Discipline - Doing the Hard Thing

by Dr. Joseph D. Hollowell, 2 yrs ago

For four years, prior to being named the Principal in 1990, I served Roncalli as the Dean of Students.  This is a seemingly dignified title for a job that often finds the occupant in many undignified situations - for the Dean of Students at Roncalli is in charge of the disciplinary affairs of an entire school community.  Those of you reading this who are parents of at least one teenager can take your own disciplinary struggles and multiply them by 1100 and you start to get a picture of the extraordinary challenges of this endeavor.  It is not for the faint of heart.

Since my years as the Dean, I have told many people that I could not imagine a better preparation for the principalship.  The Principal of any school has many challenges but none so demanding as resolving conflicts where emotions are charged.  I found the Dean’s office to be a non-stop series of these highly charged emotional encounters.  At the outset of any of these encounters there is usually an upset teacher and an upset student.  That sum is quickly magnified by calling one or both parents.  Somehow the Dean must resolve the issues in an atmosphere where most, if not all, of the parties involved are quite upset and very often are not thinking or acting in a rational manner.  

The complexities of the human dynamic in these situations provided me with a professional challenge that only rarely is rivaled in my current role as President.  In my days as Dean, the drive home was almost always filled with an examination of conscience about the day’s events and the disciplinary decisions rendered.  Many times that introspection would last long into the night and only stop when a new day and a new series of crises pushed the old ones aside.  It is safe to say that four years in this crucible left me a different person.

One of the great benefits of being a Dean in a Catholic school is the tremendous involvement of the parents in the educational process.  Parental interest translates to student achievement and responsiveness.  However, there is a complicating dynamic at work in situations involving the discipline of students.  Many people choose to make the sacrifices necessary to send their children to a Catholic school precisely because of what they perceive to be a disciplined environment.  Parents want their children in a school where inappropriate behavior is not tolerated and is met with some sort of punishment.  However, it is not unusual to find that parents are less enthusiastic for stern action when it is their own child involved.  This is further complicated by the “customer-provider” relationship between family and school.  In our society we are accustomed to businesses and stores providing us with the exact type of service and product we want.  If the product is not right we take it back.  Parents of Catholic school students on the receiving end of disciplinary action often find themselves paying for a product that they do not want.  It doesn’t feel right and it’s uncomfortable.  There is a great temptation to want to “take it back” when it comes to disciplinary measures.  

At no other time in my life was I called un-Christian on such a regular basis as during my years as Dean. No doubt our current Dean, Tim Puntarelli, would tell you the same has held true for him.  Typically, the only way to regain my good standing in the faith was to let the offending party off with a stern warning.  Community service, detentions, suspensions, and expulsions were for other peoples’ children. Yet there is a deep rooted tradition of discipline in our Church.  The writer of Hebrews tells us, “At the time it is administered, all discipline seems a cause for grief and not for joy, but later it brings forth the fruit of peace and justice for those who are trained in its school.”(Heb 12:11)  

With such a promise from Sacred Scripture we intend to continue to provide a disciplined environment at Roncalli.  The decisions will never get easier.  And I suspect that long after Mr. Puntarelli and I are gone the Dean will still be seen by some as un-Christian as he or she struggles to bring about that environment “that brings forth the fruit of peace and justice”.

As a former coach, I constantly preached to the athletes in my charge that championships are won when enough people are willing to do the hard things well.  Most everyone can do the easy stuff.  And it is very easy for all of us to let the hard things slide.  This concept, of course, has applications outside of athletics.  Discipline is one of those “hard things” a great school must do.  I pray that we will always have enough people that want to do it well.

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