Click here for Table of Contents

Click here for home,

Chapter Two

The Big Game

      Antagonism and competition with students is unfortunately a fact of life for most teachers. In the last chapter I might have given the impression that ninety percent of teaching consists of fighting with the students. Except in unusual cases this is not true. In most cases only above five or ten per cent of a teacher’s time and effort are spent with discipline problems. However this five or ten per cent is very important, easily the most important part of teaching. A teacher who is not equipped to effectively deal with discipline problems is forced to preside over an unpleasant and frustrating endeavor. He may manage to convey some subject matter, but he does so inefficiently. He may continue teaching, but he will not have a rewarding career. Most importantly, he will have laid the groundwork for his students to have even more pain and frustration in their later lives.

      Discipline problems can be handled by prevention or correction, or by both. In the long run, prevention is far more important than correction. However, in the short run, correction is necessary. This chapter is concerned with correction, the immediate actions that are available to a teacher when in the middle of a discipline problem. Therefore I am assuming that a tone of antagonism exists between student and teacher. I am assuming that they are adversaries engaged in a game. The point of this chapter is to show the teacher how to win the game.

      I have discussed a number of particular games in the last chapter. Now I want to take a little different approach and consider classroom discipline as one big game. Any game has a structure which consists of resources and rules. Each player in a game is given certain resources, but he can use these resources only in accordance with a set of rules. In chess for example, the resources are the pawns, rooks, king, queen, etc., and the rules tell how each of these pieces can move. In classroom competition, the resources and rules are different for each side.

      The basic resources for the teacher are:

      1. Academic knowledge and skills
      2. Status conferred by the school
      3. Authority conferred by the school to give directions and apply sanctions
      4. Personal aggressiveness

The resources for the students are:

      1. Specified privileges and immunities
      2. Imagination
      3. Team potential
      4. Personal aggressiveness

      The students’ resources may seem a little vague and uncertain compared to the resources of a teacher. In fact for the majority of students, they are indeed vague and uncertain, and this is basically the reason why the students behave and study. The cards are purposely stacked against them in order to set up a situation in which knowledge can be efficiently transmitted. But for a minority of students, especially those with a high degree of aggressiveness and imagination, these resources can add up to a formidable force.

      The rules for each side are harder to catalog than the resources and are more subject to variation in different situations. However, I will enumerate them briefly and as best I can. A list of rules for the teacher could be:

      1. Tell the students what to do
      2. Tell the students what not to do
      3. Don’t punish without a crime
      4. Don’t punish unless guilt is certain
      5. Be consistent in enforcing rules and applying punishments
      8. Do not use cruel or unusual punishments
      9. Don’t attack the students’ face or be sarcastic
      10. Use corporal punishment only with the concurrence of the administration

      And of course there are a thousand more detailed rules that a teacher must learn as he goes along.

      It would be nice if I could as easily set down the rules that the students follow. Teachers often set down an ideal set of rules that the students are supposed to follow, but that is not quite what I am interested in here. I am instead concerned with the behavior actually exhibited by the students, the rules that are actually followed. For example, one student may follow the rule, “It’s okay to throw paper wads, but if you get caught you have to take your punishment.” Another student may follow the ideal rule, “Don’t ever throw paper wads.” Yet a third student might follow the rule, “Throwing paper wads is juvenile. Use your switch blade!”

      Of all the rules that students follow or fail to follow, the requirement of honesty is probably the most important one. If a student holds himself up to a rigorous standard of honesty, then he can’t get away with too much mischief. But if he doesn’t care a jot about honesty, then he has a tremendous tactical advantage. He can do anything he wants just so the teacher isn’t looking. He may not be able to lie his way out of everything, but the burden of proof of his guilt always rests on the teacher. This can be a very heavy burden indeed.

      Obviously it is not possible for a teacher to know every detail of the ethical code followed by each individual student in his class. But it doesn’t take long at all to begin to get a general idea of who will be the responsible students and who will be the troublemakers. The students can be grouped into several categories in accordance to how close their set of rules comes to the ideal set of rules decreed by the teacher.

      There are a few students who fully accept the rules decreed by the teacher. They can be counted on to follow directions, to tell the truth at all times, to try hard on every assignment, to always be polite, to always dress neatly, to not ask to go to the bathroom during class, to not chew gum in class, and so on. These students are a pleasure to have in class. They have concerned parents, the kind of parents a teacher can talk to. This doesn’t mean that all of these parents are PTA members or that they are all upper middle-class or anything else. There can be quite a range of life-styles represented by the parents of these students. All they have in common is that they expect their children to behave well in school, and that they will help the teacher to get this good behavior.

