstacles that are getting in the way of...[name the desired behavior]?" It often gets to the heart of the problem quickly.

    Good reminder :).

    1. I like that sentence starter. It has a way of diffusing the situation ahead of time.

  6. "A student walks in" rather than "A student walked into" is why you aren't taken seriously. I struggled through your poorly written books. It's time for you to invest in a proof-reader. I can't take your ideas seriously when you fail to articulate yourself with correct grammar.

    1. Get a life...

      If you don't like what's on, change the channel.

    2. Using the present tense to tell a story is not bad grammar. It's a style choice that many writers use.

    3. Dear Anonymous,

      Hmmm...perhaps you meant "articulate yourself using correct grammar."

      A shame, too--when I started reading your comment I thought it was going to be a joke. On second thought....

    4. Thanks for sticking up for me, guys!

    5. What a bizarre response. The present tense is a perfectly acceptable context for story-telling. I have to say, however, that what bothers me is that you (John T. Spencer)have chosen to focus on two teachers who disagreed with your approach to elevate yourself in this narrative. It's become such a cliche in education writing to color ourselves as the lone advocate, the long-suffering saint. Meanwhile, we perpetuate the vilification of our fellow educators. Admit it, there are other teachers around you who were able to share similar stories, and perhaps the first two you encountered were just shining you on because they were annoyed by your self-righteousness. I think you're a lovely person and probably a damn fine teacher, but I bet I'd wanna smack you around a little myself sometimes. There have always been teachers who see what you see. Go ahead and hug the Buddha, just don't start telling people you are the Buddha.

  7. Ahhhh, the mysterious "real world" where everyone is held to the same standard and follows all the rules or else. I've been looking for it everywhere. I sometimes see it manifest in the yard sale that someone is having to buy some food because they've been laid off. But then I see another in the same boat being fed by their neighbors. I see it when the community screams for pay cuts to teachers salaries because times are tough for everyone and we shouldn't be continuing to prosper on the backs of the "real workers' who are struggling. But then I see countless stories of record bonuses and profits.

    There is no "real world." Ours is a collection of communities, both small and large, that operate under their own individual sets of ethics and rules depending on the makeup of that community. I, for one, want to foster communities of people that will help their neighbors.

    1. I agree. And it seems to me that maintaining "the real world" in all its injustice is a scary idea. Genocide is a part of the "real world." Do we want to support that?

  8. Based on this post, I think you would be a teacher that I would love to work with. It sounds like you separate the behavior form the child and do your best to question why the behavior is occurring. It is a constant effort, but I do the same. I took away three things from this post:
    -Daily, in my third grade class we recognize behaviors that are not okay, but accepting the apology is okay. (Students also PRACTICE being accountable for their actions.)
    -When the adult shows authentic care and respect, the child has a chance to continue that cycle, even into the "real world."
    -On the other hand, when the adult shows a lack of respect and concern, the child has the chance to continue that cycle of revenge and disrespect into the "real world."

    Thanks for helping to develop a community of critical thinkers and ethical citizens!

    1. I love the way you bring up practicing it specifically. I like what you brought up about the cycle of disrespect that exists.

      Thanks for the kind words, too!

  9. Your student in the example has a very reasonable explanation for being late. I would find empathy for him easily.

    I work hard to be empathetic to my students' needs and problems, but I run into issues that are not in a similar category.

    My 6th grade English students are incredibly impulsive. I try to work rationally with them, but they don't build a rational concept of why net books need to be put away correctly, why they shouldn't chase each other around the classroom, or how their disruption hurts other students by preventing them from getting their projects done.

    I have one student who is clearly intelligent, but has done practically nothing this year because of a lack of interest in anything even remotely related to academics. I've conference with him and his mother. I've opened his options of topics to study, formats for projects, anything that might broaden his interests, but nothing holds. He and I have calmly conversed at length about it and nothing helps.

