Classroom discipline is one of the most important, daily responsibilities of a teacher. Yet there are barely any courses on how to achieve it, neither is the problem really recognized by the public. As a young teacher, you are thrown into the lions’ den, and then God help you.
This was also my feeling when I started teaching at Jina school in Abidjan. I had no real concept for keeping the class quiet and neat, or what kind of punishments apply when rules were broken. I just handed out the school rules, which included good behavior and respect towards the teachers, and thought that this should do the trick. I even went as far as most websites and books on discipline suggest:
- have a classroom discussion about rules
- create rules together and discuss what kind of punishment is fair and just
- print them and put them up in class
- apply the rules with great consistency and hold students accountable
As you might guess, that’s by FAR not all that is needed to create a classroom atmosphere where students behave and feel motivated to study and treat each other respectfully. The classroom continued to be loud and there were no 5 minutes of focussed studying. I am not even exaggerating. The punishments for misbehavior were in order of graveness (after a warning):
- copying the rule you broke 10-50 times into your book
- kneeling at your desk
- being sent out of class for the remainder of the lesson
- being reported to the headmistress
- being reported and your parents get a phonecall
The students know these and have seen all of them carried out. Still, no change.
Then one day, student Timmy (name changed by author) goes too far. He is on his knees already, copying the rule he has broken, and just starts insulting a student behind him until that one gets upset and they start an open fight in the middle of class. I have to interrupt my lesson, go inbetween the two students who had started strangling each other, and bring them to the headmistress’ office. Together, we decide to give the parents a call. Having had teaching experience in Austria, I thought, “Anyways, what’s the point of telling parents, they don’t really care.” I was so wrong. We got the mum of Timmy on the phone. After a few sentences of explanation, she just answers, “Ok, I’m coming.” and hangs up. 20 minutes later she is with us in the office. I explain to her what happened in class, and why we had given her a call. And she looks at me, not without anger, and said,
I know that in Europe, things are different. But here in Africa, we beat our children”
And she did. In front of the headmistress, the secretary, and myself. On the head, the back and shoulders, while talking to him angrily why he was humiliating his family. When she was done, I took my leave to continue teaching in class, with TImmy being left behind in the office. Besides the anger I felt for him disobeying and fighting in class, seeing him getting beaten in front of everyone I actually felt pity for him.
The incident made me realize a few things:
First, African kids fear their mothers more than anything else. Nothing will scare them, no extra work, kneeling, being sent out of class. But you mention their mothers, and they will budge.
Second, despite having followed and carried out the disciplinary measures, less than half the class followed them and went through a week without being punished.
Third, I want to find a way how to manage my classroom without beating kids, obviously. But is that my arrogant Western-European attitude, my inability to adapt to the culture? If I want the kids to succeed in studies, they need to be disciplined. I just have to find a way how. So I created a behavior scale with different measures. Every student starts with 100 points, and when they break a rule, I deduct 2 to 6 points. When their points reach below 80, the office will call their parents. At the start of a new trimester, the points are reset to 100. There is also a reward system, if they do really well or when they hand in extra work.
The system is working quite well, except for some kids. I wondered why, and saw that it’s connected to the punishment. If at home, they get beaten, but at school they can “get away” with easier punishment, they will take advantage of it. Some students behave like angels at home, they are calm and respectful; but once they enter school, hell breaks loose. They become bossy tyrants, and disrespectful towards any authority.
Just beat them!
Is what the behaved kids in class say.
I’m waiting for the day you will beat one of us!
Is what they say themselves.
So for now I can say that discipline is still a great issue in my classroom. I fight with it every day, and it’s making me tired. Now two students are permanently outside class, and another joined a different classroom. There is only one single teacher in the entire school, where the students are (almost) quiet and respectful. And you can guess, why…