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Do as I say, not as I do. 

In-house professional development (otherwise known as instructional coaching) is gaining popularity in the field of education. There is quite a bit of buzz as to what constitutes quality PD leading to systemic and lasting change. Last week EdSurge published a thorough and provocative report that identifies the top five requirements for effective PD according to teachers and administrators. This list includes the following: personalized learning, interactive activities, learning that is sustained over time, and respect for participants.

What a great list!

Does reading this list cause you to have the same realization as me? The realization that regardless of age, all learners want to learn in similar ways. The human brain physiologically needs to receive information that is relevant. Additionally, humans crave hands-on experiences, need spaced practice to fully understand new material, and want to be treated with respect.

However, something about this realization is really bugging me. As adult professionals, we treat other adults with respect. We practice confidentiality, act discretely in sensitive situations, and focus on our colleagues’ strengths rather than weaknesses. For many schools this courtesy extends to students. However, I have visited some schools where this is not the case. Specifically, I am referring to punitive public behavior systems that take on a variety of forms: stoplight charts, red/green cards, and magnetized boards with movable student names indicative of how individual students are behaving at any given point in time. Thinking about this classroom management practice got me thinking…

What if we used a card change system for adult professional development?

Let’s pretend we are at a PD session. For ease, I will make myself the presenter. Mrs. Jones walks in late to my session. So, I move her to yellow. Mr. Smith and Mr. Anderson continue to be on their phones even after I said, “no phones”. So, they each go to yellow, and then, to the dreaded RED. But, the other 15 participants comply with my rules, so the system is working! Right?


The card change didn’t affect Mrs. Jones. She left my session early. It turns out she had a family emergency. Mr. Smith wasn’t too concerned about his red card and continued to use his phone. Turns out he didn’t care because he had nowhere to go but down. I did feel kind of bad for Mr. Anderson….turns out he was on his phone so he could tweet comments that resonated with him. That is until I gave him a card change and he was forced to stop sharing.

In this fictional scenario, consider the negative implications for staff morale and school climate. We can probably all agree that nobody would want to work in this environment.

The human brain is only able to receive new information when it feels safe. This ridiculously exaggerated account of a punitive behavior system with adults illustrates how asinine it is to use this type of system with students. These systems do not make anyone feel safe.

At best, public shaming systems encourage compliance amongst those students who can easily comply. The “good” students. These systems do not take into account that “bad” students may have difficulty complying. Perhaps, a student has ADHD and can’t control certain behaviors. Or, maybe a student is savvy and questions something his teacher said in front of others. These behaviors would typically result in a color change. The “bad” students are “punished” and the message is that they are not accepted for who they are. These students need to change to be more like the “good” students. Interestingly enough, public behavior systems do not benefit the “good” students either. These systems simply show a level of compliance. Compliance is not an indicator of learning. Compliance is an indicator of fear.

Moreover, what are we doing to the student versions of Mrs. Jones, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Anderson? Is a constant public display of their inability to stay at green helping them to change? Or, is it giving them a self-fulfilling prophecy that will stick with them throughout their career as a student?

When public shaming systems are used for classroom management, educators are missing out on an opportunity to build authentic, trusting relationships with students. Educators can use the “less than desirable behaviors” to engage in meaningful conversations to help both parties uncover what the other wants and work together to produce a healthy learning environment.


Looking for a proactive alternative to card change systems? Visit the “Put me in, Coach” archives and read this post on tracking student behavior using PBIS.

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