A Principal’s Experience

By Mary Lou Cebula, Ed.D. Principal
Central School, 
Warren, New Jersey

Last April, I started a new life journey that has dramatically changed who I am as a principal as well as who I am as a person. I was completing my fifth year as an elementary public school principal. One of my colleagues recommended I attend the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Convention in Anaheim, California. He had attended the conferences in the past and found them highly worthwhile.

Excitedly, I registered and began to think of my main goals during the conference. In reflecting on my abilities as an educational leader, I felt that I could improve my interaction skills with students encountering behavioral issues. In one third-grade class for example, the teacher and I had been meeting on a weekly basis to help a child who seemed to be continually making poor choices and becoming exceedingly more angry each day. We met with the parents who worked together with us on several behavior plans. Nothing seemed to change the child’s behavior. I kept thinking there must be something else in the land of educational ideas that could provide my staff and me with additional strategies or suggestions to help children with behavioral difficulties.

Armed with a mission, I attended every workshop in the program concerning “at-risk,” “disruptive” or “difficult” children. It was at one of these sessions that I first heard Dr. Marvin Marshall speak. As he talked about the system and the power of positivity, choice, and reflection, I knew in my heart that I had hit upon something that might work for my school and me.

Immediately following the conclusion of Dr. Marshall’s presentation, I turned to a gentleman sitting next to me. He seemed to know about Dr. Marshall’s system so I asked him if he used the system in his school. When he said, “Yes,” I asked his opinion and he responded by stating, “The teachers who incorporate Dr. Marshall’s principles are sad at the end of the school year because they don’t want their students to leave. The ones who do not use the system can’t wait for the school year to end!” That was all the vindication I needed. I hurried to the conference bookstore and purchased Dr. Marshall’s book.

Before the plane landed back in New Jersey, I had finished the book complete with highlighting, tabs, and notations in the margins. Since April, I have read Dr. Marshall’s book at least twice and some chapters three or four times! I carried the book everywhere I went: school, home, to lunch with friends, and at family gatherings. What is remarkable about it is not that there are profound statements or earth-shattering revelations. Instead, it is a primer for a way of life—a new way of thinking, a new way of helping children act responsibly.

Back at school, I began to make attempts to implement Dr. Marshall’s philosophy in some small way each day. The first three chapters of the book stress positivity, giving students choices, and using reflective questions to help students assess their behavior and accept responsibility for their actions. I decided to start by waking up each morning telling myself to think and act in positive ways.

Each morning, I greeted staff and students with a smile, wished them a happy day, and tried to think of ways to state comments to students in a positive manner. I practiced saying things like, “We walk from the bus to the classroom” instead of, “No running!” In the lunchroom, I called clean up time, “quiet clean-up” instead of “no talking.” In the past, we clapped out a rhythm for getting students’ attention in the lunchroom or during an assembly. At Dr. Marshall’s suggestion, I started raising my hand and timing how many seconds it took the students to become quiet. If it took more than a few seconds, I would say, “That took 10 seconds. I bet we can do it even faster.” Then we would try again and of course they improved the time.

As the idea of positivity began to become a habit with me, I started to notice how good it felt. People responded to me in the same way I interacted with them. I also noticed when other staff made statements in negative terms. It began to bother me. I hadn’t noticed before how often educators speak to students and others in negative terms.

I wanted to share the knowledge I had gained from the bookbut I did not want my staff to feel this was a top-down directive. I decided that after I had practiced a bit, I would begin to have conversations with my staff about student behavior and their style of interacting with children.

In the meantime, I began to experiment with giving students choices. This was an easier change for me because I had used this strategy to some degree in the past. I have always felt that children should be active participants in solving problems and resolving conflicts. When speaking to students about their behavior at recess, in the lunchroom, or on the bus, I would try to solicit from them what choices they had and how they could make the correct choice. If a consequence were needed, we would talk together about some of the choices. If I was satisfied, I would say, “I can live with that.” This came straight from Dr. Marshall. Every time it worked, I would wonder at the simplicity of the process.

