The Discipline Dilemma

23 Apr

I’ve always said that I don’t teach small children because I am a horrendous disciplinarian. Put me with one kid, or two, or even three, and I do wonderfully; I actually really like children, after all. But as soon as I walk into a room with a large group of children, and I’m supposed to be the one in charge, they immediately sense my weakness. Before I know it they are circling me like hungry sharks at the scent of blood. If you leave me alone and in charge for long enough, your children will all have become total savages, a la Lord of the Flies, and you won’t even recognize them sufficiently to take them home to dinner. I am not a credible authority figure.



Thank you, clip art from Google, for showing me as a small-child teacher

I am, however, a good fit for adult education. Sure, adults can get distracted or talk over other people or mention inappropriate material or take us totally off topic. But they don’t usually throw themselves on the floor while wailing and thrashing around. They don’t randomly start cutting their classmate’s hair with the scissors someone else didn’t put away. They’re not typically found trying to staple anyone’s hand to the desk. They don’t normally start dancing on tables and throwing blocks at people’s heads while you’re busy putting a band-aid on someone’s invisible ouchie (that they insist is extremely painful). They don’t tend to conspire to and carry out a successful prison-level-nothing-to-lose riot while you’re dealing with someone else’s poop. In fact, there is NO poop involved in adult education, which is absolutely one of the reasons I signed up for it.

Unfortunately, however, many of my current students are borderline children, as in 18 year olds who are still living the child role. Many of them come straight from high school to college, and sadly, this college isn’t really different from high school. They are still treated like children. Attendance is mandatory and all-day-long. Their classes are assigned to them and they don’t have any options about when or what, or even who their professor will be. There’s nowhere for them to congregate or get together, and they get shooed away when they hang out together on the library steps or anywhere else outside of a classroom. So perhaps it should be surprising that I don’t have serious toddler-level uprisings in more of my classes.

Luckily, though, it’s just one class I have problems in on a daily basis. But still. It stinks almost as badly as if I were dealing with poop. I turn my back to write on the board and people are flicking each other and smacking each other on the head. A few of the students are constantly hiding this one kid’s backpack when he’s not looking. That’s just a sample. And the talking about anything but English is unabating. “Let’s listen!” I say. “Shhh!” I glare at them. “Let’s respect other people and not talk while they’re talking.” I attempt to reason with them. “Remember? You guys invented our class rules yourselves.” “Guys, we’re in English class,” I try to remind them. “Concentrate. We’re reading right now.” And of course, amidst the ubiquitous play fighting I’m constantly saying, “No violence!” I tell all my students that when they’re messing around with another student. But in this class, between my “no violence” retort and the shushing and concentrating business I’m like the background music on an elevator: ongoing and more common than any other conversation or noise.

“I am not a good authoritarian, guys. Please don’t make me be one.” I tried to level with my class in a last-ditch effort to solve the problem. I gave a speech imploring them to give me other ideas to resolve the problem. “I don’t want to be a strict teacher. I don’t want a silent, obedient class. I want us to have discussions and have fun in class.” The problem, I explained, is that some of the students in this class goof off so much and distract me and everyone else so much that this class is consistently behind my other level 1 class. Which means we do fewer activities. They are less exposed to English, have less practice than my other class. Which isn’t fair to the students who want to learn. It’s not fair to the ones who finish really fast and need extra challenges, and it’s not fair to the ones who are struggling and need extra help from me but who are willing to work hard. I want to keep having lots of group work. I don’t mind their boisterousness at all, as long as they can complete the tasks. But that’s not where they are as a class right now.

