How Principals Can Save Their Sanity

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I am a school principal. I came to one of your workshops recently. I wanted to ask you a question, but I didn’t want to ask it in front of the group and you were swarmed by people afterwards. I loved the skill you taught and I thought the overview you gave of the procedures and skills used to train kids to behave was awesome. This past year was the worst year of my professional life. I did nothing but put out “behavior fires” every day from 8-3. We have a system of giving kids tickets when they behave, but that only works on 70% of our students, at best. The other 30% are out of control and take 95% of my time and their teachers’ time. By the end of the day, half of them are in my office. How can I, as a principal, use these skills to support my teachers if my teachers don’t know these skills?  I don’t know if you usually do this, but please change my name and location if you publish this question. -Valborb, Neptune, Milky Way


Dear Valborb,

I make it a policy to never change the names and locations of people who ask me questions. But I will answer your question.

The answer is that you are going to have another terrible year next year, and that you should quit and find another job.

I’m sorry. That’s not helpful, but it’s your best course of action, and I’m totally serious.

Think about what you are really asking me. The real question you are asking is, “My teachers have no effective behavior management skills or procedures. How do they manage behaviors without having effective behavior management skills and procedures?”

The answer is simple: They can’t.

If you don’t know how to do something because you were never taught to do it, you can’t do it.

By the way, don’t think for one moment that any of this is your teachers’ fault. They were not taught behavior management in college. You weren’t either. Neither was I. Our professors either didn’t teach us any behavior management at all, or worse: they tried. Maybe they gave us a series of theories about behaviors management created by dead white men who never actually saw a child in their lives, or they gave us a bunch of student behavior scenarios and asked us what we, as people who had never taught, would do.

What a load of garbage.

If you were anything like me, when using the scenarios model, you might have asked, “If I am paying you people to teach me how to be a teacher, shouldn’t you be telling me how to do this and not asking me how to do this?”

To further not answer your question, even if you, as a principal, knew how to use every effective behavior management skill and procedure (you don’t) you would still be reinforcing negative behaviors because whenever you have a kid sent to you, that kid is being given what most difficult kids want in schools: some combination of work avoidance and attention. Of course, giving kids what they want will make it more likely that they will use those same (or heightened) behaviors in the future.

Of course, the tactics that teachers come up with through trial and error to elicit positive behaviors can have varying degrees of success. After traveling the country teaching and coaching educators for a decade, I can tell you that overall, in general, these efforts to figure it out on the fly have been a miserable failure, as you can attest.

Your teachers either need to get some skills and procedures immediately, you need to find a principal position at a school with teachers who have had explicit and systematic skill and procedure instruction, or you need to find another career.

It’s not good news, but it’s the truth.