      Then there are the majority of students - those who may not follow the teacher’s rules religiously, but at least feel a little guilty when they transgress. For these students, the rules have to be actively enforced; but this is not a difficult job. Their parents do an adequate job in raising them and, on the whole, expect them to behave in school. These students occasionally cause trouble, but are not hard core offenders.

      Then there are a few students who will not voluntarily follow any standard set of rules. They are always on the lookout for any cracks in the system of discipline. They have little to do but game with the teacher. They put only a minimum amount of work into their studies. They obey the teacher’s rules only under substantial coercion. When they can get away with something, they feel little or no guilt about it.

      In a very rough way, then, it is possible to rank each student on a scale: from those with high standards to those with low standards. However there would be a great deal of overlap and inconsistency. One student may religiously refrain from discourtesy but feel no compunction about cheating on a test. Another may do just the opposite. One student may offend frequently but take his punishment without complaint. Another may go for months without getting into trouble but then become obstinate when he does. One may lie shamelessly about any little thing. Another may be counted on to keep his word but will then turn around and vandalize the library. Personality, somewhat like culture, is a collection of habits. There is nothing that says that habits should be orderly or consistent.

      In addition to inconsistencies in this classification of students, there is also a certain amount of mobility among the groups. A student who appears to be in the first group may begin to lose his scruples and become a discipline problem. A student who starts out in the third group may respond to a particular teacher or subject matter and cease to be a problem. For these reasons, a teacher should be careful in labeling a student since each student is different. Each student operates on a different set of rules. Each student presents a different potential for becoming a discipline problem.

      Having given the basic catalog of the resources and rules for each side, I will now try to be somewhat more specific and analyze the advantages and disadvantages of each side.

      The academic knowledge and skills of the teacher is not a major factor in discipline. Most teachers are adequately prepared in this area, and those who are not can compensate if they are willing to put in some extra effort. Academic knowledge has an influence on discipline, but not a decisive one. Good academic preparation makes things easier for the teacher because it enables him to earn the respect of the class more readily than he otherwise could. It gives him just a little more status and authority in the eyes of the students; but in the matter of discipline, that is about the extent of it. A teacher may have a poor knowledge of his subject matter and thus fail to impart all the knowledge he should; but this does not necessarily mean that he will fail in discipline. Such a teacher may run an orderly class and gain the respect of the students and his colleagues, even though the students may be aware that they are not learning quite all they should.

      Status conferred by the school is likewise not a major factor in discipline. Before I started teaching, I took the attitude that sitting behind a desk wearing a coat and tie with the title of “Teacher” would give me an advantage of status that would at least partially compensate for my young age and lack of experience. I found this to be true only to a very small extent. The school does give a bit of status of course, but it can be lost amazingly quickly if word gets around that a teacher is a pushover. Students may humor a teacher the first or second day of the school year, but then they’ll start pushing for limits. They’ll find out if he has any substance to back up the front he is presenting. If he does, if he can indeed handle the class; his teacher-status will be sustained. But if he can’t handle the class, then his status is worth very little.

      I will estimate that academic knowledge is ten percent of a teacher’s resources, and that status is another ten percent. That leaves the other eighty percent which I estimate to be evenly divided by delegated authority and personal aggressiveness. I will talk about aggressiveness in the next chapter, as it merits a chapter of its own. That leaves only delegated authority to discuss here.

      A teacher gets his authority from the school, the school from the board of education, and the board of education from the people. This is the basic chain of authority, and it is an indispensable chain of authority. It wouldn’t do me much good to tell Johnny to read chapter one if no one would back me up. Why should Johnny do what I say? But people do back me up. Johnny’s parents tell him to mind the teacher; he observes that other students mind the teacher; and he further observes that unpleasant consequences ensue to those who don’t do as they are told. A school is an institution of coercion. A student studies not because he wants to, and not because just one person tells him to. He studies because he is in a system of coercion, because the teacher has the backing of the whole community.

      For most students it doesn’t have to be much more specific than this. Yet there are still plenty of students who play the game with more sophistication. They have to test the limits and resolve of the teacher for themselves. This forces the teacher to know just how much and what kind of backing he has from the school. He must learn to use this backing effectively.

