>Discipline and Little People

>The thing about eighth graders that I (and they) often forget is that while they may be growing into adult bodies, in their minds and hearts they are still very much children.  Like any child (big or small), they may resent rules and discipline but they need it so much and will sometimes even tell you so themselves.

I had a conversation two weeks ago with someone who expressed displeasure at how schools are “all about” rules and discipline.  Prefacing his comments with, “I’m ignorant but…” he went on to suggest that all schools ought to be structured like Montessori schools, with lots of freedom for exploration and less emphasis on controlling students.  I just sort of blinked at him and asked if he’d ever been in an urban middle school.

Order is so important, particularly for students like the ones I work with who may not have a whole lot of structure and control at home.  I think it’s pretty much impossible to learn self-control without some sort of modeling and reinforcement from outside.  As I go through my student-teaching experience, I am coming to realize that discipline is not to be used for the teacher’s gratification or sense of power (and maybe that is where the backlash should really be directed), but to create a positive learning environment for the student.  If some students are shouting out answers, it’s impossible for the teacher (who is only one person, after all) to hear everyone at once.  If a few students are running around the room, other students may be in physical danger or will at least be distracted enough so that learning is very difficult.  The whole point of classroom discipline is to keep it safe and enjoyable for everyone.

I’m writing about this because I made a student cry today.  We were doing a lab involving raw eggs and beakers of liquid, and I turned around to see this student (let’s call him Billy) with his arm around a female student’s head.  Now Billy is a big, strong kid, and while Mimi is no pixie herself, Billy could easily hurt her or any other student in the room quite by accident.  They had been play-fighting before class the previous day, and I didn’t want to take any chances.  None of this really crossed my mind at the time, of course; I just instinctively reacted to the sight of one student having another in a headlock and sharply told him to stop and sit down.  He immediately slumped into a chair and put his head between his hands, not looking at me.  I calmed the rest of the class down and made sure they were working before pulling up a stool next to Billy.  I knew he was sensitive to people “yelling at him,” so I asked why he was upset.  He said, “I just got in trouble for no reason,” and I think it was at this point that I realized he was crying.  I touched him on the shoulder and said, “You’re not in trouble, and I’m not mad.  All I need is for you to do what you need to do.”  I repeated this once or twice, and then let him be.  After a few minutes he got up and started working with his group again, including Mimi.

When my supervisor came to observe me yesterday, she complimented my individual connections with students, which I rarely even think about consciously.  (I really don’t mean that to sound boastful!)  It helps in situations like this if students can see that I still respect them as people even though I have to lay down the law and maybe even punish them.  To me, discipline revolves around respect.  Discipline is my way of respecting the other students in the class by minimizing disruptions to their learning, and it is also a form of respect for a student who is not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  School is a safe place to test and establish boundaries, because if you cross boundaries like that in the real world, there can be much more severe consequences.  If I didn’t care for their success, I wouldn’t bother showing them right and wrong or the importance of hard work.  I wouldn’t bother setting and enforcing boundaries and teaching them how to respect those boundaries.  There are a lot better-paying ways to spend my time than wrangling 110 bundles of hormones on legs, but it is my desire to ultimately see and help them grow beyond the squirrelliness that drives me to do what I do.

A very wise friend once said of God, “It’s like He sees who you could be, and that’s who He remembers.”  I am working on doing the same thing for my students.

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