The “D” word: Discipline. The word no one’s allowed to say at school anymore. Somewhere along the way it has become a taboo concept, avoided by principals and abandoned by teachers. In its place we have “restorative measures”, yet another concept that works best in the theoretical world (along with differentiated instruction and guided reading groups).
Today a colleague told me about how in a recent parent/teacher/principal meeting, the parent announced that he and his wife would no longer be picking up their child from school when he was sent home because, “You’re professionals: figure it out.”
Couldn’t an equally fair response be, you’re the parent, you figure it out? Your kid is seriously messed up and we’re pretty sure it’s your fault? Could you clean up after yourself?
(The sad truth here is that we know that the parent can’t figure it out or we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. The other sad truth is that there’s pretty much nothing we can do about it, so we can’t even figure it out for him.)
Sure, we are professionals. In education. In child development. But we’re not psychiatrists. We aren’t educated like they are, nor are we paid. So when a child demonstrates behaviours that we can’t figure out, our job is to refer the parent to someone who can. Kind of like when your family doctor refers you to a specialist because he or she isn’t qualified to treat you for that growth (and neither is he or she supposed to be).
On a daily basis, I feel that I teach my students more about how to exist peacefully in this world than I do anything else. In the morning they walk through the door already bursting with life problems. Today one of my students was upset because the other kids were accusing him of saying a swear word that he was insisting he didn’t say. For the record, this is a grade six class and many of my students would know how to deal with that without adult intervention. But kids don’t develop at the same pace and this particular one is well behind his peers. Also for the record, this kid swears like a sailor. He routinely tells me that he “didn’t do shit!”. The other day I told him in an almost-impressed-but-mostly-pissed tone that it was a pretty ballsy thing to say to a teacher. (I didn’t say ballsy). So this morning I reminded him of the time he told me he “didn’t do shit” and he insisted he had never said that, either. Then I realized that I had just sworn in class by quoting his previous swearing and it wasn’t even 8:30 and I hadn’t even taken attendance yet.
When you’re teaching children how to be in the world, naturally you need to have some consequences at your disposal. What’s frustrating about being a teacher is that we really have none, which is why my sailor student can swear and not much comes of it. Besides whatever petty leverage we can creatively concoct (missing recess, writing an apology), we can’t enforce a whole lot. Most of our lame consequences aren’t effective enough to alter negative behaviour that is clearly in some way rewarding to the child. We can’t send students home unless they’ve done something to seriously threaten the safety of others. We can send students out of our class, but that rarely has any effect because they end up in an overcrowded office where no one has time to properly address their behaviour. They are usually given a quick “talking to” and sent back to class, some of them feeling like rebel heroes. The effectiveness of administrative discipline depends heavily on the experience and personality of the administrator. But regardless, principals are pressured not to suspend (suspending = disgruntled parents = disgruntled School Board) and are also forced to come up with their own creative consequences that fall short of being influential. While I know that suspensions aren’t the ultimate solution, I think that not suspending causes an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude in our parents. How long would you allow your child to be an asshole at school for if you had to leave work to pick him or her up every time?
We certainly can’t physically punish a child (and we’re all in favour of that), but we can also hardly defend ourselves when being attacked by one. We aren’t allowed to use any force on a child, even if he or she is being entirely non-compliant and causes us to uproot our entire class and change locations. We aren’t even allowed to use an intimidating voice, because heaven forbid we hurt the child’s feelings. In school, the child has a lot of power. We spend our days praying they don’t all figure it out at the same time.
But, what happens in the real world when you are non-compliant with the authorities? After a warning or two you are restrained by force; not enough force to harm you (in theory), but enough force to prevent everyone else from being impacted by your bullshit behaviour. And yes I know that there are corrupt authorities and there are those who believe that the majority of police abuse their power, but those people are a) wrong and b) usually the people whose kid we’re trying to keep from pencil-shanking others with our “I feel” and “If/Then” statements.
The other day on yard duty I had to confront a group of grade eight boys who were using the basketball nets that were supposed to be for the Juniors. It had been previously decided that the grade eights could use a certain set of nets, but they were playing at those designated for the younger students. As I tried to explain to them why they couldn’t be using those nets, the seven or eight of them circled around me and started yelling accusations of injustice. I felt instantly overwhelmed and powerless because my pleas for them to hear me out were flattened by all of their yelling. I felt mildly panicked because I didn’t know how to deescalate the situation other than to remove myself from it, but that would mean submitting to students who needed no more reason to believe that they were in charge of the school. By some grace of god my principal came out on a hunch, and with her at my side we were able to divide and conquer them. I actually can’t remember what the final outcome of that situation was – all I can remember was feeling so helpless. Because of thirteen-year-old boys and a basketball court.
It was that day that I started thinking, if school is not only a microcosm of but also a real part of society, wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interested if it functioned as such? If consequences were similar to those in the so-called real world: restraint and detainment? Possibly confinement? I’m definitely not saying that these measures are all that effective in correcting adult behaviour, either, but I’m saying that this is the way it is in our society until we figure out something better. Had I been a police officer in that basketball situation, I would have called for back-up and I would have likely arrested a few for non-compliance. At school I have no reliable means to call for back-up, and either way my back-up is usually busy dealing with its own legit situation.
In conclusion, I think that we need three things to change in order to improve our approach to discipline:
- We need to be allowed to make parents more uncomfortable when their child is misbehaving.
- As professionals who work with hundreds of children, we need to be allowed to provide kids with behavioural and mental health services whether or not the parent agrees to be involved.
- We need to have consequences that reflect the “real world”, and students should essentially have the same rights as citizens: the right to a mediator, and the right to remain silent (…if only).