Changing the System, Not Students
William Glasser was known for his commitment to answering correspondence. He frequently included his contact information on the last pages of books he wrote and invited readers to get in touch with him if they had questions. Given that several of his books were major sellers, including his contact information was no small thing.
William Glasser, Inc. recently shared one of Glasser’s replies to a reader inquiry and I thought many of you would be interested. The person Glasser wrote to was an elementary school principal who attended a workshop Glasser taught in 1995 at the NAESP convention. (National Association of Elementary School Principals)
Apparently the principal wanted Glasser to respond to two comments he submitted regarding school discipline. Unfortunately, the two comments were not included with what Glasser, Inc. shared, but you can almost imagine the comments as you read Glasser’s response, which follows –
September 14, 1995
What you are doing is something I no longer have any interest in whatsoever – that is, concerning yourself with discipline problems in school. Certainly, discipline problems could be handled better than they are now which is what your material is leading toward. In that instance, it is reasonably good. I however, don’t believe that we have any solution whatsoever to discipline problems; handling them better or worse. We need to change the school system that is producing the discipline problems because the system doesn’t satisfy the students’ needs. Therefore, I won’t endorse anything that says the word “discipline” on it. I won’t talk about discipline, but will only talk about changing the system. For more information on this idea, you would need to read my books The Quality School and The Control Theory Manager. Those two books explain it best of all.
It is not that people don’t want what you are doing. They do very much. They recognize that there are a lot of discipline problems and would like somebody to come along and tell them how to deal with it a little bit better. But in the end, your ideas won’t work. They won’t work because they are still trying to support the old system, which is really what is making the problem. It is as if people are falling into a ditch in front of the hospital and finally, the surgeon says, “how come all these broken legs are coming in” and the nurse says, “well, they’re falling into a ditch in front of the hospital” and the surgeon says “well, let’s stop operating for a little bit and go down and fill up the ditch.” That is what we have to do. We can’t figure out better surgical procedures, we have to fill up the ditch.
I hope you understand that you should move toward changing the system and not help a bad system to survive by blaming the student. The students who have discipline problems have every right to be upset. The school doesn’t work for them. We can’t change them if we want to succeed – we have to change the schools.
I’m sure you are disappointed in this letter because you are a good person with good ideas. But your ideas in my opinion are obsolete. Maybe one hundred years ago we had a few discipline problems and we could focus on them, but now we have schools where all the children are out of order. I just worked in one this last year in Cincinnati. No discipline program, yours or anyone else’s would have worked. We changed the system and the problems disappeared. It was hard work, but it shows that what I’m saying makes good sense.
William Glasser, M.D.
This 1995 letter provided a clue as to how adamant Glasser was about focusing on changing the school program, rather than focusing on disciplining kids into compliance. He came to feel so strongly about this focus that at the 1996 Glasser convention he officially rejected all school discipline plans and explained that those who wanted to work in his organization would have to reject them, too. My purpose in sharing this information here is not to rehash the details of this decision, but instead to consider the real value in Glasser’s points. (If you are interested the details of the 1996 declaration, which led to a significant schism in the organization, the topic is covered in depth in his biography – Champion of Choice (2014))
I agree with Glasser completely that schools need to focus on becoming need-satisfying places for students. Anything less than creating a classroom and a curriculum based on student needs ultimately leads to underperformance, boredom, resentment, and misbehavior. Such schools are possible and the results are inspiring. Whether nearby, like New Tech High School in Napa, California, or far away, like schools in Finland, examples of effective student-centered schools are there for the observing and the copying. (See the video clip that follows.)
I think it is worth clarifying that even schools that focus on becoming need-satisfying in their curriculum and instruction will benefit from having in place appropriate procedures and rules. When Glasser decried discipline plans he was concerned about schools forcing students into complying with expectations that didn’t take their needs into account. He didn’t mean that schools should become “structureless” in the process. Appropriate procedures remind students of the way things are done, and in the process help to prevent problems from even occurring in the first place. Procedures help us in a lot of ways throughout the day – driving procedures, standing in line at the store procedures, and supervising your dog at the park procedures, to name a few – and they can help us at school, too. Rules, on the other hand, are meant to identify behaviors that are not allowed because they are hurtful to others (bullying), destructive to property (vandalism) or that seek unfair advantage (cheating). Broken rules are rare in a choice theory classroom, but the rules still need to be stated.
The real issue lies in how procedures and rules are applied. Broken rules in a traditional classroom lead to blame and punishment; while broken rules in a choice theory classroom lead to problem-solving and restoration of trust. The book Education, written in 1900, describes this process well –
“The true object of reproof is gained only when the wrongdoer himself is led to see his fault and his will is enlisted for its correction. When this is accomplished point him to the source of pardon and power. Seek to preserve his self-respect and to inspire him with courage and hope.” Education, p. 292
Educators will have to decide for themselves regarding their expectations and plans for classroom management. Glasser stated strongly that any management plans based on the idea that students are the problem and that they need to be fixed will not be successful, and in fact will be destructive to student success. His battle cry was to change the whole system of how we teach and work with students. It seems to me that the effective use of procedures in the classroom is a part of changing the system. (For more on classroom procedures, check out Classroom Management (2015), by Harry Wong.)