Finally, I began the hardest part of Dr. Marshall’s system: reflective questions. This is especially challenging for educators because we feel we are not doing our job unless we are constantly teaching or telling children what they should do, when, how and why. Actually, we are doing children a great injustice when we do this. Who is doing all the thinking and reflecting? Certainly not the children! When reflective questions are used the student is prompted to respond. These reflective questions do not come naturally. They take practice. At first, I fumbled a little. I felt like my brain was on overload deciding what questions I needed to ask. Many times I would go back to the book and reread examples of reflective questions so I could get a better feel for them.

In May, teachers began to notice I was carrying the book, Discipline without Stress Punishments or Rewardseverywhere I went in school. At team planning meetings, I asked them if they were satisfied with the behavior of their students. We talked about the different procedures in their classroom and how they handled behavior concerns. They agreed that sometimes behavior modification plans did not work. Sometimes they ran out of ideas and were frustrated and stressed out. I started telling them about Dr. Marshall’s ideas. Teachers expressed an interest in reading Dr. Marshall’s book and trying his approach.

I purchased books through my administrator’s account for each staff member who expressed an interest. At our last faculty meeting in June, I distributed the books and invited them to read it over the summer. In September, the entire faculty was ready to go. We watched Dr. Marshall’s instructional video prior to the first day of school. That served as a good reminder for teachers who read the book over the summer and important information for those who had not. Teachers made bulletin boards with the four levels of behavior: Anarchy (A), Bullying/Bossing (B), Cooperation /Conformity (C), and Democracy (D). We printed and laminated the posters from Dr. Marshall’s website for each classroom.

By the end of September, we were all speaking the same language. I could walk up to any student in the building and ask him/her: “What level of behavior is that?” and they could identify it correctly. The goal of course was for students to be at levels C or D. Some students got it right away and made efforts to make the right choices. One second grade student was concerned because a classmate was ill on Halloween. He was worried that his friend would not be well enough to go Trick or Treating. He asked his parents if he could take half of his “goodies” to his friend and so the parents drove him to his friend’s house. What a great example of Level D behavior! I would not have even known about it except that the sick child’s mother called me the next day to praise the child.

Other students needed to be reminded more often. Special education students with behavior problems have had the greatest difficulty behaving at the appropriate levels. At team planning meetings each week we shared experiences, asked questions, and helped each other implement the program. We also held several after-school gatherings. We called it a “Book Club.” Teachers volunteered to come and talk about Dr. Marshall’s book and their experiences with the system. I especially enjoyed sitting back and listening to others share their stories.

It is almost a year since I heard Dr. Marshall speak. My life has not been the same since that momentous day. I continue to work each day at being positive. Reflective questions now come more naturally to me. Most of my interactions with students are calm events that challenge students to think about what they did and come up with plans for how they can be at Level C or D more frequently. One first grade student was worried that her classmate would not be able to bring in a treat for his birthday, so she asked her mother if they could make cookies for him. They did and the child was so excited when she brought them in on his birthday to share with the class. This is another example of a child doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do!

In conclusion, I would like to make the comparison of a Sonicare Toothbrush with what we now call “The Marshall Plan.” All my life I had used a manual toothbrush: Reach, Oral B, or whatever the dentist gave me after a checkup. I never thought there could be something better to clean my teeth until the Sonicare Toothbrush entered my life. Was it easy to use? Not at first.

My husband and I read the instruction book. Then we practiced. The toothbrush felt tingly during our first few times using it as the book indicated. Did we give up? No, we felt it was worth the effort to continue trying. There were many things to remember when using the Sonicare Toothbrush. You must keep your mouth, shut or the toothpaste will dribble down your chin. If you take the toothbrush out of your mouth without turning it off first, the toothpaste splatters all over the mirror, sink, and your clothes! The toothbrush has an internal clock. It runs for two minutes. With a manual toothbrush, you can just stop or start whenever you want.

Despite all these adjustments and changes to my tooth brushing habits, the end result is so effective and my teeth are so much cleaner, I will never go back to my old toothbrush again! This is exactly how I feel about my post Dr. Marshall life. I will never go back to who I was before. Was it easy? No. Was it worth the effort? Yes! The new me is a happier, more positive person and administrator—and it has made all the difference in my life.