One of the topics we discuss a lot on this site is whether the ends of school discipline justify the means in any given situation.
Do we value positive outcomes (a healthy, disruption-free learning environment in which students build and maintain strong relationships and community bonds) even when the process used to get there is less than ideal?
(See, for example, previous discussions on token economies and PBIS, two techniques that are generally successful in creating positive outcomes but use tactics that are arguably harmful to students’ long-term growth.)
Fisher, Frey, and Smith place great emphasis on language in their book, and with good reason: language and messaging are in many cases more powerful than any consequence in deterring maladaptive behaviors. They cite the work of Peter Johnston, whose book Choice Words is a seminal text on how to talk to kids.
It’s also an incredible classroom-management tool. Addressing students as “readers,” “writers,” “historians,” or “scientists” may seem cheesy, but with certain groups I swear it’s like magic.
But after seeing the way in which Fisher, Frey, and Smith frame an approach derived from Johnston, I’m wondering if this process of “identity labeling” is actually manipulative or unethical. Consider the following:
When we ask students identity-guiding questions that contain labels (“I wonder if, as a writer, you’re ready for this?”, we simultaneously provide them with an identity and challenge them to extend themselves.
I could be wrong, but having read Johnston closely, I don’t think this is exactly what he was advocating (I’m sure that the authors have not only also read Johnston but know him personally … nonetheless … ). I thought the purpose of Johnston’s use of identity labels was that when students come to see themselves as writers, they would take on the attributes and actions of a writer. Positioned this way, the question seems to challenge whether the student should consider himself a writer at all. Overall, this one isn’t that bad though.
It’s this next one I’m not sure about:
When students misbehave, teachers can use restorative identity labels to separate the students from their actions: a statement like “That’s not the Robert I know” communicates that you see the individual behind the event.
Fisher, Frey, and Smith are great, and it feels odd to nitpick them here; that being said, I don’t think this is sound advice to give to teachers.
If “Robert” truly never behaves like this, then I suppose the statement “That’s not the Robert I know” does serve a purpose: it shows the student that you acknowledge that his behavior is usually positive and that this new behavior is aberrant, and that you notice and you care. But if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be easier to just say “what’s wrong?” or “what’s up?”
Now what’s more likely is that Robert actually sometimes or maybe even often does behave like this. Now, there’s nothing horrible about that–maybe Robert has lagging skills he needs to work on. But you’re fundamentally being dishonest with him here, and he probably knows it, and will see this as a manipulation tactic, which will ultimately hurt the relationship long-term. The truth is, that really is “the Robert you know”; saying otherwise just seems deceptive.
Instead, why not just work on addressing what’s really causing Robert’s issues?