Abundant Rain on Tender Plants - Achieving Better School Disciplining With Less Discipline

Richard T. Orrison
Retired Principal and Professor of Teacher Education, Andrews University

An experienced teacher and principal reflects on what he has learned.

Some years ago one of my students, whose grandfather was an excellent book binder, gave me a beautifully bound volume entitled All I Know About Teaching, with my name, as the author, boldly embossed in gold. Inside I found two hundred fifty-six pure-white pages with not one word printed on them—the pages were blank. At that time I was a principal who had a reputation among some for operating a well-ordered school.

Needless to say, the book was a source of humor to all who saw it and, of course, it served to form a most cordial bond between the gift-giver and me. It still has a prominent place on my library shelves. Over the years it has reminded me that there are many blank pages in my understanding of how to teach and how to manage a school or classroom.

Through those years, however, I have discovered four cardinal principles that can have a tremendous influence in creating a well-ordered school or classroom. They promote cooperative, congenial student behavior.

Before discussing these principles I wish to make some general observations about discipline.



If we should stop people on the street and ask, "What is discipline?" most would respond that discipline is punishment, connoting that discipline is negative. I want to consider the word in a much broader sense that includes punishment as only one aspect of a complex set of positive events and activities.

The derivation of the word itself denotes nurturing, cooperation, teaching, commitment, and loyalty, for it has the same roots as the words disciple and discipleship. Further, when the positive qualities of discipline are effectively practiced, the need for the negative aspect of punishment is often eliminated or is necessary only as a last resort.

Discipline—what I like to call "behavior management"—is the part of teaching about which most new teachers have the deepest concern. And rightly so, for this is the area which most often determines a teacher’s success or failure. New teachers usually feel fairly confident about what to teach (subject content) and how to teach (methods of instruction), but they worry whether they will be able to control the behavior of the students in their classrooms. Understanding and practicing the following principles will greatly reduce discipline challenges.

Managing student behavior should not and need not be continual trial and error. Nor need it be "baptism by fire"! Rather, when teachers design a student-behavior-management plan based on these principles and practice them ahead of time, their comfort quotient will escalate, student learning will increase, and both teachers and students are more likely to enjoy school. Otherwise, unprepared teachers are inclined to employ in their classrooms the same management procedures that their own teachers used, whether good or bad.


PRINCIPLE ONE: Preplanning Is Vital.

Preplanning prevents approximately 90 per cent of discipline problems. Contemplate the significance of that concept! Anticipating and planning ahead can eliminate the majority of management issues!

Practicing this principle means beginning the school year with the end of the year in mind. It means that teachers understand what they want to accomplish by the end of the year, and they plan ahead what is to happen day by day and week by week in order to reach those goals. It means getting acquainted with their students and the students’ parents, creating the classroom atmosphere (including décor and furniture arrangements), designing routines and procedures, developing communication plans, and organizing instruction. All this should be completed before the year begins. Accomplishing these projects is almost impossible after the year starts. Teachers who commence the year without thorough preplanning should anticipate student restlessness and lack of interest, which will emerge as behavior problems. All this may seem very obvious and overly simplistic, but the reality is that every year scores of teachers do not practice this principle, and classroom chaos results.

My thoughts turn back to my first year of teaching, when I was hired one week before the school year was to start. I had not completed college, had no formal preparation for teaching, and had not seriously envisioned myself as a teacher. Others apparently thought I should be one. I was too naïve to realize how unprepared I was or what a risk I was taking, and I accepted the position.

Suddenly I was in a classroom with 16 fifth- and sixth-graders. I had made no preparation for the year. I had no idea what they were to be taught, or how I was to teach them. It was classic managing by trial and error. I often reflect on what that year could have been had I known the importance of preplanning and had had the opportunity to practice it. Amazingly, the students survived the year and so did I. I can’t testify how far the frontiers of knowledge were pushed back in their minds, but I can say that now, 50 years later, I know where many of those students are and regularly communicate with several of them.


PRINCIPLE TWO: Celebrate the First Day of School.

Most people believe that the last day is the most important day of the school year. They consider that what happens on that day determines the success of the year. Actually, the content of the first day is the most important factor in influencing the accomplishments of the year. What happens on the first day affects what is achieved on each and every day of the year thereafter, including the last day. In fact, some experts say that the tone for the year is set in the first ten minutes of the first day!

What teachers do and how they act on the first day are of tremendous importance. A successful first day is overt evidence of careful, thorough preparation. The first day makes or breaks the school year. It also makes or breaks the teacher. The first day decides who is in charge of the classroom, the teacher or the students. On the first day the classroom environment, whether businesslike or disorderly, is established. The quality of day-by-day student behavior and the degree of student achievement at the end of the year are directly related to the extent to which the teacher can implement such things as teachers’-institute expectations, procedures, and routines during the very first day and the first few weeks. Wise teachers remember that there is no second first day!

