The challenge of maintaining discipline in the classroom is not new to education. Ask any teacher what their biggest obstacle is to providing quality lessons and the matter of ill-discipline will inevitably rank among their top 3. Many textbooks, dissertations and blogs are dedicated to improving the state of classroom discipline and they all share strategies and techniques to improve a teacher’s classroom management skills. Yet, we are no nearer to a permanent solution to the challenge than we were 20 years ago. Teachers are becoming more disgruntled every year and many leave the teaching profession to seek a work environment that is less chaotic. How then, do we improve the classroom environment and stop this mass exodus of teachers?
I do not proclaim to have a magic pill that will cure the menace of the many discipline challenges, nor do I think such a wonder of a medicine will ever be developed, but I do believe that there are some general beliefs about discipline that need to be revised and I’d like to share my thoughts on the matter of classroom discipline in this article.
In essence, I believe that most of the tried-and-tested discipline techniques only address the symptoms of deeper rooted causes. We need to address the cause of the issues if we are to rid the classroom of the symptoms. Just as medical doctors treat epidemics by administering medication to individuals, teachers should treat the epidemic of ill-discipline by administering strategies in an individualised manner.
What would a discussion about discipline be without addressing corporal punishment? Many proponents of the ‘carrot and stick’ strategy, who whip out the stick without any thought of the carrot, proclaim corporal punishment to solve the matter of ill-discipline. After all, it worked for many generations and it didn’t have that many serious negative effects on individuals. Aside from the anecdotes of victims of classroom violence – as I believe corporal punishment to be – research has shown that learners’ ability to retain information and learn concepts decrease when the learning occurs in a state of fear. The use of corporal punishment is a sure-fire way of creating a fearful classroom. In a society where violence and abuse seem to be on the increase, why would we want to contribute to the deterioration of the social fabric? Regardless of any personal view you might have of the efficacy of corporal punishment, it has been outlawed. That’s the bottom line. It simply isn’t a strategy that may be used by teachers.
Who is in control?
I have yet to meet a passionate teacher who likes giving over control of their classroom. Most are extremely territorial and scrutinise any external entity who dares challenge her or his authority in their classroom. This is an admirable trait and shows the dedication of the teacher to her educational space. Unfortunately, this can easily lead to an authoritarian regime headed by a well-meaning dictator ruling the classroom. Dictators generally live under immense stress. They try to control every aspect of their state and allow little freedom. They feel that they need to be in control as to avoid anarchy that could lead to a revolution. Teachers who want to control every aspect of a lesson will quickly be confronted with one or two ‘anarchists’ who know that they can derail a lesson by stressing the teacher out. One thing I have learnt in my journey as a teacher is that you just cannot control everything. By loosening your grip on the lesson and classroom atmosphere you allow space for cooperation. I have come to realise that I am only in control of three things: 1) my thoughts, 2) my words, and 3) my actions. Aside from these I am not in control of anything. Want to improve the classroom environment? Allow for freedom of expression within the clear boundaries you set. Be consistent in your expectations, communicate these expectations clearly and model the behaviour you wish for. When you do everything in your control to create an environment that is conducive to learning, you will be able to hand over control of the lesson and experience creativity in action.
Most humans have an innate desire to feel important. We are content when this need is fulfilled, but will go out of our way to meet the need when we feel unimportant. This is also true for the learners in your class. All of them. Not only the ones you think are “just seeking attention”. When teachers take interest in the lives of those they teach, they start building a relationship of trust. We learn from those we trust because we feel a sense of security. Vygotsky and other proponents of social constructivism posit that we learn from competent peers. I argue that the competence of the teacher is confirmed when the relationship of trust is strengthened. Take the time to get to know the individual. What are their interests, hobbies, and extra-mural activities? Be genuine in your endeavour to build a relationship with the individual and you will be rewarded with behaviour that respects your expectations. The further advantage is that you get insight to the psyche of the person whom you are teaching. This allows you to select appropriate examples when explaining concepts that would resonate with the individual. Where should teachers still find the time to work on these relationships when they hardly find time to complete all their other responsibilities? I dedicated at least one break per week to building relationships. Instead of drinking tea in the staffroom I would drink my tea on the playground, observing behaviour, having informal chats. All in the hope of catching a glimpse of what is important to those I teach.
These are only a few of the beliefs I needed to revise to improve the general experience for learners in my classroom. For me, it is not a matter of ensuring that discipline, in the traditional sense of the word, is enforced through the actions and decrees of a dictator but allowing a democratic state to develop authentically.
This interview first appeared in Teacha! Magazine. Read or download it here.