He stood in front of my desk, red hair blazing, with eyes deep-set and jaw muscles taut, steeling himself for the rebuke to come. I can no longer remember the infraction this young man had committed, but I can acutely remember the sense I had, both during and after I spoke to him, that my words about the inappropriateness of his behavior and the need for change were not at all penetrating his mind or heart. He listened (or, more accurately, stood facing in my general direction), mumbled an apology along with a promise to do better, and then proceeded to demonstrate little to no improvement over the course of future days and weeks. Between that encounter twenty years ago and today, a major shift has occurred in how I interact with students and handle classroom discipline. What was once a problem has now become an opportunity for offending students to connect more deeply with me and their classmates, to engage more fully with course content, and to grow in character and faith. In addition to implementing other classroom management staples—such as clear expectations, consistent procedures, and meaningful work—I am convinced that we must do two things for this growth to happen in our classrooms:
Prior to any infraction (indeed, from the very outset of the course), we must have established a relationship with the class—including that individual student. In myriad ways, we must communicate to students that we are glad to be with them, that we want to know them, and that we are there for their academic success and overall well-being.
During the period of discipline, we must communicate to the student that we are more concerned with his or her well-being than with our own desire for control. Certainly, at some point, students may need to see the impact they are having on us and on other students (a hallmark of restorative justice)—but in the initial moments, they need more than anything to feel that we love them no matter what.
As we interact with students, our side of the conversation should run something like this:
“I’m not kicking you out of the classroom. I’m asking you to take a break outside to get yourself settled so that you can rejoin us shortly. Then I’d like to speak with you after class. I’m not going to assume that what you’re doing is directed at me or that you’re premeditatedly trying to wreak havoc in the room, so I’m going to open our conversation by giving you the space to explain to me what’s behind the behavior you’re exhibiting. Then we can come up with a plan to address it that will allow you to be more successful academically and to become a force for good in the classroom. I’m also not going to allow your actions to change the way I see you, because I realize that both of us stand before the cross of Christ equal in our need for forgiveness and in our value to Him. And I will always want the best for you moving forward because that’s what love is.” 1 This approach is not novel, as redemptive disciplinarians have been doing this for generations. Neither, though, is it self-evident or ubiquitous in a culture that has frequently majored on the punitive. Although I seek to avoid berating or shaming students, I do not abandon consequences wholesale. I still enter offenses into our school’s student information system so that administrators can track the behavior moving forward. I still alter seating charts and communicate with parents as needed. And I may even escalate things using traditional discipline procedures (culminating in suspension or expulsion) if things get markedly worse. Fortunately, things rarely (if ever) reach this point—although, truth be told, this form of discipline doesn’t always reach every student’s heart. Some students may have attachment issues stemming from traumatic experiences in early childhood that make relationships very difficult. Other students—for various other reasons—may be unable or unwilling to let down their guard and to believe that we truly desire their good. Nevertheless, we are to invite all students to find their place within the Grandest and Truest Story. To discipline in light of the Cross requires that we realize that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.2 Although a student or students may be culpable in a particular moment, we cannot claim any sort of moral high ground over them. To help us get beyond the anger we may feel from having been wronged, it behooves us to recall the vast debt that we, too, have been forgiven—for doing so will help us to love our students even amid the frustration. Indeed, as theologian Paul Tillich states (in reference to the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with perfume), “We cannot love unless we have accepted forgiveness, and the deeper our experience of forgiveness is, the greater is our love.”3 At the Cross, we see that our own salvation—and that of our students—is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.4 And this tremendous gift declares the incomparable value that both we and our students have in God’s eyes. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us—and in doing so, has declared the great and wonderful truth that we were worth it.5 Although I am not advocating making a bigger deal out of minor offenses than is merited, I believe it can be appropriate when the Spirit leads us during in-depth conversations to discuss all of this with students. In Christian schools, we have the freedom to do so, although even here, we sometimes hesitate to refer to the Story—in part because God-talk has been abused in the past. When used primarily as a means of controlling student behavior, it does violence both to them and to the faith—and we are to avoid this at all costs. In fact, given the disparity in authority between us and our students, it may often be best—even though we are equal in neediness and in value—to emphasize our humility while elevating their dignity. Without ignoring the infraction, letting students know that they are created in God’s image and redeemed by his blood can be a thing of great beauty. After all, if students know that we love them despite their failures and their sins, then maybe they can imagine that Someone else does too.
Variations of this definition of love—namely, to will and work towards the ultimate good of another—can be found in the works of figures such as Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, and Dallas Willard.
Paul Tillich, “To Whom Much Is Forgiven . . .,” in The New Being (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 10.