      I will give a hypothetical example. I tell the class to read pages 23-24 in the text and then do the problems on page 24. Henry doesn’t want to do this so he starts twiddling his thumbs and looking out the window. I tell him to get busy and he flatly refuses. He has not accepted my authority so I send him to the next level in the chain of authority, the principal. The principal proceeds to tell Henry to do the work and again Henry refuses. The superintendent then tells Henry to do his work; again he refuses, and then finally the school board kicks Henry out of school.

      Expulsion is the most extreme sanction a school can apply. And since a school is indeed a system of coercion, the first question is why don’t students just get themselves expelled and be done with it? I can’t give a complete answer to that, but suffice it to say that expulsion does entail consequences that most students are reluctant to accept. Therefore let us assume that Henry chooses to stop short of this step and decides to give up the battle. Henry is back in class doing his work and I am congratulating myself on being a good teacher. Unfortunately Henry sees nothing wrong with going through this same thing every day; so after a day or so I stop congratulating myself.

      The chain of authority is indeed there and in this example, still hypothetical, I did use it. But the system must be improved to some extent, for I can’t send Henry up and down the ladder of authority every day. It is within my authority to mete out punishment. Therefore, I can tell Henry not only to do his assignment, but also that, as punishment for his obstinacy, he is to miss his accustomed twenty-minute break after lunch. Henry refuses and I send him to the principal. The principal tells him to do his assignment and that he is to miss his after-lunch breaks for a week. Henry still refuses and tries the superintendent. The superintendent ups the punishment another notch, and finally Henry gets the message and backs down. He knows the board will confront him with an even heavier penalty or expel him. The next day Henry thinks twice before deciding to give me trouble.

      So long as there is no cost in going up the ladder to higher levels of authority, the students will abuse the system shamelessly, spending all their time in debating their crimes and punishments. There has to be something to prevent this constant upward mobility to higher levels of authority. The simple expedient of raising the punishment at each level accomplishes this. This expedient is widely applied, though it is certainly not needed in every case. Also the extra punishment may not be of a material nature. Quite often the necessity of facing the principal is enough to prevent too much of this ladder climbing. Furthermore, the miscreant usually compounds his crimes by continued obstinacy so that when he does get to the principal, extra punishment is warranted.

      Let us return to the hypothetical Henry. I think I have him beat. He behaves because, if he doesn’t, I’ll send him to the principal, and he has finally decided he doesn’t want this. He knows he’ll lose sooner or later, and it’s better to lose on a lower level than on a higher one. Unfortunately this pleasant state of affairs doesn’t last too long, at least if Henry is half way on the ball, for he soon discovers that there are some things that he can get away with for which I will not send to the office. He finds that he can cause a lot of aggravation by manipulating things so that I am always off balance, although I can’t pin anything on him. In other words, Henry learns a few games.

      Henry has good reason for staying with the lowest level of authority, but unfortunately he soon discovers that I also have a very good reason to stay on this lowest level. If I send too many students to the office, the principal will soon get tired of it. He comes around and asks me what’s going on. Why can’t I handle my own discipline problems? I decide that I can and now the gaming begins in earnest. I don’t mind sending Henry to the principal if I have a good case - if Henry is unquestionably guilty of substantial misbehavior and has failed to respond to my correction. But Henry knows this and will have a hedge. He will put all his efforts into preventing me from getting a good case against him. As Henry gets more skillful in his gaming, I must become more skillful in countering his games. I have authority over Henry, but it is up to me to learn how to use this authority effectively.

      The authority of a teacher can be divided into two categories: discretionary and non-discretionary. This distinction becomes very important when a teacher must call in the principal to back him up. Discretionary power is authority that will be backed up by a higher level without question. The police, for example, have the discretionary power to ask to see my driver’s license. They can do this for good cause, such as if I am involved in an accident, or for no cause. They don’t have to explain to the judge why they asked to see my driver’s license, and I won’t get very far by complaining to the judge that they had no reason for that request. Teachers, as another example of authority, have the discretionary power to arrange the seating in their room to their own choosing. When Joe complains, “Mr. Rude had no reason to make me sit up front,” the principal will tell him, “Young man you’re going to sit wherever he tells you to, and that’s the end of it.” I don’t have to explain such a direction; it is within my discretionary power.

      Most of the teacher’s authority is not discretionary, but is subject to review. If I send Joe to the office expecting him to be punished for his misdeeds, then I’d better have a good case against him. “What did he do?” asks the principal. “I can’t paddle him without some reason.” The principal will not back up any punishment I assign unless he knows that the punishment is justified. Punishment, except in very minor forms, is not a discretionary power of the teacher.