It all came to a head two days before my big speech. We were reading aloud, taking turns as a whole class to read and comprehend an article. Suddenly, several students were making comments and rude whistling noises and I don’t even know what other rudeness at the student who was reading, and bam! I started seeing red. “EXCUSE ME?” I asked, belligerently, my eyes bulging out of my head. “Excuse me? Are you making fun of him? Are you serious?” I might have even started pointing my finger all around the room. I was in the teacher version of being that little girl in The Exorcist. “Does anybody in this room speak perfect English? Raise your hand. Anybody?” Some smarty pants said, “You, teacher,” and I was like, “Wrong! I’ve been speaking English my entire life and I can still make mistakes. All of us make mistakes. It’s not only normal, it’s an important part of the process. You all know how I feel about mistakes. They are a vital part of learning. AND you guys all agreed that not making fun of each other is part of what we need to have a good learning environment. Furthermore,” I continued, eyebrows in permnent-raised-mode, “if you’re purpose is to see me mad, this is the way to do it. Disrespect each other some more. If you want me to get mad and get mean and start throwing people out of class, keep up this act. Do you want to make fun of someone else? Make fun of somebody some more? Go ahead and get out of my class right now.” I gestured toward the door.

Nobody moved. It was the first time in my class that everyone was silent for an entire 20 seconds or so. I was still red in the face and sweating. It was not my finest moment in teaching. But people were much nicer through the rest of class.

So I asked them the next day, and explained in a much calmer manner, that some things have to change and that I need their help to do so. That I don’t want to just start imposing new rules and being strict and grumpy all the time. That I want them to tell me how to fix things for everybody. “I get that some of you don’t love English class. I didn’t make this rule about attending, much less about passing English. If you really can’t stand this class, don’t come- but I take no responsibility if you fail.” I talked a little more clearly about the situation as I see it, and what my goals are: to spend less time on discipline and more time on learning. I asked what comments and ideas, and goals of their own they had to share. Nobody spoke. “Okay,” I said, refusing defeat. “Do you need a day to think about it?” Several people nodded. “But do think about it! I’m honestly open to your ideas,” I tried to emphasize.

Sadly, upon follow-up, I got only a couple of ideas, none of which I am stoked about employing. Things like assigned seats. And kicking people out of class for acting up. Those were among the only suggestions. Sigh.

We’ll see what Monday brings. Perhaps some of them, or maybe I, will have had a stroke of genius about how to fix things. Hopefully them. Maybe one of you reading this will shed your brilliant wisdom upon the matter. How do you deal with “discipline?” What do you do when modeling respect is not sufficient, when you lose your cool? All suggestions are welcome and appreciated! Keep teaching, keep learning!


4 Responses to “The Discipline Dilemma”

  1. Kelly Robertson April 23, 2017 at 9:10 pm #

    When I was teaching nursing students, we employed student discipline forms, commonly known as “being wrote up.” A certain number of write-ups for the same thing resulted in a course failure. In the workplace, we have “corrective action plans,” which I’m sure you’re familiar with, and use a system of escalating consequences. Do you have anything like that at your university, or could you start it?

    • exiletomexico April 24, 2017 at 8:13 am #

      Oooh, that’s definitely something worth thinking about and tweaking for my purposes. Thank you for the idea!!

  2. Jade April 24, 2017 at 8:33 am #

    This seems counterintuitive but I have used a system that employs catching them doing something right. When they showed prosocial behavior I would silently hand out a raffle ticket. My copy of the raffle ticket went into a jar. I held a weekly drawing and prizes were everything from books, candy bars, coupons for extra help from me, turning a coupon in for a quiz, and so on. I’d start each class with a reminder of what the prize was that week. Generally, the trouble makers made fun the first time but it did eventually work. Conversely, having a system where you can silently let I student know that the negative behavior is not acceptable is helpful as they are already immune to your talking. Silently moving their name down a level that corresponds with being dismissed from class works well too. Both systems rely on cues which do not take away from education time.

    • exiletomexico April 24, 2017 at 8:41 am #

      I don’t think that’s counterintuitive at all. Positive reinforcement is more my style, and these are some good ideas. And that’s exactly what I want to have in my class- a way to keep the problem behavior (talking over others, etc.) from disrupting the class further; so some kind of silent way to signify that is on-target. I just need to think about exactly what this can look like in this particular class. I guess I’ll have to up my prize giving, too. I mostly give prizes for content-related things (like good mistakes!), but I could take advantage of this class’s candy obsession to try to improve their behavior. Thanks so much for responding!

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