It’s normal to have difficulties with students during a career as a teacher. Those who pretend to never have any discipline issue are probably liars. But there are teachers who are never overwhelmed because they are ready to act. Don’t underestimate the possibility of failure. Your lessons cannot be interesting all the time for all the students. And the students cannot pay attention all the time in all the subjects. Don’t feel ashamed because some students misbehave. Don’t be ashamed because you have tough times. Act!
Alas! Discipline depends a lot from the context.
A teacher does not always have the means to change a dire situation by himself. Consider the customs of the place you’re working in. It’s essential for the teacher’s credibility that his decisions are effective. You’ll put yourselve in big troubles, if you make a decision that isn’t approved by your hierarchy or, even worse, a decision that is cancelled by your superiors. The fear of being disavowed is probably the main educational issue in the western world today. So, take it seriously. Ask questions if needed. It’s absolutely necessary to know what kind of decision you’re entitled to make, especially regarding punishments. School directors are sometimes reluctant to provide that kind of information, because they fear that the teacher will abuse it. It may be necessary to insist a little bit to obtain the pieces of information you desperately need. If some students really have a bad behavior, you cannot avoid it.
Remember, however, that the goal of discipline is to reduce violence, not to replace the spontanous violence of uneducated children by your own official violence.
Ask for help before you’re overwhelmed.
Act before you have to punish and punish before you get angry.
Before the troubles, reduce the occasions for troubles:
- Good lesson plans will help you know what you really want and will help you give clear instructions. As long as the students have something intelligent to do and understand how they are supposed to work, they are less likely to misbehave.
- The more active they are, the best for you. Keep them occupied.
- During a lecture, the students should at least be required to take notes, instead of just listening. It’s almost impossible to pay attention without doing anything else for more than 10 minutes. Listening is not enough. Writing helps the students focus on the lesson. Make them drop the pen only when you have something very important or very interesting to say. Consider that their attention span is short in any listening situation. The majority of the class is what matters. For instance, when a group of students do a presentation, they are active but it’s very difficult for the rest of the class to listen. In language lessons, be aware that, when you’re speaking with a student, the others have nothing specific to do, and it’s even more difficult for them to pay attention when they’re not sure that the content is good. The students usually listen to the teacher, but pay very little attention to their classmates, because they don’t expect to hear something important. Even videos are not that easy to watch seriously for a long period of time. But you can significantly increase the attention of the students, by assigning them some tasks, for instance answering a set of questions, tracking some information during the show and so on.
- Other styles of lessons are possible and make the students much more serious. It’s rather easy to obtain silence when they have an essay to write. They are more likely to learn about history, if they have to do a research in order to prepare a presentation in front of their classmates (the preparation phase is relatively easy to manage, the presentation itself a little less).
- You must know that some styles of teaching generate naturally a certain amount of disorder. It’s not necessarily a reason to renounce them, but you must be aware of the difficulty and organize yourself in consequence. For instance, workgroups require some kind of ritual to interrupt the discussions, if you need to give new instructions or if there is too much noise.
- Rituals and politeness help prevent violence. They would justify an article by themselves. For instance, you can use rituals to begin your lesson in time, to prepare the students for an activity, to recall their attention when needed, to avoid useless discussion about organisation and attitudes and so on.
During and after the troubles:
- Don’t be too kind. If you’re not of a too resentful nature, you are probably inclined to forgive or forget the punishments. It’s good humanely speaking, but it’s generaly a huge pedagogical mistake. Many teachers have paid this mistake with nervous breakdown. And sadly, they have become tyrannical because of that same mistake. Don’t allow children to do anything that will make you hate them. Students are never gratefull with weakness or what they interpret as weakness. If you’re a man, be very careful. Weakness is sometimes forgivable from a woman, it’s not from a man. Non-violence is superior to violence. No doubt about it. But non-violence is powerful only if the possibility of violence exists. Gandhi was perfectly aware of that, when he repelled the English from India. A large pacific sit-in is in fact a show of strength. There is no forgiveness if there is no possibility of punishment. React on time and whatever your decisions are, mild or harsh, never forget them. It’s very useful to have a little notebook to record the punishments, if you cannot execute them immediately. This simple tip can really increase your credibility.
- You must know that anger is not impressive at all. I mean true anger, when one doesn’t control oneself anymore. A good sign to recognize a loss of control is the pitch of your voice. When you loose temper, your voice tends to be higher, and ridiculous. On the contrary a deeper voice is impressive, if, and only if, it’s followed by some action. If not, the students get used to it, and you loose the benefit of a manly voice. Rather to shout, it’s more efficient to speak very coldly, in a calm and firm way. If you shout (what you should avoid), shout briefly and keep a little silence before you pronounce your decision in a very firm manner. It’s much more impressive than shouting a lot, and it saves your voice.