      On the surface at least, it is in the interests of the students that no power of the teacher be discretionary. This gives the students endless gaming possibilities, and also gives them protection against a teacher’s abuse of his power. It is in the interests of the teacher, again at least on the surface, that all powers be discretionary. This makes it possible to run an efficient class and to put up with no nonsense. Therefore a balance must be struck between these two extremes. Too much discretionary power can be a crutch for a poor teacher. Too little discretionary power can be a frustration to all concerned, since it invites endless argument. In my opinion a teacher should be able to hand out minor punishments with no questions asked. He should be able to squelch a debate over trivia with no questions asked. He should be able to direct the routine activities of the class with no questions asked. If I had to have a good reason for arranging the seating in my class; or if I had to explain my reasons for giving a test on Thursday instead of Friday; or if I couldn’t change an assignment from ten problems to fifteen problems at my discretion, then I don’t think I would want to teach. Actually I would do none of these things without a word of explanation to the class, for that much is common courtesy and courtesy is very important. However, my authority to do these things should not be questioned. Loss of discretionary power makes the job harder, whether for teachers, for policemen, or for anyone else who must exercise authority.

      In two different situations I had occasion to use a military system of commands. I will describe this system briefly since it illustrates discretionary and non-discretionary power. I had two basic commands, “attention” and “at ease.” When I was trying to explain something to the class and they got a little noisy I would yell, “CLASS, TEN-SHUN!” Each and every student would immediately sit up straight with feet flat on the floor, hands clasped on the desk, head and eyes straight ahead, and with no movement or expression. Anyone who was slow or who tried to fudge a little would be reprimanded sharply. I would usually keep the students at this position for no more than four or five seconds before giving the command, “At ease.” On this command they were expected to be attentive - it was not permission to take a break - but they did not have to hold the rigid position of attention. If they abused the “at ease” position, I could put them immediately back to attention. Also I could apply the commands individually. If Larry were to cause trouble, for example, I would say, “LARRY, TEN-SHUN!” at which time he would jump to the proper position and be out of the gaming business for a while.

      When I first tried this system, I didn’t really know whether or not the principal would go for it. If putting an individual or a class at attention is considered punishment, then of course I would have to be able to justify my actions. Both principals, under whom I used this system, backed me up completely. If I brought a kid to the office and said, “Jim here doesn’t think he has to sit at attention when I tell him to,” the principal would reply, “Well then let’s get it straight, Jim. If Mr. Rude tells you to stand on your head, you better do it. If he tells you to jump, you better ask how high on the way up . . . . .” In other words, it was within my discretionary power to put the class at attention. This gave me a tremendous tactical advantage. About the only game the students could engage in while at attention was that of lining. They could make very slight movements and get away with it, but that was about the extent of it. They couldn’t bait me, or debate, or work in teams, or do practically anything. I used this system in only two different classes. Both of these were on the junior high level and both were particularly unruly classes. Perhaps the principals in both cases were aware that I needed a little more discretionary power than usual.

      The use of discretionary power makes it possible for the teacher to respond to gamesters on their own terms. Just as there are deniable offenses by which a student can offend the teacher, so are there ways that a teacher can bend his authority a little, even abuse it, for his own ends. An example of a deniable punishment would be scheduling a big test the day after a ball game, thus forcing students to curtail their sports in order to study for the test. “There’s nothing that says I have to schedule my tests around the ball games,” the teacher could say, fully aware that he is indeed punishing the class in this way. I have never known a teacher who successfully used deniable punishments as an integral part of his teaching methods. I have known several who did so unsuccessfully, who were continually caught up in unproductive games. Deniable punishments are appropriate only in isolated situations when conventional punishments have failed. Playing games with deniable punishments is dangerous territory. Teachers are held to tighter rules and standards than are students, and mistakes carry heavier consequences. If the students believe the teacher is more interested in gaming than in teaching, then they may feel resentful and thus increase their own gaming. They might rightly feel offended that the teacher uses ways of punishing the entire class for the offenses of a few, or they may feel that a deniable punishment is an underhanded tactic in any situation. Gaming by the teacher is always an invitation to more gaming by the students.

      The authority conferred by the school is a very important tool in handling discipline problems. For teachers with low personal aggressiveness, it is their primary resource. Therefore it is most important that this authority be handled skillfully. This means that the teacher has to know just what he can do with discretionary authority; what he can do with non-discretionary authority; and what he cannot do at all. If a teacher discovers that he simply does not have the authority to do what he needs to do in order to teach, then he should have the sense to stop teaching. Usually this is not the case of course. The authority is there - it is up to the teacher to learn how to use it to full advantage.

