U.S. SCHOOLS School disciplinarians play heavy on the job
Learning to handle being a school disciplinarian is often done on the job, not through formal education.
PITTSBURGH -- He had his principal's certificate firmly in hand, but Dan Garofalo still had some things to learn when he made the transition from industrial-arts teacher to assistant principal at a vocational-technical school in Lansdale, Pa.
He had to be a mentor to new teachers, evaluate experienced teachers and help develop curriculum, but the toughest part of the job was figuring out how to deal with unruly students.
Traditionally, the assistant principal -- the lowest peg on the administrative totem pole --spends much of his time on discipline. In Garofalo's case, he figures 80 percent of his day was spent being the tough guy on campus.
Determined to command respect, he said he "hammered" the students who wound up in his office. Scoldings were often harsh, punishments severe.
"I was the bad cat," he said, "the strict disciplinarian."
He was so much the bad cat that whenever he ordered from the local pizza parlor, which was staffed by his students, he did it under the name "Joe Smith."
What he's learned: In the seven years since, the 44-year-old administrator has learned that when it comes to school discipline, you can't always play the heavy if you expect to earn youths' respect. One of three associate principals at Penn Hills Senior High School in suburban Pittsburgh since 1999, he has also developed the superior listening skills and compassion this difficult job demands.
"Are people widgets? No," he said. "There's a story behind each misbehavior."
Every school has its official disciplinarian. In larger districts like Penn Hills, it's usually the assistant or associate principal; in others, it's the dean of students. In small schools, it may be the principal who serves as police officer, jury and judge.
Assigning one or two people to handle discipline can ease stress on teachers and top administrators and allow them to focus more on student achievement.
But whoever gets the responsibility often must learn to do it the same way Garofalo did: on the job.
Aspiring principals, of course, take graduate courses in psychology, group dynamics and leadership, important components of discipline. In Pennsylvania, before earning their certificate, they must also work as classroom teachers for at least five years, which allows them to gain a working knowledge of classroom management.
But in most colleges of education, there is no "Discipline 101" or how-to textbook that covers all the variables in dealing with youngsters who break the rules.
Joseph Acri, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Secondary School Principals, said that formal education only gets rookie principals so far.
"Experience," he said, "gets you the rest of the way."
Challenges: Part of the challenge is that each community, and sometimes even each school within a district, has its own idea not only of acceptable behavior among students but also of what kind of disciplinarian students need. Some districts prefer a softer touch; others want a strict hatchet man.
Assistant principals quickly learn that what works for one student might not work for the next. So to be effective, "you have to learn to read the circumstances and solve the problem," said Penn Hills Senior High Principal Richard Napolitan, who's been an administrator for 28 years.
The threat of lawsuits and more emphasis on students' rights, too, has made the disciplinarian's job more difficult.
Twenty years ago, most discipline problems involved skipping class or fighting in the hall. But today, students are also getting in more trouble with sexual harassment, alcohol, drugs and firearms, which require more serious punishments.
Society itself has changed. Unlike a generation ago, when school administrators were seen as pillars of the community, today's principals don't always command respect.
"Some parents are supportive while others are not," said Acri.
So what's a disciplinarian to do?
One guideline: An important guideline is to focus on the behavior and not the student. It is also important to be consistent and fair -- and prompt.
And assistant principals and deans of students must get out of the office and let pupils see them as something other than a "bad-guy" disciplinarian.
Garofalo, for example, regularly takes pictures at basketball games and then displays them at school; he also goes to plays and other student activities and has worked as a coach.
"If they know you care about them and are interested in what they're doing, they'll respect you more," he said.
"If you're seen primarily as a caring person and then have to bring down the hammer, then it means something."