The Heart of Discipline

Having watched a recent TV programme, that showed ‘a day in the life of an army recruit,’ I was intrigued by the lengths some officers in authority would go to humiliate their colleagues, all in the name of ‘discipline.’ In defence, one might say that ‘this is what it takes to be a soldier’ and ‘they knew what they were getting into.’ Perhaps this kind of ‘discipline’ may have its advantages when going to war, but by and large it seemed overly rash and psychologically manipulative. 

Attitudes to school discipline have changed over the last fifty years. Gone are the days of corporal punishment when discipline was instilled from the top down in a harsh environment of ‘do as I say.’

Today, the ‘pastoral care’ of pupils and ‘student discipline’ are somewhat woven together. We have come to acknowledge that good relationships are the best way to form the basis of good discipline with more care being taken to assess students’ needs. From this standpoint, we can promote and discuss personal discipline (respect for oneself) my rights and responsibilities (my place in the world) and my hopes (the person I want to be in the future).

A good pastoral team can
provide resources and support, liaising with teachers in developing a more holistic approach to this view of discipline and welfare, all within a nurturing and supportive setting.

Practically speaking, the secret of this approach - is to show that a teacher is there to help and is on the side of the pupil. When this is apparent to the pupil, a new dynamic exists in the teacher/pupil relationship, resulting in better communication on a rational and mature level. This leads to expectations being properly heard and anticipated.

Instead of some form of punishment being meted out in situations of bad classroom behaviour or where homework wasn’t completed, the dialogue can hinge around how agreed expectations weren't being met and of how one party was being ‘let down.’

This is a key human emotion and one that is central to all relationships requiring trust. By facing issues in a positive way with a focus on a quality relational approach, students as well as teachers can learn more about themselves and continue to grow in their human development. 

 Talk to students long after they have left school and one of the most common memories of a class-teacher is whether or not they were ‘fair.’ We become more aware of issues of justice and respect in later years and with gathered life experience. Yet, we understand and have a developing sense of justice during our school going years. With hind-sight, we can see who had our best interests at heart, even though we may not have realized it at the time.

‘Respecting students’ translates into walking with them in their journey, knowing as best you can ‘where they are at,’ and being aware of small opportunities to show you care. 

Trying to break down barriers that may exist in the mind of the student towards the school regime is never easy.  For the teacher, this can be an ongoing struggle requiring endless patience, especially when one or two characters can drain your energy as you try every way possible to make an impact. 

Asserting authority does not have to mean that a teacher must come across as being stern and unapproachable. The old adage ‘Don’t smile ’til Christmas time,’ had merit in so far as pupils took you seriously and were well aware of who set the boundaries. But to what degree might a false self be presented here? There are times when we feel we have to ‘act’ the part, ‘putting on’ the stern face or the deep-toned voice. That may have a place in dealing with a group, but it can also confuse students who have to interpret what they see and hear. Their conclusion in this kind of scenario is often the genesis of poor relating and teachers find it hard to ‘buy back’ their true selves in the eyes of a questioning student. 

A better way to lead with authority is to set aside some time to ‘create’ classroom rules together. In the course of that class think-tank, explain the rationale behind why we cannot interrupt a teacher or why we can’t demean a fellow pupil. Very often, and with a little prompting to help the group consider certain aspects of school life, the very essence of the rules we wished to issue in the first place will arise from the class conversation.

When the pupils themselves are the authors, and everyone is satisfied, then we all sign up to the ‘agreement.’ The newly created "Terms of Agreement’ can be placed in bold lettering at a central point in the classroom to be viewed anytime and referred to as required. Any breach of the agreement and we have spoiled it, not just for the teacher, but for everyone, even ourselves.

 A deeper underlying educational value of such an approach is to raise student awareness around ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ that must be considered when living with other people.

As we know, it is not only in schools but in families, communities, institutions, the workplace and world political-life that we need leaders who understand the strengths of negotiating and compromising if we are to build a more peaceful and caring world.

Surely any experience guiding or enlightening our future leaders as to how this can be achieved must be at the heart of what education is all about.

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