Rethinking Discipline

What are we teaching our students when discipline policies are reduced to punitive measures grounded in coercion, control, and compliance?

By Jehanne Helena Beaton

“Here we go again, talking about who will guard the prisoners. “With that, my colleague Karl Holmquist shook his shaggy head, slammed his grade book on the table, and stormed out of our team meeting.

For two months, we had devoted our middle school team meetings to issues of discipline. We’d even been summoned to a half dozen “emergency” meetings, called mid-week, after school, or during our team’s prep hour, to continue the discussions. It seemed we weren’t going to talk about anything else, and our frustrations were growing.

“It’s out of control up there,” the principal at our K-8 school complained, pointing a plum-colored, manicured fingernail to the ceiling and implicating the third floor which housed our middle school program.”I don’t care what you do, but you’d better do something about it.”

I’ve taught seventh and eighth-grade social studies for eight years in three different middle schools: one rural, one suburban, and, presently, one inner-city. Regardless of the setting, it seems that we adults spend an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy dealing with discipline.

Yes, teenagers sometimes spin out of control. They defy, disrespect, and denigrate their peers and teachers. They push buttons, test limits.

Yet you would think that with practice, the adults in schools would improve and get creative in dealing with discipline. Instead, we seem to rely on coercion and compliance, resorting to clamping down, increasing our control, and pulling in the reins.

Every school in which I’ve taught has espoused this unspoken belief: A good teacher is one who keeps her students quiet.

Discipline policies communicate powerful messages to our students about their worth, value, and power, and our expectations and beliefs about who they are and what they can do. Do we ever step back and examine the hidden curriculum behind our disciplinary policies?

Do we recognize what our disciplinary actions teach our young people about authority, power, and voice? Do we consider how undemocratic most of our disciplinary policies are? Do we realize how we reinforce silent compliance and conformity, and squelch individuality, creativity, and critical thinking?

In my first year of teaching, I taught in a border-town school in Arizona. The town’s school-age population had exploded and the school district struggled to keep up with its expanding numbers. At every school, somebody had to teach in the portable classroom, usually parked behind the cafeteria or far beyond the gymnasium.

Our principal stationed the portable at the furthest end of campus, the desert-dust no-man’s-land beyond the basketball courts and soccer fields. In the first few weeks of my first year, I pitied the poor teacher who had to teach “way out there.” Then I found out the portable housed the In-School Suspension (ISS) classroom.

Didn’t they do that in 18th-century England, I thought, exiling social outcasts and prisoners out to what “civilized” Brits considered the vast, uninhabitable desert isle of Australia?

My students hated the walk to the portable. The ISS supervisor (I’ll call him Mr. Bly) paraded them out during lunchtime in front of all their peers, as though they were shackled together like some chain gang.

Bly transformed the ISS portable into his own little kingdom, intensifying its punitive conditions. The thermostat was cemented at 60 degrees, and dark gusts and dank bodies gave the interior a cavernous feel. Desert dirt, broken pencil tips, and dust puffed up from the carpet with each step. Curtains sealed out any rays of the Arizona sun.

Bly built himself a throne, propping up his desk on bricks and installing a black-leather swivel chair. From there he peered down on the students, who served their time in hand-made study carrels made with six-foot walls of plywood painted black. Students were cordoned off from one another, isolated in their plastic chairs. Before they were to do any homework or complete any assignments, they had to copy the school rules an unspecified number of times, as determined by their jailer.

No one ever asked the kids why they did what they did. Writing the school rules repeatedly never unearthed the reasons behind their behavior. The same kids returned again and again to the portable, and lost more and more of an opportunity to get what they needed and deserved academically. Our school never prepared them to solve problems on their own. To use words rather than fists. To open themselves up to trusting adults or to understanding themselves. To envision any kind of academic future. We didn’t prepare them for anything but jail.

It wasn’t hard to determine what my students learned from our school’s discipline policy. Discipline equaled punishment. And punishment equaled harm to one’s education, one’s dignity, and one’s soul.

My second school fared no better. Rather than the portable, this suburban Minneapolis junior high school housed its student offenders in “The Crisis Room.” Slightly larger than a walk-in closet, the windowless room was just past the main hallway intersection. Teenage passers-by peeped in to memorize and later publicize who sat in attendance.

That year, as part of my building duties, I served as Crisis Room supervisor for one period of the day. Though no one ever told me to require that students regurgitate school policy on paper, veteran teachers passed down Crisis Room procedures like family stories. They recommended that students answer a condescending series of questions, that they attempt to call their parents upon arrival in the room, and that they keep their mouths shut. Mediation or “counseling” with students as to why they were in the Crisis Room was viewed as counter-productive and “soft,” potentially legitimizing the students’ conduct. Once again, the disciplinary structure of the school communicated punishment without problem-solving.

In my third school, I worked with a gifted team of teachers, all committed and competent in their work with middle school students. Yet despite our collective talents, we were often sucked into that same disciplinary paradigm of coercion, control, and punishment.

Our middle school was located on the third floor of a K-8 magnet program three minutes from downtown Minneapolis. Our student population, diverse racially, linguistically, and socio-economically, remained small, with fewer than 200 seventh- and eighth-graders. We followed our students for two years, intending to develop strong relationships with our kids and their families. We adjusted our curriculum regularly to meet the needs of our students and to better relate to our students’ lives. We regularly facilitated public performances and presentations, integrating multiple disciplines. We provided a short recess to give the kids the chance to expel some of their age-appropriate energy and to provide us with a more casual environment in which to connect with our students.

Despite these innovations, we often found ourselves caught in the discipline paradigm that permeates most middle schools. If there was criticism as to how loudly our students socialized in the hallway, or if there was a rash of fighting, we would spend the next handful of team meetings “buckling down.” We re-hashed the tardy policy, debated about student use of time, locked student bathrooms, and eliminated recess.

One of our recurring conversations centered around student defiance. Yet we rarely provided our students with legitimate channels for venting frustrations about school. Our school’s site-based decision process excluded students. Our student council’s major responsibility was to decorate the gym for dances.

My students were very attuned to their lack of power. They articulated feelings of confinement, lock-down, and distrust. In their own adolescent ways, they pleaded with us to provide them with a structure that encouraged them to learn to discipline themselves. Unfortunately, we had a difficult time giving up control.

Is it possible to shift ourselves and our schools from a paradigm of control, coercion, and punishment to one where we hold high expectations for our students and simultaneously provide them with opportunities for legitimate power, choice, and self-discipline? What would such a school look like? What would it require of us as educators and adults?

Maybe it’s time we begin to imagine. Otherwise, we will continue to communicate powerful messages to our students, especially those who are poor and students of color. We will reinforce their lack of voice, their lack of efficacy in the world. We will reinforce their belief that there exists no democratic, legitimate avenue for them to question authority, to intellectually and personally challenge the status quo. We will reinforce their feelings of powerlessness and resignation. We will tell them we expect a life of compliance, control, and silence. And, as a nation, we will be the worse for it.

Jehanne Helena Beaton teaches middle school social studies and writing at the Interdistrict Downtown School in Minneapolis