On the first day teachers begin the process of transforming an aggregate group of individuals into a social group—a community—and, ideally, into a family. Starting with the first minute, they teach the students that they (the students) have entered a highly productive and well-managed learning environment. Effective teachers spend the first two weeks teaching routines and procedures and having the students practice them, including procedures for managing behavior so that managing by emotion is avoided.

Creative teachers conduct the first day with style, class and flourish. While they make the first day business-like, fun activities and traditional events are included. In other words, the first day is made a memorable celebration. When the year is begun in this manner, discipline problems will be diminished to a remarkable extent.

I am thinking of a young man who, from the students’ perspective, was among the most popular in the school. He was very talented in sports, music and leadership, and he had a dynamic personality. Even with all his abilities he was a "pain in the neck" to some of the teachers. On one occasion I was away from the school for several days. On the day I returned, as I passed him in the hall, this young man very unobtrusively slipped his arm around me and said quietly, "I missed you while you were gone. I am glad you are back. The school runs better when you are here, and I feel more secure." These words from this unlikeliest of students demonstrated the security he felt when the established procedures and regular routines he was accustomed to were followed. I have often remembered his words and realized that, if one so self-confident as he valued a well-ordered school environment, how very important it is for students in general to have the stability of a well-organized school experience from the very first day.

The Teachers’ Hymn. The words of a well-loved hymn give focus to the final two principles. The hymn’s words take on new meaning when read through teacher eyes and sung from a teacher heart. This prayer, written by Washington Gladden, so eloquently captures the essence of teaching and guiding student behavior that I have designated it, "The Teachers’ Hymn." As you contemplate the words, let the beauty of this petition to the Master Teacher sweep over your soul.


O Master, let me walk with Thee
In lowly paths of service free;
Tell me Thy secret; help me bear
The strain of toil, the fret of care.


Help me the slow of heart to move
By some clear, winning word of love;
Teach me the wayward feet to stay, 
And guide them in the homeward way.


Teach me Thy patience; still with Thee
In closer, dearer company,
In work that keeps faith sweet and strong,
In trust that triumphs over wrong;


In hope that sends a shining ray
Far down the future’s broadening way;
In peace that only Thou canst give,
With Thee, O Master, let me live.

(Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, 574)


PRINCIPLE THREE: Accentuate the Positive.

A jaunty World War II tune, written by Johnny Mercer and called "Accentuate the Positive," succinctly expresses the spirit of this grand principle:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative.
Latch on to the affirmative. . . .
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum,
Bring gloom down to the minimum—
Have faith or pandemonium
Li’ble to walk upon the scene.*

Competent teachers always seek to discipline students privately rather than publicly. They know that the very best discipline is the kind that no one notices.

Though Mr. Mercer was not intentionally describing classroom dynamics (other phrases in the song indicate that a Southern country preacher is speaking), he made a profound statement about classroom reality. Truly, pandemonium and gloom do pervade the classroom where the negative (nagging, threatening, punishment) is accentuated. Competent teachers limit student off-task behavior by arranging the room so they can be in close proximity to the students by moving among them while they are teaching, rather than scolding or fretting with their voices. Successful teachers stand much of the time when teaching, because they know that off-task behavior escalates as much as 75 per cent when teachers are seated. They convey an attitude of seriousness about their expectations for student behavior. They always seek to discipline students privately rather than publicly. They know that the very best discipline is the kind that no one notices. They try to make positive eye contact with every student in the first few minutes of the first day and every day thereafter.

Their goal is to create a classroom ambiance that is both productive and positive. This is a very important concept. The ideal is for students to be intrinsically motivated to cooperate. The reality is that intrinsic motivation must be taught just as every other good outcome is taught in school. The further reality is that until students are intrinsically motivated to cooperate, their cooperation is based on what they will receive in exchange for their cooperation. The commodity that teachers have the most of and have control over is time. They reward acceptable behavior by gifting students with time to engage in learning activities that they (the students) prefer and enjoy.

Positive Terms. Respected teachers state behavior expectations in positive terms. The terms may even contrast acceptable behavior with what is unacceptable. For example, instead of the rule saying, Do not swear it might be stated: The student uses pure language and avoids the appearance of evil rather than using profane language or indulging in lewd conduct or suggestions, or possessing or displaying obscene materials.

Ellen White presents very valuable guidelines for establishing expectations for student behavior. She indicates that the expectations should (1) improve the students’ standing in society, (2) elevate their character, (3) ennoble their minds, and (4) increase their happiness (see Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, pp. 99-100). These guidelines have been a tremendous assistance to me as I have written student handbooks and codes of conduct. They have been very helpful also when explaining to students the rationale for rules and regulations.

