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Do your schools get

a low mark for discipline?

By James C. Dobson, Ph.D.

Back in the 1970s, Newsweek magazine devoted a cover story to the topic, "Learning Can Be Fun." On the cover was an elementary school girl making something with papier-mache. A few years later, another Newsweek cover story considered the question, "Why Johnny Can't Write."

I wrote the senior editor of Newsweek after the second article appeared and suggested that maybe there was a link between the two stories. Perhaps Johnny couldn't write because he spent too much time having fun in the classroom. I received no reply.

Our schools must have enough structure and discipline to require certain behavior from their students.

Please understand that I am a supporter of the arts in the curriculum, and I certainly want the educational process to be as exciting and as much fun as possible. But children will not learn reading, writing and math by doing papier- mache. And many of them will not pay the price to learn anything unless they are required to do so! Some educators have disagreed with this understanding and postulated that kids will sweat and study because they have an inner thirst for knowledge.

In fact, a former superintendent of public instruction in California is quoted as saying, "To say that children have an innate love of learning is as muddleheaded as saying that children have an innate love of baseball. Some do. Some don't. Left to themselves, a large percentage of the small fry will go fishing, pick a fight, tease the girls, or watch Superman on the boob tube. Even as you and I!"

It is a valid observation. Most of the time students will not invest one more ounce of effort in their studies than is required, and that fact has frustrated teachers for hundreds of years. Our schools, therefore, must have enough structure and discipline to require certain behavior from their students. This is advantageous not only for academic reasons, but because one of the purposes of education is to prepare the young for later life.

Ingredients of Success To survive as an adult in this society, one needs to know how to work, how to get there on time, how to get along with others, how to stay with a task until completed, and yes, how to submit to authority. In short, it takes a good measure of self-discipline and control to cope with the demands of modern living.

Maybe one of the greatest gifts a loving teacher can contribute to an immature child, therefore, is to help him learn to sit when he feels like running, to raise his hand when he feels like talking, to be polite to his neighbor, to stand in line without smacking the kid in front, and to do language arts when he feels like playing football.

Likewise, I would hope to see our schools re-adopt reasonable dress codes, eliminating suggestive clothing, T-shirts with profanity or those promoting heavy metal bands, etc. Guidelines concerning good grooming and cleanliness should also be enforced.

I know! I know! These notions are so alien to us now that we can hardly imagine such a thing. But the benefits would be apparent immediately. Admittedly, hair styles and matters of momentary fashion are of no particular significance, but adherence to a standard is an important element of discipline. The military has understood that for 3,000 years!

If one examines the secret behind a championship basketball team, a magnificent orchestra, or a successful business, the principal ingredient is invariably discipline. Thus, it is a great mistake to require nothing of children —to place no demands on their behavior. We all need to adhere to some reasonable rules.

Setting the Standard How inaccurate is the belief that self-control is maximized in an environment that places no obligations on its children. How foolish is the assumption that self-discipline is a product of self-indulgence. How unfortunate has been the systematic undermining of educational rules, engineered by a minority of parents through the legal assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union and the liberal judges to whom they have appealed.

Despite the will of the majority, the anti-disciplinarians have had their way. The rules governing student conduct have been cut down, and in their place have come a myriad of restrictions on educators. School prayers are illegal, even if addressed to an unidentified God. The Bible can be read only as uninspired literature. Allegiance to the flag of our country cannot be required. Educators find it difficult to punish or expel a student. Teachers are so conscious of parental militancy that they often withdraw from the defiant challenges of their students. As a result, academic discipline lies at the point of death in some of the nation's schools.

The proposal to put standards and reasonable rules back in those schools that have abandoned them (many haven't) may sound horribly oppressive to the ears of some Western educators or parents. But it need not be so. Class work can be fun and structured at the same time. Indeed, that is what happens in Japanese schools, and Russian schools, and English schools. And that's one reason we get whipped when our kids compete against other nations on tests of academic achievement.

You've heard about the international achievement tests, of course. You know that our students do poorly when compared to young people from other countries. American high school seniors recently ranked 14th out of 15 countries on a test of advanced algebra skills. Our science scores were lower than those from students in almost every industrialized nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only one in five eighth-graders has achieved competence for his or her age level. The United States ranks only 49th among 158 member nations of the U.N. in its literacy levels. And SAT scores have been dropping for years.

Before we leap to blame the educators for everything that has gone wrong, however, we need to take another look at the culture. The teachers and school administrators who guide our children have been among the most maligned and underappreciated people in our society. They are an easy target for abuse. They are asked to do a terribly difficult job, and yet they are criticized almost daily for circumstances beyond their control.

Some of their critics act as though educators are deliberately failing our kids. I strongly disagree. We would still be having serious difficulties in our schools if the professionals did everything right. Why? Because what goes on in the classroom cannot be separated from the problems occurring in the culture at large.

Unraveling of Society Educators certainly can't be blamed for the condition our kids are in when they arrive at school each day. It's not the teachers' fault that families are unraveling and that large numbers of their students have been sexually and/or physically abused, neglected and undernourished. They can't keep kids from watching mindless television or R-rated videos until midnight, or from using illegal substances or alcohol.

In essence, when the culture begins to crumble from massive social problems that defy solutions, the schools will also look bad. That's why even though I disagree with many of the trends in modern education, I sympathize with the dedicated teachers and principals out there who are trying to do the impossible on behalf of our youngsters. They are discouraged today, and they need our support.

Still, there are steps that could be taken to reverse the errors of the past and create a more conducive climate for learning. At the secondary level, we can and must make schools a safer place for students and teachers. Guns, drugs and adolescence make a deadly cocktail. It is unbelievable what we have permitted to happen on our campuses.

