The Invisible Classroom: Thoughts on Discipline
Posted 02/14/2019 10:30PM

This week, as our School community wore red for caring and talked about the importance of being thoughtful, kind, and tolerant, I was reminded of why I love being an educator. 

I will never forget that day, years ago when working at Millbrook School in New York, the Head of School pulled me aside and asked me "to do him a favor" and serve as the interim Dean of Students. I knew I needed to do it to be helpful, but I worried that the parade of students who came by my office to talk, ask advice, and share the details of their day would cease and that they would no longer see me as an educator who cared immensely about guiding them through the tumultuous waters of growing up. Instead, they would see me as the mean adult who punished them. 

Boy was I wrong – and, as the one interim year became two, three, and so on, I realized how much I came to love my role with both the students I worked with and their parents. If one of the goals of a school is to prepare students to be successful, independent, and resilient adults, I had been given the most powerful environment in which to help students learn these lessons and develop skills that will last a lifetime. 

Taking advantage of teachable moments and using them as a tool to inspire thoughtful decision-making was a critical part of that process. In my first month as chief disciplinarian, a group of students brought alcohol to school and consumed it. They were caught and brought to my office by a faculty member who was outraged at what they had done and thought this mistake would define the students and impact their future. He left me with a terrified group who felt hopeless, worthless, and ashamed, and it was in that moment that I thought to myself how little those students and the school would learn if my next move was to dismiss them.

All of the teachable moments would be wasted and the students and families could move on without ever having to face the people who trusted them and cared for them. It was also then that I recalled all of the stupid choices I had made as an adolescent that had actually seemed like a good idea at the time, and which had later come to make me the adult I am today.

Over the years of walking students through their mistakes, I came to realize that it was in these moments that I was witnessing the greatest human growth. The character-building opportunity comes when students have to take responsibility for their actions. In my years as dean, almost all of the students were initially dishonest, not because they lacked integrity, but because they were afraid.

I love the conversation at that critical moment when you can literally save a student from making another mistake, this time, when character is on the line. It was a wonderful moment to watch students find access to the truth. In my entire career, only two students remained committed to the lie that later came out - and I always felt sorry for those students because it was painful to watch them lie. It was even more painful to watch the parents hang onto the stories, desperate to believe that their children hadn't broken any rules. I always wondered if they had been given permission to be truthful and, had it been made clear that they were still loved, how would they have responded.

While there are people who believe in a more punitive model of discipline, I prefer a more educational and restorative approach, which I have seen lead to tremendous growth in a student.  


Liz Morrison

Head of School 



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