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Guest Column

Discipline in school not a dirty word

Published May 9, 2007


Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was a student in grade school. Of course, way back then, we were called "pupils." We sat in one-piece wooden desks, arranged in rows. There were bare slate blackboards and nothing hanging or posted on the walls to distract us from listening and learning.

My teacher was a Catholic nun, dressed in a stark black religious "habit, " with only her usually smiling, sometimes scowling, face visible. We sat quiet as mice. We had to be silent or we would suffer the punishment of a ruler across the knuckles or, worse, dear God, a trip to the principal's office.

And so, we learned because we observed strict discipline and paid attention, which allowed our teacher to teach. There was order in my early days at school. It was the best of times.

Today, in our Pinellas County schools, there is "peer mediation" beginning in grade school. That's right, the pupils - er, students - resolve disputes.

How long have I been asleep?

I'm kidding, of course, because I did become aware of this program nine years ago when I became a substitute teacher. Last year, when I wrote a guest column about my life as a sub, I chose not to dwell on the subject of school discipline, but rather on the joy of teaching young children.

But a recent report on this "peer mediation" has prompted me to offer my strong views concerning discipline in school. Or really, the lack of it.

To begin with, "peer mediation" is preposterous. It not only places the serious responsibility of maintaining some school discipline in the hands of children, but also is, effectively, an abdication of that responsibility by teachers. It troubles me that we continue to cater to the children, imbuing them with a sense of entitlement. They should appreciate, not expect.

It is beyond belief that a school administration would even presume that very young children would have the skills to resolve disputes arising from name calling, rumors, whatever. Apparently, disputes that could result in fights are daily expectations and mediation has been found to be the best prevention method. Nonsense. Disciplining those who do fight is the best way.

It's obvious that the students love what is, to my mind, a "let's-play-grownup" game because it allows them to do something - anything - other than sit down and listen to the teacher. To think that this questionable program has been in existence for 16 years and is alive and well from grade school to high school is mind-boggling.

While I recognize that my views fly in the face of the reported successes of this program, we should consider whether strict discipline would have been more successful by discouraging fighting in the first place and would have created the proper environment needed for teaching.

The more common everyday bad behavior, such as constant chatter and disrespect toward the teacher and each other, is treated with toothless punishment such as the loss of "Fun Friday." And that resulted after the third act of disobedience, a score kept with cards on a wall file or some such. That's right. Every student had two "free" bad acts. They can count.

Could it be that, maybe, fear of parent litigation scares teachers from giving effective punishment? Ah, spare the child and spare us the lawsuit, administration might say. Wouldn't surprise me.

And while I do not subscribe to the corporal punishment that I experienced, at least some consequences of bad behavior, perceived or real, should be felt to effect a change like the sting of the ruler convinced me to behave.

But, alas, I'm like a voice crying in the wilderness of old age ... which can be the worst of times.

Jack Bray is a retired broadcast executive who lives in Dunedin.

[Last modified May 8, 2007, 23:16:07]

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