THINKING ABOUT DISCIPLINE

12/19/02

    How did it happen that educationists came to believe that studentsí feelings must never be hurt - that they may never be embarrassed or made to feel guilty. In other words, they may not be disciplined and therefore often fail to develop self-discipline. How many times has the PCT been called by teachers who in attempting to discipline students have found themselves accused of almost every cruelty known to human kind by parents who often find a sympathetic ear from some level of the school administration. How many times have I, as a union leader, read in teacher evaluations or in letters to them by their supervisors things like, "In attempting to correct Allison for her apparent cheating on an examination, you humiliated her in front of her class causing her to cry, thereby cruelly hurting her feelings and causing her to not want to come to school anymore."

    Hey, Mr./Ms. Principal, the child cheated on an exam! She was dishonest! Shall we praise her for her behavior? Shall we sit with a straight face and reason with her about how cheaters never win? Or shall we risk hurting her feelings by holding a mirror up to her face revealing the truth that she is a cheat, a person deserving of public scorn. Who knows, perhaps in addition to getting her to think twice about cheating a second time, others in her class may think about what it would be like to have the same experience of public shame.

    Somewhere in the writings of the theologian Martin Buber I recall reading what for me has remained a compelling idea for most of my adult life. Lamenting the modern tendency of psychology and psychiatry to view guilt as pathological and a condition that must be relieved, Buber drew a razor sharp distinction between the kind of guilt that human beings suffer without ever knowing its origin and that which they experience as a result of contemplating or taking some action that they know to be wrong. He argued that the latter should never be relieved - that it serves as a brake on the human impulses that lead to anti-social acts. For Buber, human beings need to be reminded of their wrongs.

    Failing to firmly correct student indiscretions is upon close examination the very opposite of compassion. It is tantamount to not caring about the moral and ethical development of children. The parents who call a school administration to attack a teacher who has caused a child who has misbehaved to "feel badly," are protecting their children from the kinds of experiences that develop conscience and character - they are shielding them from bearing the socially good kind of guilt about which Buber spoke. They are often robbing their children of the experiences that develop the ultimate discipline - that which springs from an ethical and responsible self.

    If we are serious about raising the standards of our schools, we must be careful to avoid having our discomfort at seeing children unhappy from clouding our common sense judgements about the need to correct their behavior. The odd thing about our reluctance to appropriately discipline children is a secret our children keep from us. If you ask them at unguarded moments what they think about how we discipline, they frequently admit that they are amazed and somewhat resentful that we permit them to get away with the kinds of things we chose to overlook. Their secret desire is to have us help them learn to bring their lives under better self-control.

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