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‘Can’t behave’ versus ‘Won’t behave’ – The speech the faculty never heard

While teaching at a US high school, John Lawson was almost appointed Dean of Students, with responsibility for student discipline. Had administrators not opted for the other candidate, here’s what would have been his inaugural address…

John Lawson
by John Lawson
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Dear friends,

I’m excited and honoured to address an anomaly that continues to puzzle educators – namely, how do partially educated children so frequently frustrate and outmanoeuvre dedicated teams of caring, skilled, college-educated professionals?

Effective educators share two passions – a love for learning and teaching their subjects, and a love of students. They disdain retributive punishments that merely generate resentment and resistance rather than aiding reform, which is the noble aim of discipline we should aspire to. Those who love children will teach them why certain behaviours are unacceptable in our classrooms and throughout society.

However, they will also reject the permissive approach that says any child’s problems can be repeatedly cited to justify behaviours that risk the wellbeing of their teachers and peers. Ironically, those children with the most severe problems will often prove to be the least troublesome.

So from now on, please send out of the classroom any child whose misbehaviour prevents you from teaching, for that is a toxic misdemeanour. That said, note that laziness, apathy, and boredom aren’t misdemeanours.

‘Cannot’ versus ‘Won’t’

I require no explanatory notes or assignments to be completed – I would rather you all simply carry on teaching. I respect your professionalism, and will discover for myself the reasons behind a student’s dismissal.

To that end, I’m happy to announce that the principal has designated a 30-seat classroom for my use each day. From there, I will do my utmost on a daily basis to resolve any behavioural challenges that might emerge. The personal problems students frequently encounter tend to be far too complex to be dealt with in lessons, which is my challenge rather than yours.

Your primary task is to engage those teenagers who respect your right to teach. Mine is to separate the few ‘cannot behaves’ from the many ‘won’t behaves’. Such critical judgments are almost impossible to make fairly and accurately while teaching and managing a classroom, especially for ECTs.

Mutual respect

My programme will teach students how to negotiate the two‑way traffic on ‘Mutual Respect Boulevard’ with the aid of some terrific motivational material. Students won’t rejoin any courses they previously disrupted until they accept the importance of the three Rs when it comes to effective discipline: repentance, reparation, and reconciliation.

Reparations will take the form of written apologies. Lasting reconciliation between staff and students, meanwhile, cannot happen until the instigators of the disruption are willing to make amends and change.

Although we will swiftly remove disruptive students from classrooms, we will simultaneously commit to keeping those same children within the school community and helping them. Nobody cares more for them than their families and teachers. As educators and carers, we must forge partnerships of our own and connect those three Rs to the three Es of education: enrichment, empowerment, and enjoyment.

Every child has the right to an education, but that right must include a non-negotiable responsibility to be respectful of teachers. There are no winners when poor conduct remains unresolved.

Failure is not an option

‘Failure is not an option’ became the mantra of the NASA team that helped the astronauts of Apollo 13 return to Earth. It also makes an excellent mission statement for any school.

I first heard about the notion of the ‘Power of One’ from the speeches and writings of Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Alex Ferguson, and Desmond Tutu (RIP), and see it as something we can all learn from. This says that when dealing with serious disciplinary issues, we need to support one passionate and compassionate leader, rather than an engage with an entire staffroom full of varying dispositions, ideologies, and levels of experience.

Every school has at least one gifted teacher who can discern goodness in even the most perplexed souls. These are the individuals we must empower. I would maintain that accepting an ‘inclusive zero-tolerance policy’ – one that unites us all in a supportive quest to find every student’s best self – is the best way of ensuring a happy and successful year for ourselves.

John Lawson is a former secondary teacher, now serving as a foundation governor and running a tutoring service, and author of the book The Successful (Less Stressful) Student (Outskirts Press, £11.95); for more information, visit or follow @johninpompano

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