The Bully Proof Classroom


Ask The Principal

Written By: James H Burns

Often teachers ask me questions about how to manage student discipline, irate parents, problems with other staff members or even administration. I have taken some of these questions and provided answers. I thought it would be a good idea to share my answers with my readers. I will be posting a question a day in the section on ask the principal. If you have a question that you would like answered please use the comment section and send me your question. I will post a response with in 24 hours.  Below please find the first question.


Question 1

How do you discipline kindergarten students when time outs don’t work, and parents don’t help or have ideas either? My biggest problem is stopping them from talking. I have 3 or 4 students who stop talking for 5 minutes and then start again.


The biggest problem that you have is imposing the right consequences at the right time. I have developed the belief that consequences don’t have to be immediate. It creates a knee jerk reaction, and may impose a consequence on the child that he/she may have become immune to. My suggestion is to use the Instruction, Warning and Correction process. This is how it works:

  1. Tell the students that they must stop talking. No reason, they just must stop talking.
  2. If they continue to talk, give them one firm warning and let them know if they continue they will be disobeying you, but don’t tell them what the consequence will be.
  3. If the misbehavior continues after the warning, let the student know that they were non-compliant. Then wait for the next immediate need that the student has and refuse their request. If they ask why tell them it is because of the fact that they didn’t stop talking when they were told to do so.

Life is based on a series of gains and loses. A person will always ask, what am I going to gain from doing or not doing something, and what am I going to lose? If the lose is strong enough you can bet that the behavior will stop.

Question 2

What would you say are the top 3 immediate observable characteristics of an effectively run classroom?

Effective run classrooms take on many forms, and the way they are run is usually connected to the personality of the teacher. I have observed many classroom environments during the past 20 years and have discovered that if the teacher commands respect the classroom runs pretty smoothly. Too often administrators will base an observation on what THEY believe is effective when in reality what they want to see from the teacher doesn’t fit the teacher’s personality. I had one experience where I observed a teacher and my first reaction was that the classroom was out of control. The longer I stayed in the room the more I realized that the teacher had a great relationship with the students, even though it may have looked somewhat chaotic at the beginning of the observation. The students really liked the teacher and were engaged in their activities. When the teacher asked the students to stop doing something they did it without an attitude. I gave this teacher a fine evaluation and commented to her that she should keep up the good work. Another administrator observed the same teacher and his knee jerk reaction was that the classroom was out of control, and proceeded to give the same teacher a poor evaluation. The teacher was directed to tighten the reins on the students and practice better classroom management techniques. When she started to do something that was not within her personality she lost more control of the class, and the students started to view her as a phony. This resulted in her losing the respect of her students. What my colleague didn’t realize is that what is observed isn’t always what is. Time needs to be spent with a teacher in order for him/her to develop the necessary skills to effectively manage their classroom. That time needs to be spent helping the teacher develop their strengths not compounding their weaknesses by having unrealistic expectations of the teacher’s ability.


My top three observable characteristics of an effectively run classroom are:

Respect – Mutual respect needs to be present in the room and if the teacher doesn’t command it they need to ask themselves why they don’t have it.

Responsibility and Accountability – All students need to take responsibility for their actions and be held accountable through a process that they are made aware of at the beginning of the year.

Compliance – All students need to do what their told when they are told to do it with a good attitude.

I believe that all of these characteristics are very basic, and are not things that are unique to education. The reason why teachers have so much difficulty in these areas is because they have slipped away from the traditional approaches that have always worked, and gotten caught up in novelty approaches and faulty practices and theories that have come out of  our teacher training programs. These new approaches are not all bad, but I don’t believe that there was any evidence that the traditional approaches didn’t work. So my recommendation is try the new stuff, but bear in mind that respect, responsibility, and compliance are characteristics that are necessary for a student to experience life long success.

Question 3

Are we serving our students’ well by giving them numerous chances and opportunities to be responsible for things like homework, meeting deadlines, tardiness, and respectful behavior?


In short the answer is no, no one is served well when they are not held accountable for their behavior. I wrote an article several months ago titled, “The First R of Academic Success – Responsibility.” I think it is worth reprinting here.

Educators today are under constant pressure to improve student test scores and to improve student overall academic performance. If a student’s standardized test scores are not up to snuff or if students have academic difficulty that can’t be explained the principal finds their way into the classroom for an observation, to try and find something wrong with the teacher’s instructional methods. The question that gets raised here is who is responsible for a student’s academic performance? I was not the very best student in elementary or in high school. I struggled just to get C’s and an occasional B and never in all my time as a student did anyone question how good my teachers were, instead I was questioned about what my responsibilities were as a student