    Any thoughts or advice? Sometimes I wonder if working in an upper middle class area as I do will just produce some students who have no appreciation for freedom and opportunity.

    1. I hear you on the impulsive stuff. I'm going into sixth grade this next year and I worry about it a bit. I don't really have any advice. However, I wonder if eventually that approach will work with him - maybe not with you and this year, but somewhere along the line.

  10. Hello Mr. Spencer. My name is Christina Mason, and I am a student at the University of South Alabama majoring in Elementary Education. I have been assigned to follow your blog as a requirement for Dr. John Strange’s EDM 310 course. Your recent blog regarding classroom leadership has made me realize that I will be walking away from this lesson with far more than I initially anticipated.

    I admire the approach you used when confronting your student regarding his tardiness. So many teachers manage their students with an authoritarian style. The fact that you were willing to listen to your student shows that you truly care. A teacher that shows compassion can open the door to a trusting relationship with students.

    You have opened my eyes to a totally different concept of handling classroom behavior. Some of the responses I have read contain the words “I don’t want to fall back into my old ways”. My question to you is how do I enter the classroom as a new teacher, implement your philosophy, and maintain control at the same time? I have seen many models of rewards for behavior and have even considered which methods I would personally use. I do not agree with rewarding someone for doing something they are expected to do. However, throughout my many years of substitute teaching, I have only seen rewards for positive behavior. Do you have any suggestions on how I can encourage my students to be ethical thinkers and not compliant students?

    I appreciate any advice you have to offer and look forward to following your blog. A summary of my posts to your blog will be posted on my personal blog June 6th. I look forward to using your blog as a reference guide while completing my education and during my teaching career.
    Twitter: @christiemason1

    1. Thanks for the thorough response and for the kind words. I'm not sure how to answer the idea for how to lead a classroom in the first year. (Shameless plug: you can download a book "A Sustainable Start" for free).

      Download it for free here

      Thanks for letting me know about your blog. I'll be stopping by.

    2. Thanks for the resource. I've already downloaded and saved it.

  11. This is a great post. Thanks so much.It's hard for me to understand the attitude of the teachers you quote; makes it seem as though compliance is more important than the student's compassionate feelings toward his sister. I get riled when people talk about "it would never work in the real world." There's an awful lot about that sentiment that doesn't make sense. It's just adults imposing power on kids, IMHO.

    1. I agree that it's hard to understand that mentality and yet I have had times I slip into that mindset. I think it comes from a fear of kids being too soft or being lazy or sometimes more personal (they might be challenging my authority).

  12. Mr. Spencer,

    I think you handled the situation in the best manner that you could. I would argue that this student is being a really great big brother. In today's world there is not enough love and his acts show love to the extreme. I would not punish him either, and I would allow him to make up the time if necessary after class. Those teachers that said you let him off the hook need to find a heart. Great post.

    Keith Tardibuono

    1. I like the fact that you brought up love. Ultimately, that's something I want to see occur with my students. I want them to grow into love, compassionate people.

  13. No comment other than to say I love this post, and thank you :)

  14. You made my day. So perfectly expressed.

  15. It's amazing that so often we want our students to "learn responsiblity" in the ways we deem important (in thus case being on time). However, it is clear that this young man had a very clear understanding of responsiblity, loyalty, and integrity.... as he showed all of these in relation to his sister.
    Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

    1. It's a bizarre thought. What he was doing was actually responsible.

  16. I think this is a great post, sometimes the consequences of the rules are worse than the behavior. Tardiness, I hate it! However, if I write a referral for tardiness, a student gets After-school detention, then they don't show up and get suspended. So instead of being a minute or two late, they are totally out of school. This doesn't help. I don't know what the policy should be changed to, but I don't like students out of my classroom. I would rather them a few minutes late than missing all of class.

    1. I love the point you bring up. Let's punish tardiness with kicking kids out for a longer amount of time than they might miss in a typical week, month or even quarter.


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