- A zero tolerance policy is unsustainable. You should know clearly what kind of action are totally unacceptable and what kind can occasionally be tolerated. Some infractions require immediate action, whatever the final decision may be. For instance, any act of physical violence should be addressed at once. When you investigate the case, you can make different decisions. You may find that there are mitigating circonstances. But whatever your decision is, there must be a clear and official decision. Chatter is a serious and common nuisance. By itself, it can reduce the effectiveness of a lesson to almost nothing. However, it’s unrealistic to expect perfect silence all the time. It’s better to teach the children to whisper and reserve true silence for the times when you really need it, for instance during the tests.
- Use body language to avoid to threaten unnecessarily. If you can stop a chatter by just looking intensively at a group of students, you’ll reduce the need for true punishment and you don’t have to interrupt your lesson. If they don’t comply to this silent warning, however, you have to do something else.
- When you make a decision, it’s essential to follow it up. Be firm. For instance, you may or may not allow the students to eat in the classroom. I would not recommend it, but it’s up to you. If you decide to forbid it, be consistent. If a student happens to have a snack, make him put it in his bag. Don’t just tell him to do it, but make sure that he does before you resume your lesson. The students will not take you seriously if you change your mind or if you are careless.
- A penalty point system should be used with caution. I’ll explain this system briefly, because it’s quite common in the western world. Instead of punishing every little chatter, you give a warning, and you count the points. The students who have, let’s say, 3 points at the end of the lesson will have some extra work to do. I don’t like this system, although it’s quite frequent and may be useful in some situation where it is unrealistic to expect a good work from every student. The main issue is that it makes the students litigious and give them the false impression that they have a right to misbehave before getting punished. Be logical, if you say that there must be three oral warnings before any kind of action, you can suffer as many as 60 small offenses before you do anything (2 times for each students). That’s more than what you can withstand. Besides, it’s very difficult to keep track of every little deed. Keep the possibility to punish immediately some important mischief. In fact, a penalty point system should be used only before some very important sanction, such as to be expelled from the school. It’s like: 3 detentions mean 1 blame. 3 blames mean that you’re definitely expelled. In civil life, they use penalty points for nothing less than the loss of a driving licence. It’s a very serious threat. In general: never threaten without a clear intention to act. And if possible, don’t threaten at all.
- Don’t try to write down a too precise set of rules. You simply cannot anticipate all the problems. Being too precise will give the wrongdoer the argument of a legal gap: “You never told us that is was forbidden!”
- On the other hand, being too vague will make your decisions unpredictable. Usually, you can simply set up this principle: the students are not allowed to do anything that hinders the work of other people, be it their classmates, the teacher or anyone. A simple warning should be enough in doubt. If you consider that eating in the classroom is a nuisance, tell it once, for all the class. You’ll punish the second time. Any refusal to comply should be addressed immediately.
- No need to over explain your decisions. Ordinarily, the students are perfectly aware of the disturbance they made. It’s good to have them formulate themselves the reason why they should be punished. But don’t make it a principle: if the students are of bad faith, you will be stuck. It’s much more efficient to ask them “You know what you deserve?” rather than “What did you do?”
What kind of punishment?
It depends a lot on the context. I like the formulation in the American Constitution:
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Notice that they don’t consider death penalty to be cruel or unusual! I wouldn’t take any action in favor of the death penalty, but whatever your sentiment is on this matter, you cannot stray too much from the habits of the country you’re living in.
A punishment is necessarily unpleasant. Don’t try to compensate by some kindness that would make your decision less understandable, or that would give the impression that you feel guilty for punishing. You would loose all the benefit of your action.
If possible, according to the customs of your place, don’t use normal exercises to punish. Exercises are a good thing! Children should be happy to do them! Don’t waste their motivation by confusing learning with punishment! Let the student clean the courtyard instead, or stand up in the corner of the room, or just copy the school regulation, or whatever! But don’t punish with good things. By the dog! Have mercy on the philosopher!
Consider the goal of reducing violence and the security of the children. Corporal punishment should be avoided as much as possible, dependig on the customs of the country: if you’re the only one not to inflict any corporal puishment, you may look a little bit ridiculous and weak, unless you’re exceptionnaly charismatic. I would recommend to take physical actions only in case of emergency, not as punishment, but in order to prevent an immediate threat. It’s obvious that if two boys are fighting each other, you must intervene. But use no more violence than what is required to separate them. It’s not a punishment, you’ll punish them later. Use force only a safety measure, if oral warnings are not sufficient.