swallow beverage before reading.)
I’ve been mulling over this post for a while now, and then several things reached critical mass, including a comment by a tutee, the recent post on Alex Barton (“Mend the Link”), and some internet articles listing “common questions asked in teacher interviews”.
Oh, plus this wayfinding sign displayed on the end of a “stack” at a library. The numbers of course refer to the Dewey Decimal subject classification. I like to think that whomever printed up the sign appreciated the ten-tonne irony; I also wonder just how many people actually notice it.
Apparently one of those common teacher-interview questions runs along the lines of, “How do you maintain classroom discipline?”
Wow. That sort of phrasing gives me flashbacks of other people’s experiences with nuns holding rulers or head masters holding paddles. I must have lived a charmed life, because I was never in the sort of classroom where students got paddled; we merely got our self-esteem chewed down verbally, much like the rattly sharpeners chewed down our #2 pencils. This is more insidious because the black and blue marks don’t show, and because it’s dismissed as “merely” getting yelled at.
But that’s not what discipline is really about. It’s not about “making children do what you want” nor about “controlling behavior with punishments and bribes” (really two sides of the same coin).
When my tutee and I were discussing details for a paper on his personal values in dating, the student (who had other alarming qualities), could only define “discipline” as meaning spanking. Spanking, he said, was “okay to do to children, because adults should know better”. What he would feel appropriate for an adult who somehow didn’t know better, I didn’t dare to ask.
Corporal punishment as discipline — or the threat of such — does not work well. It can stop bad behavior, but doesn’t teach better behavior. Worse, it teaches the wrong things. Even bribes and gold stars don’t work well, because the focus is shifted from what is being done, to what the reward is. Psychologists have found that extrinsic rewards are actually dismotivating in the long run. (Hell, even when I was a kid I knew this — I decided that if I really wanted some gold stars, I’d go with my mom to the store, and buy myself a box of them. Miss Van House’s chart of gold stars did nothing to actually help me learn my multiplication tables better; it merely displayed my difficulties to everyone else for them to give me further ridicule.)
But what’s scary is how often we find so many mixed messages in the system that relies upon “beating others” by dominating them in hierarchies or in competitions:
You shouldn’t beat up your peers. It’s okay for adults to beat up on you.
We want you to resist peer pressure and think for yourself. We want you to believe everything we tell you about what are good values.*
We want you to be a good team member. Don’t even think of asking the student next to you how they solved the problem; you do your own work.
Be responsible. Only do what we tell you to.
We want you to be compassionate and look out for each other. We want you to turn in your peers to the authorities when they are troubled.
Cooperation is the key to success. There can only be one winner, so you have to beat everyone else.
Yeah, as if!
When people talk about classroom discipline, they tend to fall into assumptions that unless the teacher imposes their will over the students and threatens them from the beginning, then the students will automatically misbehave.
Having spent two years working in a self-contained setting with 30 students with emotional & behavioral problems, people will sometimes ask me if I think that kids are inherently bad. It’s an age-old question of philosophy and Western religion (original sin and all that). But it’s not really an issue of whether people are naturally good or naturally bad — that’s a false dichotomy. People are just one more animal species, with each individual trying to get what they need from the social interactions. Humans do horrible things and wonderful things, and mostly just do things that are varying levels and mixtures of good and bad. Any behavior that gets a person what they need is in some way adaptive, but it may also be maladaptive.
For example, when people lie, it is because they don’t feel safe telling the truth. In hostile environments, telling the truth is often demanded explicitly, but the implicit or covert message is that actually telling the real truth (as opposed to what those in charge want to hear) will likely get you in trouble too. What then? If you’re a socially naive and honest little child (autistic or otherwise), you’re likely to get in trouble, and then afterwards flounder in bewilderment as to why, and what you did wrong, and what really happened.
So what then, is “discipline”? The word means several things, as I reminded my tutee. It means self-control. Discipline also means training and practicing a skill, or a particular field of learning, such as science or mathematics or social studies. He made a little polite social noise of acknowledgment, but I don’t think the words got much past his auditory processing and working memory. In his world, discipline meant beating up on someone to force them to do what you wanted, and he had seen little to refute that, or to change his perception of either the appropriateness or the necessity of doing the same.
Then too, we have adults acting out when they get frustrated, and engaging in bullying behavior. In really rotten systems, the principal bullies the staff and the students, the staff bully each other and the students, and the students bully each other and sometimes the staff. Even worse, everyone pretends this is normal and “just the way things are” and sometimes tries to stop the worst of it by simply engaging in more of the same. (Cue Pink Floyd’s album, “The Wall”.) When students like Alex Barton do things they shouldn’t, everyone then feels entitled to gang up on them in order to “teach them a lesson”. Alas, it is the wrong, wrong lesson.
The best alternatives I have found to the forcible method of class discipline (whether physical or verbal), is a model built upon compassion, upon open-ended exploration with the students about what they need and how it can be achieved positively, and upon thoughtful consideration of what the evidence we have for making these decisions. It’s even a model built upon acknowledgment that secondary students have already heard (and recited) the official rules a gazillion times, and that it’s more useful to ask what problems might really happen in our science classroom and how we should prevent or handle them.
It’s all rather nicely summed up in this quote from a book that I really want to read soon, Democratic Schools, Second Edition: Lessons in Powerful Education, by Michael W. Apple and James A. Beane:
“The two qualities that seemed to define our ideal citizen were empathy and skepticism: the ability to see a situation from the eyes of another and the tendency to wonder about the validity of what we encountered.”
Empathy and skepticism; two great things that work great together!
__________ # ___________
* Some of these are mentioned in Alfie Kohn’s essay, “How Not to Teach Values”, as was mention of the quote from the first edition of the Apple & Beane book.