No wonder some kids can't think about their studies. Their lives are in danger! Yes, we can reduce the violence if we're committed to the task. Armed guards? Maybe. Metal detectors? If necessary. More expulsions? Probably. No-nonsense administrators? Definitely. Above all, we must do what is required to pacify the combat zones in junior and senior high schools.

We will not solve our pervasive problems, however, with the present generation of secondary school students. Our best hope long term is to start over with the youngsters just coming into elementary school. We can rewrite the rules with these wide-eyed kids. Let's redesign the primary grades to include a greater measure of discipline. I'm not talking merely about more difficult assignments and additional homework. I'm recommending more structure and control in the classroom.

As the first official voice of the school, the primary teacher is in a position to construct positive attitudinal foundations on which future educators can build, or conversely, she can fill her young pupils with contempt and disrespect. A child's teachers during the first six years will largely determine the nature of his attitude toward authority and the educational climate in junior and senior high school (and beyond).

A Case in Point I taught in public schools for several years before completing my graduate training, and I learned more about how children think from that daily exposure than could ever have been assimilated from a textbook.

It was also enlightening to observe the disciplinary techniques utilized by other teachers. Some of them exercised perfect classroom control with little effort, while others faced the perpetual humiliation of student defiance. I observed that there was a fundamental difference in the way they approached their classes.

The unskilled teacher would stand in front of the boys and girls and immediately seek their affection. Although most good teachers want to be liked by their classes, some are very dependent on the acceptance of the children.

On the first day of school in September, the new teacher, Miss Peach, gives the class a little talk which conveys this message: "I'm so glad we had a chance to get together. This is going to be such a fun year for you; we're going to make soap and soup, and we're going to paint a mural that will cover that entire wall. We'll take field trips and play games . . . this is going to be a great year. You're going to love me and I'm going to love you, and we'll just have a ball."

Her curriculum is well-saturated with fun, fun, fun activities, which are her tokens of affection to the class. All goes well the first day of school, because the students are a little intimidated by the start of a new academic year. But about three days later, little Butch is sitting over at the left and he wants to know what everyone else is questioning too: How far can we push Miss Peach? He is anxious to make a name for himself as a brave toughie, and he might be able to build his reputation at Miss Peach's expense.

At a well-calculated moment, he challenges her with a small act of defiance. Now the last thing Miss Peach wants is conflict, because she had hoped to avoid that sort of thing this year. She does not accept Butch's challenge; she pretends not to notice that he didn't do what she told him to do. He wins this first minor confrontation. Everyone in the class saw what happened: It wasn't a big deal, but Butch survived unscathed.

The next day, Matthew has been greatly encouraged by Butch's success. Shortly after the morning flag salute, he defies her a little more openly than Butch did, and Miss Peach again ignores the challenge. From that moment forward, chaos begins to grow and intensify.

Does your local school district understand this necessity for structure, respect, commitment and discipline in the classroom?

Two weeks later Miss Peach is beginning to notice that things are not going very well. She's doing a lot of screaming each day and doesn't know how it got started; she certainly didn't intend to be an angry teacher.

By February, life has become intolerable in her classroom; every new project she initiates is sabotaged by her lack of control. And then the thing she wanted least begins to happen: the students openly reveal their contempt for her. They call her names; they laugh at her weaknesses. If she has a physical flaw, such as a large nose or poor eyesight, they point this out to her regularly.

Miss Peach cries quietly at recess time, and her head throbs and pounds late into the night. The principal comes in and witnesses the anarchy, and he says, "Miss Peach, you must get control of this class!" But Miss Peach doesn't know how to get control because she doesn't know how she lost it.

It has been estimated that 80 percent of the teachers who quit their jobs after the first year do so because of an inability to maintain discipline in their classroom. Some colleges and teacher-training programs respond to this need by offering specific courses in methods of control. Others do not! Some state legislatures require formal coursework to help teachers handle this first prerequisite to teaching. Others do not, despite the fact that learning is impossible in a chaotic classroom!

Teachers Who Made a Difference Let me add, in conclusion, that there are tens of thousands of teachers in public and private education today who have put their lives on the line for their students. They should be among the most highly respected members of society because of their contribution to the development of human potential. Each of us can think back to teachers in our earlier years who inspired us with a love of learning and helped make us who we are.

There are many men and women who hold this place of honor for me. I think of Mrs. McAnally, my high school English teacher. She was tough as nails, but I loved her. I thought she was going to work me to death, but she taught me the fundamentals of grammar. She also taught me to keep my big mouth shut and listen to what I was told.

In college and graduate school there were other strong professors who shaped and molded my thinking: Dr. Eddie Harwood, Dr. Paul Culbertson, Dr. C.E. Meyers and Dr. Ken Hopkins. With the exception of Dr. Culbertson and Dr. Meyers (who are deceased), these men are my good friends today. I owe them an unpayable debt.

In each case, however, their contributions to my life came through the avenue of discipline. Formal learning is impossible without it. The boring professors who asked and received nothing from me have been forgotten. The ones I remember today are those who invested themselves in me, and wouldn't take anything less than my best in return.

Does your local school district understand this necessity for structure, respect, commitment and discipline in the classroom? If so, why don't you call your child's teacher or the principal and express your appreciation. They could use a pat on the back. Tell them you stand ready to assist in carrying out their important mission.

If your school system is not so oriented, get involved to help turn the tide. Meet with parent groups. Join the PTA. Review the textbooks. Work for the election of school board members who believe in traditional values and academic excellence. Schools function best when the time-honored principle of local control — by parents — prevails. I believe it is making a comeback! []

---------------------------------------------- Dr. James Dobson is founder and president of Focus on the Family. This material was adapted from his book The New Dare to Discipline. Copyright (c) 1970, 1992 James C. Dobson.


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