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A Principal’s Advice on Using Trust to Quell Unruly Student Behavior

When Kathleen Corley first started as a music teacher, she’d often be annoyed with her class—they didn’t want to learn what she was teaching. As a kid, Corley had been taught that what kids wanted to learn didn’t matter—the adults knew best.

“But then I realized, it’s going to be more fun if I did things that actually interest them,” she said.

Corley has applied this learning to her more than 40 years as a teacher and principal. She currently leads the Red Cedar Elementary School in Bluffton, S.C., and has written a book, The Magical Place We Call School, about her experience in managing student behavior against the shifting backdrop of rising social media use among younger students and more contentious dynamics with parents.

In an interview with Education Week, Corley discussed how challenging it can be to do what she and her staff think is best for students when some parents aren’t willing to support higher expectations and accountability.

“It’s interesting what folks will go to bat for their child on. I wouldn’t conceive years ago, of parents going to the extent that they go to, to defend their child, even when they know the child is wrong,” Corley said.

Corley spoke about about her learnings as a principal, and how she and her staff build and leverage trust with their students to push for better behavior.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has student behavior changed in specific ways in the last few years?

There are so many incredible things that kids learn in the early grades, like sharing. If two kids want to use the same materials, it’s possible a conflict may happen because they haven’t yet learned how to share. The early grade teachers are great at solving this because they’ll get the kids to solve the problem. And they are cheered for those solutions.

Because of the pandemic, now you have 4th graders who never attended 2nd grade [and learned all the sharing strategies]. They aren’t overtly rude, but they’re disinterested in class. Their Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is all messed up. It goes food, water, air… and attention. There are about 100 4th graders and 18 of them are always trying to top each other to get attention. They like their teachers, they want to learn, but not at the expense of not being [the] top dog. So teachers spend a lot of time trying to stop that behavior and reset their classrooms.

How do you deal with disciplinary issues in a classroom like this?

A couple of the kids said to their parents that they didn’t want to come to school anymore, because they kept hearing [their classmates being called out for certain behaviors.] I came up with a way to eliminate that whole conversation [with parents].

Every teacher gets red poker chips. If you’re doing something that interferes with the learning of others, or hurt someone’s feelings, you will be called out with a red poker chip that the teacher puts on your table. It’s like you’re speeding but you don’t know it. But you see a police officer and you do a quick check. If students are talking when they shouldn’t, it’s not like the teacher glares at them, or pauses or says a word. She just puts the chip down.

If a kid gets two chips in the same class, they come see me in the office. They must write a reflection on their behavior, miss some of their recess, and their parents are called. The kid then must explain to their parents why they’re being called. Kids want to avoid doing that, and this [strategy] has worked well for us.

You’ve put disincentives in place to correct behavior toward teachers. What about behavior issues between students?

Children don’t know how to talk to each other, and I think that’s an impact of their texting culture. There was a time when we’d started a group chat with teachers and students in 3rd grade to share information.

When we weren’t monitoring it, the [kids] were saying the most horrible things to each other on [the] chat, while they were sitting together in class. When it was brought to my attention, I told students on the chat group that what they were saying was ugly. They thought it didn’t impact other kids because they were kidding. I had to explain to them that what they say or do online counts just as much as saying it in person.

Now I’ve written a bunch of conversation starters and hung them up all over the school. Things like: ‘What’s your favorite team?’ ‘What’s your favorite movie?’ Kids won’t be at a loss for what to talk about.

You also talk about how educators can “apply leverage” with students. What does that mean?

Building leverage is like building relationships. It starts small. When I was an elementary school teacher, I would play the “Pink Panther” theme as my class walked in and out. The deal was that they wouldn’t be rowdy as they left. The music would help.

Kids remember special things that teachers took the time to do. Like, if a student has left the class without a handout that they need to get their work done, does the teacher try their best to get it to them before they leave? If the student forgets their work repeatedly, does the teacher inquire if something larger is at play?

Sometimes teachers do prepare intensely for certain lessons … and it doesn’t work. Teachers do feel frustrated. But students appreciate the fact that teachers are willing to be playful. They will remember this the next time the teacher asks them to stop or start doing something, or change their behavior.

How can teachers consistently build this leverage?

We’ve had teachers leave because [they think] we were asking too much of them [to spend time on relationship building as a means to address student behavior.]
Others have seen the result of [building trust] and have tried it in all their classes.

When I was a principal in Lynchburg [in Va.], a teacher was doing a lesson on following instructions. They were making applesauce. She used that opportunity to also teach kids about non-standard measurements, by measuring the apple peels. A kid, nearly at the bottom of his class, was invited to measure in front of the whole class. He’s all grown up now, but he still remembers this teacher, and how she helped them do something he wouldn’t have usually been picked for.

You want teachers in your school who can rise to the level of the building. But you also have to let teachers do what they find satisfying, if students are learning everything they need to.

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