      I’ll now turn to the other side of the coin, the resources of the students. How is Henry able to offend without my punishing him or invoking a higher level of authority? In the beginning of the chapter, I listed four resources of the students. The first resource is “specified privileges and immunities.” I think this will have more meaning in the future than it does right now. In what we might call the “old school of discipline,” the discipline of firm application of the rod, there were very few specified privileges and immunities. Even now there is no “bill of rights” for students. However, if we are to judge from current trends, it is only a matter of time until students have a rather elaborate bill of rights, and this will give them endless opportunities for stalling and appealing. Teachers should prepare for such things before they happen. At present the closest thing to a specified bill of rights for students are the rules that teachers are bound by, such as those that I listed at the beginning of the chapter. These may vary widely with each teacher and may hardly be verbalized. But this does not prevent students from discovering just which rules can be abused for which teacher. A teacher who is very careful not to punish an innocent party can sometimes be manipulated extensively by students who employ the simple hedge of anonymity. Teachers who are too careful to be consistent can set themselves up for games of lining and debate.

      One privilege that is unstated, though very real, is the right of appeal. If I tell Joe he has to write, “I will not talk in class,” a hundred times and Joe doesn’t like it, he can go see the principal. If he can plead his case successfully, the principal will not back up my actions. It doesn’t work this way very often, of course, for several reasons. Joe doesn’t ask to see the principal - I send him. All Joe does is stubbornly refuse to do what he is told. And the appeal is almost never successful. Even if the principal sees that I am in the wrong, he’ll still uphold the punishment and talk with me about it later. The appeal is very real though, in spite of the fact that it seems so stacked against Joe. The principal will want to know just what Joe did before he takes any action. He’ll get Joe’s side of the story and he’ll get my side. This forces me to be careful in assigning punishments. As a result, this opportunity for appeal is a substantial resource for the students.

      Imagination is the second resource of the students, and it is essential to good gaming. The most imaginative students in my experience were in the laboratory school where I did my student teaching. One fellow in particular was extremely creative in inventing new ways to disturb the class. One day he began rowing his desk across the room as if it were a boat in water. He was a skillful pantomimist, but I’ll never know how he got his desk to move so smoothly. Fortunately for me he never played a hard game. He was more concerned with providing amusement for his fellow students than in beating me down. On another occasion he raised his hand with a question, and when I called on him I was completely put off balance when another kid’s voice came from his lips. The two had carefully practiced their synchronization, one as ventriloquist and the other as dummy, and did a superb job.

      Unfortunately many students use their imaginations to less amusing ends, finding ingenious ways to cause trouble and avoid getting caught. In other words, they invent new games and refine their skills in the old games. If they have no respect or sympathy for the teacher, their efforts can produce no end of unproductive acrimony.

      The advantages of numbers and the potential for teamwork are perhaps the greatest resources for students who can cooperate among themselves, Massive obstructionism is an extreme example of this. When one or two students come in without their books, it is a simple matter to find a spare book and get on with the business at hand. But what do you do when eighty percent of the class comes in without their books, giving one excuse or another? Do you lecture them? Punish them? Laugh it off? A more common example of teamwork is when several students on different sides of the room are jointly baiting the teacher under a thin hedge of anonymity. As you try to catch a student throwing a paper wad, you feel another hit the back of your neck. You whirl around to see who did it and are confronted with a group of innocent faces. Then while you ponder these innocent faces, you get hit again from behind.

      Teamwork need not be so explicit as this though. The moral support given an offender by the rest of the class can mean quite a lot. This is one disadvantage of teaching in a small school where the children have grown up together and the class is never divided. The troublemaker always has an appreciative audience and knows just how much his classmates will put up with. However, this was not the case in the prison school, which is one reason that I had very little discipline trouble there. The inmates not only came from widely separated localities and backgrounds, but they were also not quite so verbal and hence did not get together so well. Many inmates probably didn’t know even the names of all their classmates. A troublemaker might gain an appreciative audience, but he couldn’t count on it. Thus the primary goal of most students was simply to stay out of trouble.

      The last resource of the students is personal aggressiveness. This is used mainly by students when they have a very non-aggressive teacher, a teacher who so greatly hates to get into a clash of wills that he will seriously compromise his principles and authority. Aggressiveness is often used in conjunction with other resources, but at times a student will prompt a clash of wills just out of sheer cussedness. To understand how all this works, I will devote the next chapter to the phenomenon of aggressiveness.