Discipline without sin bins

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
Simple rules for class behaviour and enlisting peer pressure are better strategies for keeping order than punishments, says Jean Anderson

DISCIPLINE in our schools is breaking down. The first time I heard that expression was when the only teacher in my first school had inflicted three of the belt, crosshands on my seven-year-old hands, for calling her "Fuddy Duck", a cruel name that referred to her method of walking, which I had heard my older brothers and sisters using.

She used the expression to explain herself to my mother, who thought the punishment a bit excessive, but was never-theless on her side.

Parents are the most important factor in raising standards of discipline, but it will take long-term strategies and an acceptance that good parenting has to be taught before their influence will be felt. Something can be done where teachers and pupils are concerned and it does not include sin bins which will not work in any shape or form (for the macho lads, they will have the same big man attraction as the belt).

The sooner we separate the concept of discipline from punishment, the quicker we can create attainable standards of behaviour. The assumptions about pupils who are anti-school are inaccurate and counter-productive. Background and upbringing have a lot to do with it, but not always in the way the "separate them from the good children and put them all together in one class" brigade think. Teacher expectation has a much greater influence than whether the pupil comes from Govan or Bearsden, or if daddy stays in the same house or not.

When I taught, certain pupils were expected to behave badly the minute they arrived from primary school. If your older brother or sister had been a sinner, everyone waited for the serpent in you to raise its ugly head. Worse, if your older sibling had been a "good" pupil, God help you if you dared to have a personality of your own.

Teachers need to realise that in the modern world everyone is expected to have opinions and voice them. You cannot ask pupils one minute to discuss everything under the sun with their groups and then punish them for talking. Three clear rules are all that is necessary: do not talk when the teacher is talking; do not interrupt others and listen to their viewpoint; and do not let talking keep you or your neighbours from working.

"I blame the parents." It's so easy to say that and it is true to some extent, but it is far from being the whole story. I have known children of totally feckless, even violent, parents who have been models of good, hardworking behaviour and I have known children of professional parents who were arrogant and totally disruptive. Having said that I do feel that too many parents see the job of socialising their offspring as something that the teachers should do when they reach school age.

Most pupils want to be allowed to get on with their work and resent those who disrupt lessons. Pupil power may be sneered at and called trendy. But it can work, especially with adolescents who care more about what their peer group thinks. Pupil-centred learning is accepted - why not pupil-centred discipline?

But how often are discipline problems provoked by teachers themselves? How often is confrontation seen as a way of keeping control? Many teachers still think in terms of them and us and do it to them before they do it to you.

The "put them all into uniform" brigade would have us believe that not wearing a school tie is the first step to smoking pot and beating up the teacher. Teachers should never have to deal with violence or drug taking. An attack, whether it is by a pupil or parent, is a criminal assault and the law should be brought in.

Jean Anderson is a retired English teacher.

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