492. “Strict”

Once, I was with a class that was gathered on the rug, listening and responding to the teacher. It was a usual scene – some children were lying on the rug, some sitting up straight, and one standing. All were focussed on the words people were saying, and each was comfortable in his/her own way. Back when I had my own class, I usually insisted that children sit up in a neat circle when we met. That worked better for me. I was easily distracted by children who were lying down or standing up. But this teacher’s style was clearly working.
In walked the vice principal, a man who is not known for his tendency to smile a lot around children. He noticed the child who was standing up, and gruffly said, “Sit down!” The child started to explain that her teacher allowed them to stand, but he repeated, “Sit down!” He was a little louder and gruffer the second time. He didn’t sound as if he was open to debate. In fact, I may have unconsciously checked to make sure I was sitting down, even though I’m always sitting down when I’m in school (multiple sclerosis makes standing up difficult for me). I didn’t feel like doing anything that would annoy this man.
I used to think there was a very discernible dividing line between “strict” and “not strict.” In the scene described above, according to my former way of thinking, the vice principal was strict and the teacher was not strict. And also, strict was bad and not strict was good. Not that I believed in allowing children to run the whole show; grown-ups have rights, too. But I believed in the importance of setting reasonable limits – making room for the rights of grown-ups – while trying not to earn the label “strict.”
Now, I think it’s a word game. I’ve worked with teachers who are generally considered strict, and with teachers who aren’t. If you watch these teachers’ faces, or listen to their tones of voice, it’s easy to tell the “strict” ones from the “not strict” ones; the strict ones don’t smile as much, and more often sound angry. But children in “strict” teachers’ classes don’t necessarily follow rules better, and don’t necessarily learn more. In fact, I’ve worked with one “strict” teacher who seemed to spend more time and energy on discipline and organization than on what I call teaching. And not because she had a more difficult class. But she frowned, yelled, and punished a lot.
I don’t like to refer to a teacher or parent as “strict,” because it doesn’t mean much. It’s important for adults and children to know what their limits are. It’s also important to examine those limits now and then – make sure they are reasonable, given changing situations, people, and states of mind. But I don’t think it’s accurate or useful to call someone “strict.”

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