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The Discipline Dean

Steven Johnston doesn’t send unruly students to the principal’s office. He’s one of a growing number of teachers whose job it is to set the tone for students at his school.

By Tim Walker

Kenny sits comfortably in the chair outside the office. He’d ordinarily be in science lab now, but he caused enough of a disruption for his teacher to send him upstairs. This is not his first visit—not by a long shot—but Kenny says he’s a pretty well-behaved student overall. As a freshman? Not so much.

“I was a punk, getting in trouble all the time,” he says.

Kenny (all student names have been changed) is now a junior at Quincy High School in Quincy, Massachusetts, a “grey collar” suburb of Boston. He has racked up more than his share of discipline referrals, logging many hours with one Steven Johnston—or, as he’s known to most of the students, “Mr. J.” 

“Hi Mr. J.” Kenny looks up as Johnston approaches.

“Why are you here?” he asks as he begins to read the teacher’s note.

“I was waving my pencil across the sprinkler in science lab.”

“Why were you doing that?” Johnston asks.

 “Lab can be boring as hell,” Kenny replies.

“Boring as heck.”

“Boring as heck.”

Johnston motions the student into his office and closes the door. A few minutes later, Johnston sends Kenny back to lab with a note to the teacher instructing him to send him back for any issues. “He’s a good kid,” Johnston says. “Believe me, two years ago, Kenny would have set that sprinkler off.” Johnston walks over to his file cabinet and pulls the student’s file. “Let’s see: cutting class, disrupting class, smoking, tardiness, cutting class again, tardiness again, out of the school perimeter. Yeah, Kenny’s mom was definitely on my speed dial back then.”

On this fall day, Kenny is just the latest in a convoy of Quincy High students who have been diverted to Johnston’s office for a variety of offenses, including tardiness, class disruptions, and leaving school grounds. All in all, it’s a fairly typical day for this “discipline dean,” one of four teachers at the school whose time is largely devoted to student discipline issues.

In the past, Quincy High’s assistant principal was saddled with coordinating discipline, as is the case in most high schools. In the late ’90s, a new administration decided that behavioral issues warranted attention beyond what the school’s assistant principal, charged with planning the school’s academic program, could reasonably afford. So the school appointed four deans of students to lead the design and implementation of the school’s discipline policies—to “set the tone,” in Johnston’s words, on how to create and maintain order at Quincy High.

Now in his 13th year at Quincy (he’s also a proud member of Quincy High’s Class of ’83), Johnston thrives on his interaction with students and the collaboration with the many players involved in their lives—the school resources officer, nurse, parole officers, social services, and, of course, the parents.

“Steven knows that his job is to help create a stable learning environment,” explains Quincy Principal Frank Santoro. “But he knows that this requires him to work with these students and their families and be their advocate.”

Teachers who trade in their classroom keys for a more administrative role are unusual, but discipline-focused deans can be found at schools across the country. Mark Karadimos followed a similar path at J. Sterling Morton East High School, just outside of Chicago. With a student population topping 3,200, Morton East High couldn’t manage its behavioral issues without four full-time deans. A former math teacher, Karadimos strives to help students find the connection between their behavior and their chances for success.

“In a classroom, students often just feel the rigor, but don’t see the relevance,” he says. “My job as dean ultimately is to help students understand that we want to help them to do well in life.”

“Lahn Duong is here?” Johnston shouts in mock-surprise to his secretary, Ruthie. “Are you out there, Lahn Duong? Come on in!”

It’s a little before 9 a.m. The young Vietnamese student appears in Johnston’s doorway, looking sleepy-eyed, disheveled, and a little sheepish. 

“How are you, my friend?”

“I’m late,” he responds quietly. His English is slow but functional.

“Listen—I’m worried,” Johnston says, turning serious. “You’re not doing well in math, and that’s your first period. How are you going to pass math if you are always late?”

The student shrugs. “I don’t know. I hope so.”

“Me, too!”

Most of the city’s Asian community, which makes up 15 percent of Quincy’s overall population, lives in North Quincy. The absence of an English-language learner (ELL) program at North Quincy High, however, means a longer trip across town for Lahn Duong and many of the 300 other ELL students enrolled at Quincy High. Johnston, while aware that the commute can be a burden, tells Lahn Duong he will simply have to wake up earlier. Still, he plans to work with others in the school to juggle his schedule and move math to second or third period.

“He can’t be tardy, but I can’t have him failing math, either,” he says.

Johnston makes it a point to know each student’s academic history and any relevant details about the teen’s life outside of school. He began cultivating a rapport with students during his years as a special education teacher. Johnston moved into his current position so he could work with a more expansive student population. As dean, he weaves together strands of proactive and positive discipline techniques. Although he avoids a one-size-fits-all approach, he does subscribe to certain doctrines: treat each case individually, foster collaboration and communication, win the trust of the students, and adapt to changes in the community. And he won’t let any student leave his office without hearing words of encouragement.

Johnston’s relationship with the students is aided by how Quincy High divides the student population among its four deans. Each is assigned one of the four classes. Johnston is the dean for the class of 2008, so he has been working with the same kids for three years. That’s important, he says, because misbehavior-prone students are much easier to steer toward a more constructive path early on in their high school career.

His classroom experience also makes him particularly sensitive to one of the many challenging elements of his work: balancing the needs of the student in his office with the overburdened teacher’s need for a stable classroom. Clear communication is key. Johnston asks the teacher to be as specific as possible in the referral note. To merely write “Johnny is misbehaving” doesn’t provide Johnston and his colleagues sufficient information.

“If they want me to keep the student out of their classroom, that needs to be clearly stated in the note. I’ll do that,” he says. “If not, I’ll address the situation a different way and find solutions that won’t keep the student out of class.”

At Morton East High, Karadimos and the other deans urge teachers to intervene before sending students to the dean’s office. Not making a viable effort to address disruptions will communicate that the teacher has lost control of the classroom, he says.

Navigating through the school system’s intricate network of personalities and territories can be tricky for a dean, a position that bridges the gap between teachers and administration. Johnston says there’s one indisputable intangible needed to perform the job effectively.

“Social skills. You either have ’em or you don’t,” he says. “Knowing the governing laws of the school and state—great. Years and years of formal study—terrific. But all that will be undermined if you don’t know how to communicate properly with your colleagues and win the respect and trust of a diverse student population.”

Later in the afternoon, Toni, looking a little bewildered, sits across from Johnston.

 “How did you know that, Mr. J?”

A conflict between Toni and one of her classmates was exacerbated by an impolite exchange posted on MySpace. The classmate confided in Johnston that a problem with Toni was brewing and asked him to help. Of course, he doesn’t tell her that.

“I hear things in the air, Toni. Sometimes the walls talk to me. It really doesn’t matter—you cannot let your differences with her affect your schoolwork.”

Before this exchange, the two had been discussing Toni’s grades. “This is a key quarter for you, kid,” Johnston reminded her. These words, still punctuating the air a few minutes later, seemed to belittle the significance of an online spat.

 “You’re right,” Toni replies. “Thanks, Mr. J.”

After Toni walks out the door, Johnston spins around in his chair. “MySpace—arrrgh!” he laughs. “The online world is just multiplying the social bridges for these kids—more openings for confrontation.”

Johnston has considered trying something new—a couple of assistant principal positions have opened up recently. “Poring over data sheets or state student assessment scores? Maybe one day, but I’m not there yet,” he says, “Right now, I need to work with these kids.” 

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