I have spent my career in independent schools and I am never more thankful for that opportunity than when I chat with my teacher friends about their experiences involving student behaviour in other settings. It involves the classroom environment and the role of discipline in safeguarding a space that is conducive to teaching and learning. In our small independent school world, the issues surrounding discipline tend to be minor.
Still, discipline can be a word that evokes thousands of opinions. Punishment. Obedience. Enforcement. Control. To understand what discipline really is and what it really means, we need to look at the origin of the word to find its intent and true form. The root word of discipline is “disciple,” which comes from the Latin word discipulus meaning “student.” Most people believe a disciple is a “follower” (…probably because of the religious context), but in reality it means “one who studies.” The word “discipline” is from the Latin word disciplina, meaning “instruction and training.” It is derived from the root word discere, “to learn” (…thank you, Mme Proulx and the Latin Club!).
Discipline is not rules, regulations, or punishment. It is not compliance, obedience, or enforcement. It is not rigid, boring, or always doing the same thing. Discipline is not something others (like teachers!) do to students. It is something they do for themselves. They can receive instruction or guidance from one or many sources, but the source of discipline is not external. It is internal.
While critical to student growth, conversations around school discipline can be challenging. They can be fraught with enormous emotion because they touch on sensitive areas. The challenge is real and significant – whether one’s child is the one being disciplined, or a parent feels another person’s child needs to be disciplined. From time to time, many of us are in one or the other of these boats!
These days, most of us parents like the idea of firm discipline (…or we support it for other people’s children!). But when a problem with our own children is called out, we may respond with less enthusiasm. Not surprising. It’s human nature. If we want to do the critical work of educating kids and helping them grow into productive adults together, we need to rely on mutual support — including the acceptance of correction and discipline. Sometimes it’s hard to admit there’s a problem; other times we tend to frame challenges with our kids in the most benign terms (e.g., immaturity, a mistake, a misunderstanding, or a lapse). What is the answer?
Teacher and author Braden Bell believes we often tend to evaluate our children’s mistakes based on intentions, not actions. He claims that we can focus on explanatory details and to situate mistakes in the larger context of the good things we see in them. Sometimes we can’t imagine they are capable of negative things. In any school, adults can also be quick to jump to conclusions about other people’s kids, those involved, or assign blame without hearing all sides of a story. It’s also remarkable how quickly grown-ups can give a child a label. This is one reason parents sometimes refuse to acknowledge their own child’s misbehavior – they understand that other adults in a community can be unforgiving.
We can all help create a better environment by being careful with labels and rumors regarding children. Consider whether you would want other adults talking about a mistake your child made. Creating narratives of hero and villain, or good and bad, can feel satisfying. But they are not usually accurate. What we hear about someone else’s child is probably incomplete at best, particularly because some of the narrative comes from other kids who can play fast and loose with the facts when the heat is on!
In effective schools, it goes like this: when students understand discipline is a choice, they are in control—not anyone or anything else. More discipline, more choice, more control. Less discipline, less choice, less control.
And that is calculus of personal growth for “one who studies”!
Who said Latin was a dead language?!
Ric Anderson, Head of School