Secret Diary of an Irish Teacher: How would you like me to discipline your child?

Secret Diary of an Irish Teacher: How would you like me to discipline your child?

Dear Parents — How would you like me to discipline your child? Would you in fact like me to discipline them at all? There are so many mixed messages out there, I could do with your help.

I’ve taught in wildly different schools. In one, kids walked in file and greeted you formally as you passed. It was (and presumably still is) a military-style Catholic comprehensive in London. Classes lined up twice a day in any weather and wouldn’t move until registers were taken, uniforms checked.

Report cards and detentions were commonplace and many a Friday afternoon was spent listening to a head of year in an adjoining office screaming, literally screaming, at a child.

Many parents would find this pretty horrifying. I suppose I’m kind of horrified too, but it seemed normal to me then. It also worked for a lot of boys and their loyalty to their draconian teachers was remarkable.

I went to London a few years ago for a gig in Hyde park. The waiting staff were from my old school. I received the warmest, most appreciative recognition I’ve got in my life to date. Those boys knew we worked hard for them. They recognised that care isn’t always soft; it can be tough, because kids understand stuff like that.

Eventually, they get it.

Parents, this is partly why I support old-fashioned detention. I believe in people being forced to do something they don’t want to do, as a direct consequence of misbehaving. I think it builds character. Do you?

But I don’t think it should stop there and I accept that approach won’t work for everyone. We need to do more. Too many students leave school because they feel pushed out. Too many students fall through the cracks.

Restorative Practice — an approach being developed in the more progressive schools in our country — may offer protection. With RP, you recognise that relationships are at the core of a healthy environment and when a wrongdoing is committed, you work with both the transgressor and the victim to repair that relationship.

You ask the person in the wrong to reflect on the consequences of their actions and you ask both parties to reflect on how the situation might be improved. You must also give sanctions.

Few of us do anything for no reason. Yes, a student may shout at you in the corridor, but you can be sure something is causing that behaviour.

It may be because no-one has taught them how to behave. It may be that they haven’t had breakfast for three days in a row.

RP takes the entire context into consideration. It asks for reflection as well as repair. It treats students as full-blown humans navigating a difficult space. It demands that they explain what has happened and take responsibility for those actions.

Schools should discipline in the context of RP. They should have clear rules and values and make hard, not always popular decisions. We should all work to avoid suspensions and expulsions and restorative practice creates an environment that is less hostile, more compassionate.

Sometimes misunderstood by parents, restorative practice should not imply a lack of concrete consequences. Why? Because without detentions or the equivalent, teenagers who are hardwired to rebel find little resistance, few boundaries and therefore, not enough care.

It also means they have zero resilience because they are pandered to, regardless of their actions. Through RP sessions they are made to feel responsible, yes, but they must also feel the burden of doing something difficult to actively repair harm.

It can be a struggle to know what parents want and what’s more, a lot of parents don’t seem to trust their kids’ teachers anymore. Last year, a teacher in my city was brought before the board of management for being too ‘strict’.

Is being strict really that bad? If a kid is behaving like a bully, is it enough to request they talk through why they did it, and why they shouldn’t do it again? Or should we also take a privilege away, raise a voice or add an extra hour to their week? Care happens when both apply in tandem.

My father instilled an annoyingly strong sense of right and wrong in me. He also forced me stay in my room for an entire morning when I behaved appallingly; I’m pretty convinced there’s a connection.

He might be viewed as abusive nowadays. And yet, sitting in a room on my own highlighted, in time, that I was not the centre of the universe. He made me talk through what I had done wrong, why it was wrong and why I had to make amends. He was my first experience of RP.

We must allow kids to feel like I did that morning; difficult feelings are part of our lived experience and I don’t think we should edit them out. But we should discipline in a broader context of care and patience, not for its own sake. We must discipline in a way that reflects societal values, through real, felt consequences.

Applied properly, restorative practice allows us to do this. When I was in school my parents used to instruct me to ‘do what your teacher tells you’. Parents, do you say that to your kids anymore?

Do you trust, or even want me, to discipline your child?

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