As an elementary student my father would know when marking periods were over and when report cards were issued. Once he had that report card in hand he would sit me down and go over my grades. Any grade that was below a C he would ask me what was going on in the class, and what my responsibilities were in order to raise my grade. I remember once I tried to pull a fast one and tell him that the teacher didn’t like me. He didn’t buy it and told me that the teacher doesn’t have to like you and you don’t have to like the teacher, my job was to work as hard as I could to understand what the teacher was teaching me. When I was a freshman in high school I failed Algebra I. I went home and told my father that it was no big deal, and that I would take it again in my sophomore year. He said to me, “No you won’t, you failed because you didn’t apply yourself.” I ended up in summer school, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me because the following year I got straight A’s in Algebra II, it was a breeze. He told me that he would give me all the help that he could give me but, if I fail I do it on my own, and of course if I pass I do that on my own also. He made me responsible for my own education and did not want to hear any excuses. I have a friend who has a son that I have known since he was 11 years old.  I never heard him once complain about homework assignment, not having enough time to study, poor teachers, or that he didn’t understand something. He took responsibility for every aspect of his school work. I looked at his high school transcript when he graduated, there wasn’t one A, he earned all A+’s. He was the valedictorian of his class, and he is now attending Dartmouth College. Before a kid can be successful as a student he has to be made aware by parents and teachers that it is his responsibility to be prepared to learn and to accept failure as an indicator that they are not putting forth their best effort.

Question 4

How do we deal with power struggles between yourself (the teacher) and the parents of you students?


A power struggle is something that no teacher wants to have. Whether it’s between the teacher and the student, or between the teacher and the parent the struggle creates a very uncomfortable situation for all parties involved. Power struggles with students are something that is going to happen and as teachers we know this, and seek out ways to try and prevent them or manage them in the most effective way possible when they occur in our classroom. Power struggles with parents are much more uncomfortable for the teacher and can create fear, anxiety, tension and pressure. If teachers engage in one or two of them and manage them incorrectly they will lose their confidence in managing future struggles. They may also lose the respect of the parent, and will have further difficulty with the parent’s child who is in their classroom.


Here are some tips for managing power struggles between the teachers and the parents:


If parents have poor communication skills themselves and are used to getting what they want by raising their voice and using intimidation, that is exactly what they will do during a parent teacher meeting. So, the first challenge that a teacher has is to overcome the fear of being yelled at. If teachers are fearful of parents raising their voice at them, and it is a fear that has come from their childhood, they will begin to feel like a 5 year old at the meeting. No one and I mean no one should ever be verbally abused during a parent teacher conference. If the parent is on the attack, and is becoming abusive, insulting, and down right rude, use this statement, and don’t be afraid to use it: “I’m sorry, I am not used to being spoken to this way, please calm down or we will have to have this meeting at another time.” Usually that will calm down a parent. If it doesn’t work, and the parent continues to disrespectful to you, politely end the meeting, and dismiss yourself.


Get all the facts prior to the meeting and stick to them There is no question that there are kids that we just don’t like. During the first few weeks of the school year a teacher can usually determine what students are going to give them the most trouble. Keep a diary of their behavior. The diary should consist of behaviors that are observable and countable. An example in your diary would be, I asked Tim for his homework on 1/17/08 and he responded, “I could care less about any of your stupid work.”  You record every one of the unacceptable behaviors down. During the conference, refer to the diary, and read from it to the parent.  People can’t argue with recorded facts.  Besides, you can be pretty sure that if this student has said these things to you, then he or she has probably said similar things to his or her parent.


During the conference listen well, and don’t try to interrupt when the parent is in the middle of any tirade. You will only be accused of being argumentative. Try to understand the parent’s position as wrong as it might be and remain calm. Try to find out exactly what the parent wants.  Rephrase it and then say, “So if I do______________and_____________that will solve the problem?” Usually the parent will say yes, that’s what I want. Then say, “Let me see what I can do.  Can I get back to you in a day or two?” At this point you are buying time to talk to your supervisor. By the way, if the struggle is something that you anticipate is going to happen during a parent meeting or conference, see if your supervisor can be present at the meeting.


It is important during conferences with antagonistic parents that you develop physical rapport with them.  Basically, look carefully at how the parent is sitting, and then try to match it yourself.  Follow the parent’s body movements, and then adopt that movement yourself. It is a proven fact that physical rapport is developed before verbal rapport. Matching the body posture of the parent will relax the parent and diffuse any initial tension that may exist between you and the parent.


Lastly, be proactive and don’t wait for a struggle to occur. Work on these techniques when you are calm. If you know your personality and know that confrontations make you uncomfortable, rehearse your lines and practice getting into physical rapport with someone who will work with you. If you try some of these techniques, you will find that conferences with difficult parents will go more smoothly.


This is a great question and I believe you will find the answer in an article that I wrote recently titled, “Can You Handle the Truth?” I am reprinting it here and hope that is answers your question and gives you some insight into the reasons why kids just aren’t retained in education.


One of the things that I’ve noticed today in society is that everyone has a problem with the truth. I don’t mean we walk around lying all the time, but we are always afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or becoming entangled in some sort of confrontation with the person we are speaking with or better yet the person we’re living with. Sometimes we are concerned about someone’s reaction to us so we bend the truth or poke around trying to figure out what that person wants to hear. It really starts to become a problem in personal relationships when couples are afraid to make their desires known for fear of a break-up or a divorce.  People can have a problem with the truth on the job, when a supervisor might worry about an employee’s reaction to a poor performance evaluation; in education a teacher might be worried about a student’s or parent’s reaction, and then could easily award grades that are not in line with the student’s performance.

