Authority with Heart, Discipline with Care

Todd Bartholomay

by Todd Bartholomay

For Middle Level

As a school administrator, I was obligated to intervene with students whose poor attendance threatened their success. Frequently tardy, absent, truant, breaking rules, or going through crises at home, some students missed so much school that their possibility for success was fading fast.

Scott with student

Finally, family members were summoned in an effort to rally support and change patterns.

Josie, our beloved and irreplaceable attendance liaison and my salt-of-the-earth, roots-in-the-ground teammate, taught me how to get and stay connected to the young people whose behaviors we hoped to change. She practiced relationship-based teaching because she couldn't imagine working with someone without a relationship with them. She taught me how to be a "warm demander," delivering non-negotiable directives respectfully and productively.

Many of the families we saw had little faith in schooling and were consequently weak guides of the children they were required by law to send to school every day. Few of these students or their families felt competent as participants or partners in schooling. Few trusted the teachers and other school personnel. Many felt trapped by requirements, assignments, and schedulesand experienced little responsiveness to their particular and often urgent or overwhelming needs. They needed to attend a mandated meeting about attendance or truancy with school officials like they needed a proverbial hole in the head.

Josie joined me at such meetings because she knew the law inside and out, had precise data about each student's attendance, and worked with the County Attorney to use the court's authority to motivate students to attend school.Everyone who encountered Josie at a high-stakes meeting knew her already: they knew that while she was reading from the rule book and keeping detailed records about absences, she was also making sure her charges had the notebooks and pencils they needed, were fed breakfast and lunch, and had winter coats. She met with students quietly and confidentially to solve all sorts of problems and conflicts, because she cared. And without exception, every student who received attendance discipline through Josie experienced it in the context of trust and relationship. Josie's presence made even the threat of dire consequences, like out-of-home placement, seem fair and reasonable.

Josie promised every student who signed an attendance contract,"I'll never lie to you and I'll always treat you with respect. I expect you to do the same with me."

And she meant it.

Then she would say, "If you ever lie to me or fail to follow the contract after you sign it, I'll be after you like a dog after a bone. I'll be chewing on your behind, and I've got some mighty sharp teeth!"

Then the student and her parent would smile, because they knew she meant what she said and would do everything in her power to be humane and respectful in the disciplinary learning experience.

Josie is a native Mohawk woman. She has experienced discrimination and mistreatment that have contributed to the skill and disposition she possesses.She never forgets what it feels like to be on the receiving end of authority, and she exercises her authority with humility and humanity. She insists on holding students and families accountable for school attendance, without which she knows students have little hope of success.

Josie is a person of extraordinary heart. Her activism comes out of a powerful belief in both the necessity and possibility of growth. She lives the principles and practices that Developmental Designs advocates: know your students, cultivate relationships, establish clear expectations, assume nothing and model for success, stay connected, and empower students.

Sometimes our own teachers are working right beside us.

Todd Bartholomay is the Programs and Special Projects Director for The Origins Program. A long-time practitioner of the Developmental Designs approach, he taught at the middle level for fourteen years. He also served as a principal in the St. Paul Public Schools, where he was in school adminstration for ten years.

Posted December 2013

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