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.
My goal is simple. I want to make something every day. Some days I make things. Other days I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com

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