When I was in high school my guidance counselor called me down to his office and pulled out my grades. He said, “What do you want to do when you’re through with high school?” I told him that I didn’t know, and then in the next breath, thinking that I had to tell him something other than the truth- that I wanted to be a bartender, I told him that I wanted to be a lawyer. “A lawyer,” he said, pointing to my grades, “These are not lawyer’s grades. If I were you I would start to think about doing something else.”  I walked out of his office, and wasn’t the least bit offended. I didn’t even think about going home and telling my father that my guidance counselor said I wasn’t smart enough to be a lawyer.  I never said one word to my father. You know what? The guy had actually told me the truth, and the truth really did set me free. I started to look honestly at my abilities, and I was able to acknowledge the fact that I hadn’t worked hard academically for my first three years of high school.  I started to really think about my future realistically.  My guidance counselor made me take a hard look in the mirror, and come to terms with what my abilities and my attitude really were. He told me the truth, and I appreciated that.

Well, in 1977, my father sold the bar, and I became a teacher that same year. I really enjoyed teaching. I was a special educator so I didn’t always have the cream of the crop when it came to my students. In fact, my students were usually the worst behavior problems in the school and could really get to me on some days.  But overall I developed relationships with the kids, and things seemed to always go pretty well. As I progressed in my career I noticed that things were changing. I was expected to put up with more and more behavior problems, and everyone was giving me some excuse for a kid’s deviance. The catch phrase that seemed to be in vogue about 20 years ago was, I really like this kid, but I don’t like his behavior. Was this the truth? I don’t think so. Is it really possible to like someone and not like their behavior?  The truth is we don’t like the person because of his behavior, and people need to be made aware of this in a considerate way. A person is his behavior, and the two can’t be separated. I can give you the names of people who are well known in society for absolute deviance, and you tell me if you like them, but not their behavior.  Let’s try Charles Manson, Scott Peterson, Jeffrey Dahmer, or even Adolph Hitler. Can anyone not like their behavior but still like them as people? No, we don’t like them period.  The perception we have of a person is based on his behavior. The truth is if the behavior is not likeable we probably will dislike the person. People need to know that if their behavior doesn’t change, then others won’t want to develop meaningful relationships with them, and ultimately won’t like them.

Very recently a student came into my office (I was working as an interim principal) and began to discuss with me what he wanted to do after he finished high school He wanted to be a doctor That is a terrific goal for a young person. Well, I asked him what he scored on his SATs. He told me he scored about a 400 on each section.  I was thinking in my mind that a perfect score is 800 on each section, and a pretty good score would be about a 650 to 700. I knew something right then and there; he wasn’t going to be my doctor. I proceeded to pull his grades out and found that his math and science grades were C’s and D’s. I of course wanted to respond with the same question that my guidance counselor asked me. Do these look like a doctor’s grades? But, based upon the culture and society’s norms I couldn’t ask that question. I immediately directed this student to the entry requirements that colleges have for their pre-med program, and ultimately medical school. He discovered the truth on his own, and came back to me and thanked me for helping him realize that his study skills needed improvement, and that he needed to take and re-take the college boards. The truth made him aware of his own weaknesses and how much harder he was going to have to work in order to achieve his goals.

Society seems to want to withhold the truth and make everyone believe that they are smarter than what they are and that their behavior is based upon circumstance, their environment, or lack of therapy or medication. Facing the truth about my abilities and my work ethic put me on track and helped me choose a good vocation and helped me to understand how I needed to improve my work ethic.  Subsequently, instead of floating through life unsuccessfully from one job to another, I worked hard in college, graduate school, and then as an employee. So the next time your kids come home and say that their teacher told them that they have to work harder, or their work is unacceptable, or that their behavior is unacceptable, or they better consider going to a county college rather than Dartmouth, thank that teacher for doing something that is a rarity today- speaking the truth.

The bottom line is that parents and students don’t want to hear the truth, so the system makes them believe that they are smarter than they are through the promotion process.




  1. Stephanie Vetick says:

    What is the role of the principal in bullying among classmates?

    • James H Burns says:

      Ah, good question. The principal is the leader of the school and is supposed to support the policies established by the school board. I know this is not always the case. One parental complaint can change an entire policy. The principal is supposed to be the standard of comparison by which the school runs. In other words the example for the teachers and students. He gets the big bucks and has to take the heat when implementing any policy, and that includes your schools bullying policy and procedures

  2. I am from Project: Live and I found the webpage on Anti-Bullying Lesson Plans very helpful. And I would like the rights to use those lesson plans as a part of my project. I would give the website here credit (of course) and I would change the lessons to make them my own, if you wanted me to do that. I would just like to be able to use the lessons without copyright infrigment, since they aren’t from my own ideas.
    Thank you,
    Cassity Whitley

  3. Melisha Anderson says:

    How may I contact you?

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