There are as many ways to combine these two concepts as there are students and teachers. In fact, maybe it’s more like students multiplied by teachers.  The discipline for one student may not be appropriate for another. 

Discipline should be equal across the board – proclaim the purists; but as the first man who taught me anything about discipline, my Dad, says: “Equal does not necessarily mean the same.”

An example:

A student purposely damaged a library book, making it unreadable.  The school policy says that students must pay for damaged school property.  For the affluent student with two working parents, £12.99 to replace this book is nothing. They either ask their parents – this will be a nominal amount of their combined hourly income, or they use their higher than average pocket money to pay it and not get their parents involved.  Questions: Has the student learnt from the event? Will they do it again? Are they likely to continue to borrow books from the school library?

For another student in temporary foster care they receive a varying low amount, if any, per week of their own, from which they will be required to pay the fine.  This affects the student greatly, in fact they are now unable to pay the £15 they owe to an acquaintance, who has threatened violence against them for a loan, if they don’t pay by the end of the week. Questions: Has the student learnt from the event? Will they do it again? Are they likely to continue to borrow books from the school library?

As Gilbert and Sullivan advocate: “let the punishment fit the crime” does not always produce an equal level of discipline for each child. 

On the flip side of this, from the teacher’s point of view, maintaining a consistent discipline or behaviour management in the classroom is vital for students to be safe and secondly, learning. I am currently reading Jonathan Smith’s The Learning Game[1] which provides much food for thought on this topic. A quote he uses from 1902 captured my attention, mainly for its absolute common sense and the fact that it is still the same today!  (The gendered pronouns are, of course, reflective of the time).

“The power of maintaining discipline is the num necessarium for a teacher; if he has not got it and cannot acquire it, he had better sweep a crossing.  It insults the soul, it is destructive of all self-respect and dignity to be incessantly at the mercy of boys.  They are merciless, and the pathos for the situation never touches them at all.” A.C. Benson

Many teachers have experienced or watched helplessly as colleagues struggle with discipline in the classroom and become consumed by this and nothing else. I have mentored trainees who I know have lost sleep, stopped eating, started up smoking – all due to that year 9 class, as they constantly worry if they too should “sweep a crossing”  – and it is really hard to tell. When it’s happening to you, when there is a class that you dread every lesson (or worse in Primary School, every day), it can be a swift downward spiral into questioning your place in the profession.  Students will never thank you for it, but consistent discipline is necessary for learning. What it is and how it works can be so variable. I have observed a host of wonderful teachers with seemingly ‘no discipline’ approaches, but of course these are the ones who, in fact, have the most effective approaches to discipline: it’s not shouts, punishments and repetitions of rules and expectations. Instead it is a mutual respect and love for learning – with the unspoken knowledge that if anything were to go awry, the consequences would be felt.

With a lot of my work currently focused on students who have been excluded from other schools, behaviour and discipline move to the forefront- nothing can be taken for granted. These students won’t necessarily enter the room and sit down. In fact, it sometimes takes them a whole lesson to enter the room, and on the way to that they might fight with a peer, hit a teacher and break a window. That constant question about where the line is between understanding their situation (usually filled with difficult homelives, trauma, abuse, neglect or gang-life), and what they ‘should’ be doing is every changing. It changes for each situation, each student and each member of staff. 

This blog was difficult to write. I realised that my approach to discipline is instinctive and harder to describe. In mainstream I was known for being able to ‘cope with difficult classes’ and often had ‘behavioural students’ put in my class. I have a poker face and a great left eyebrow that provides very useful, but really the most important element to discipline for me has always been about forming relationships. I have turned difficult classes around by getting to know them. Learning about these students, who they are, what their frustrations are and facing some of them face on. I also remain open in my approach with them – no hidden agendas. Simple rules they can remember and understand – until you are able to come in without hitting each other we will spend the first half of the lesson working in silence. They don’t believe me, they push it, and I remain consistent. Eventually after a lesson, a week, a half term, they realise that Miss Bates means what she says. They get it. They conform and we can move on, engaging in work and methods that they prefer, I can invite their input and desires in learning – but only once they have signed the invisible contract that shows me that they know that I ultimately have the last say. It takes time, energy, a lot of effort and at the bottom of it you must care about them deeply to bother, and as Benson points out, for the students: “the pathos for the situation never touches them at all.”


[1] The Learning Game: A Teacher’s Inspirational Story – Jonathan Smith, Abacus, 2000.

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