The most significant aspect of this principle pertains to the value that a teacher places on individual students. Recognizing their potential and emphasizing their positive qualities has enormous influence eliminating negative behavior. While visiting in a distant city recently I was invited to have dinner with two of my former students, a young married couple who are highly successful in their careers and are leaders in their church.

As a young person the husband experienced considerable family dysfunction. Over dinner he told me that I had been a positive male role model during his teen years when he had no other. He said, "I have always been amazed at how much you have believed in me, and I feel that you have a lot to do with who I am today." I, in turn, am amazed at the profound long-range effect a little comment of regard, a brief statement of encouragement, a casual inquiry like "How are you doing?" may have upon a young person’s life.


PRINCIPLE FOUR: Develop Relationships With Students.

The most important thing, bar none, that teachers can do for their students is to develop positive relationships with them. Teachers are hired to affect lives; this is their foremost responsibility. It comes before mathematics, science, social studies, and all the rest. Love is the most powerful tool they have. A student in my university course (whom I had earlier expelled from high school several times for major citizenship violations) penned these profound words when writing in his teacher education journal about student-teacher relationships: "Knowledge will not fill our words with warmth nor cause a single student to learn," affirming that rapport comes before subject content. It is best to begin with the students with whom they have the best rapport and to extend their ever-broadening circle of friendship until every possible student is included. Some students may resist the teachers’ efforts, and 100 per cent success may not be achievable.

Teachers are hired to affect lives; this is their foremost responsibility.

Ellen White describes Christ’s method for establishing relationships, which, she says, is the only avenue for reaching people. Teachers who follow His manner will mingle with their students, be concerned about their welfare, show compassion for them, minister to their needs, and win their confidence. Then they may anticipate their students’ allegiance (see The Ministry of Healing, p. 143).

Regardless of how unlovely and inconsiderate their students may be, teachers should pray that they may see them as persons for whom Christ died and thus recognize the students’ inestimable value. They should try to view themselves as their students’ defense attorney. It is truly amazing, but when teachers treat their students as though they are perfect, the students tend to act in accordance with the way they are treated. "The Savior’s rule—‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise’—should be the rule of all who undertake the training of children and youth. . . . Christ’s rule should be sacredly observed toward the dullest, the youngest, the most blundering, and even toward the erring and rebellious" (Education, pp. 292-293).

Associated with developing relationships with students is the opportunity teachers have to lead their students to Christ and to invite them to accept Him as their personal Savior. This is a privilege every teacher should treasure and make a priority. There is no greater reward for teachers than to have a role in this truly awesome experience.

I had taken a group of students to a distant town to present a special program in the local church there. A member of the program team was the president of the senior class. He had been president of his class for all of his four high school years. Though he was a social leader, his spiritual leadership was not strong and his lifestyle tended to be secular. We spent Friday afternoon, which happened to be his birthday, practicing for the program. While others were practicing I took a seat beside him to wish him a happy birthday. As our conversation continued I was prompted by the Holy Spirit to ask him about his relationship with Jesus and whether he had considered giving his life to the Lord. He thanked me for asking and said he wanted to make that commitment. When we returned to school, plans were made for him to be baptized at the conclusion of the senior class consecration service on Friday evening of graduation weekend. His baptism was a wonderful witness for the influence of Christian education. Today his children are enrolled in the church school in the town where they live and he is a major financial contributor to improving the school. Twelve years after his baptism he said to me, "Your loyal, loving, forgiving friendship has inspired my recognition and acceptance of the unconditional nature of God’s love. . . . Reminding me of God’s love, your undying faith will be in my thoughts all the days of my life."

Teachers should be cautious that their relationship with their students is that of an adult friend and advocate and not a "buddy." Some think that in order to truly relate to students it is necessary to be their buddy. They are wrong. Loyalty will not result from a buddy student-teacher relationship, but contempt might.


PRINCIPLE FIVE: When the first four fail.

Not all students will respond to the positive effect of these four principles. Ten to 12 per cent of the students may not cooperate with the routines and procedures teachers establish in order to assure a well-ordered classroom. Before the school year begins, teachers should carefully design a discipline plan, including consequences, which may be applied to those cases when students repeatedly interfere with the classroom learning process. The plan may begin with verbal admonition and become sequentially more significant to include parents and/or administrators.



Moses has reached the end of his life. He prays that he may say the right words in the right way as he addresses the children of Israel for the last time. This is a prayer for those who wish their management and discipline to have a positive effect. The words have such a beautiful and profound implication for all who have the privilege of nurturing the minds, characters, and souls of children and youth that I refer to it as "The Teachers’ Prayer":

Let my teaching fall like rain
and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grass,
like abundant rain on tender plants.

(Deut 32:2 NIV.)


*"Accentuate the Positive" appeared in a film copyrighted in 1944 and may possibly be in the public domain now. I found it by searching on the Internet for "Accentuate the Positive." "Li’ble" is how it is in the original.