33. Discipline

“Discipline” was an important word when I first started teaching. It meant something related to what “classroom management” now means. In fact, “discipline” is still used by some people, and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. It may be that it’s still commonly used to mean adult “control” of children, but I prefer to use it to refer to something inside a person, or an area of inquiry and study. The other use of the word always seemed too military for me.
A classroom that’s managed well is peaceful. Children are doing interesting and educational things. Once in a while, a child may get carried away, but it doesn’t last long; someone reminds the child that self-control is important. Even children for whom it’s difficult are motivated to work on it , because when order prevails, school is more fun.
A classroom that is poorly managed can be wild. Some children are having fun throwing paper airplanes and making noise. Some look very unhappy, because they like predictability. Some have a kind of inner teacher, and are busily doing great things, ignoring the chaos. There is a large bottle of Tylenol in the back of the teacher’s top right drawer, and it is replaced frequently.
I remember my first year teaching elementary school. I had no idea how to manage a class. The other teachers in the school, to a person, seemed to know what they were doing. Some could leave the classroom for a long time, knowing that things would go well. I didn’t know how they did it. I, meanwhile, begged, threatened, yelled, manipulated, all to no avail. I thought someone had sabotaged my attempt to teach by giving me a class filled with impossible children.
One day, a volunteer came into my classroom to play some games with the class. She said, “Would you all please line up here?” The class lined up in an orderly fashion. At that moment, I despaired. I was sure that I had chosen the wrong line of work. As much as I loved children and wanted to teach, I was just not cut out for it.
Years later, I walked into my classroom after leaving my student teacher in charge for ten minutes. Right away, children noticed me and quieted down. I’m not sure what had transformed me into the one children would be “good” for, but I spent a good deal of time assuring my student teacher that her world had not come to an end.
Children have fewer problems learning, feeling good, relating with other children if they know what to expect (and it isn’t chaos ), and what is expected of them. Teachers and other adults sometimes refer to “the good old days,” when children had respect, and would never think of saying something rude. Cicero did, too (“O tempora! O mores!”) I’ll bet Adam and Eve would have referred to “good old days” if they’d had any to refer to. But there aren’t any, really, or if there are, we’re having more now, and there will be more later. But whichever days these are, teachers need to help their classes find and stay in that sublime place between autocracy and chaos.

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