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When I first began teaching I subscribed, by default, to what might be called the Hedonistic School of Discipline. Roughly speaking, this simply means that people seek to obtain pleasure and avoid pain, and therefore a teacher must make pleasurable those things he wants to encourage and make painful those things he wants to discourage. Thus if you don’t want students to talk when they should be studying, you simply punish them for their talking. They will forego the talking, hopefully, in order to avoid the punishment. This is a valid method so far as it goes, but I have found that it doesn’t really go very far. I will give an example.
In my first year of teaching, I had a seventh grade class that was a rowdy bunch. I would begin by explaining the lesson for the day. After getting out maybe five words I would say, “Johnny, pay attention! Look up here!” Johnny would mumble some excuse and give me his attention. Then after six more words I would say the same thing to Joe or Susie. After five minutes of this I would change my tactics: “Next guy that’s not paying attention or who talks gets some extra work to do.” Then I would be handing out assignments right and left. “Joe, I want you to write ‘I will not talk in class’ two hundred times, and you better have it tomorrow or you go to the office!” After about fifteen minutes and a half a dozen such assignments later, I would give this up too.
The class would be gaming by this time, and some of the students were pretty skillful at it. Soon I would get mad at the whole class and lecture them. And so it would go, day after day, month after month. I knew things were not right, of course, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I reasoned that I shouldn’t let them get away with all their misbehavior, for that would only allow them to run all over me. And yet it didn’t seem to help much to punish either. Once in a while I would just try letting them go, and of course they ran all over me.
This class was exceptional. I had other classes at this same time that responded well to such a simple reward-and-punishment hedonistic method. This seventh grade was simply a class with more than its share of problem students. They were also at the age that seems most prone to causing trouble in class. The next year I did manage to get them under control, but only with the military system that I described in chapter two. The Hedonistic School simply did not do the job for me.
There are a number of problems with the Hedonistic School. The first problem is that it cannot always be applied. Before a teacher can punish, he must have a good case against the student. This is often impossible. Mr. Q., from the first example in the chapter on games, was trying to rely on the Hedonistic School. The logical thing to do, he thought, was to punish whoever quacked at him. This was logical perhaps, but what does logic matter if the culprits have the protection of anonymity, or are skillfully lining, or are playing a game of bathroom or debate, or are otherwise avoiding punishment in some way.
My seventh graders used most of these standard games. Their hedges were sometimes thin and ineffective, but sometimes they were impervious. Their forte was massive obstructionism. One doesn’t need a good hedge when the teacher is so overwhelmed with misbehavior that he can’t keep track of all the offenses. So long as I punished only with sentences to write, and so long as they stood a pretty good chance of not getting caught, my punishments didn’t mean too much. Looking back on it, I now realize that the best solution for this class would have involved a certain amount, in fact a considerable amount, of pure aggression. Being a non-aggressive person, I could not do this myself. A good principal or superintendent could have helped me to do this, but that would have taken time and effort and a considerable amount of insight and patience that simply was not available. Looking back I also realize that I should have had the class spend far less time listening to me talk and far more time working individually out of their workbooks. One of the hardest things you can ask a seventh grader to do is to just sit and listen.
The Hedonistic School, at least in its simplest form, fails to take into account a very important principle - that the severity of punishment is not nearly as important as its consistency. It would seem reasonable that if I make it extremely unpleasant for a culprit when I do catch him, then he would play it safe in the future by not misbehaving, even if I cannot catch him every time. In other words severity of punishment ought to compensate for the possibility of not getting caught. This may seem reasonable, but in my experience this is not the way it works. Classroom troublemakers don’t want to play it safe, and they don’t statistically compute the expected gain of their crime against the chance of getting caught. They give very little thought to punishment until they are faced with it. Perhaps if a teacher had really severe punishments at his disposal, then severity might compensate for inconsistency. However, this theory is irrelevant. The most extreme punishment that a school will allow, and then only if the administration concurs, is corporal punishment or suspension from class. Either of these punishments cannot be used for minor offenses, and even when they are finally applied, they don’t always accomplish their purpose. Likewise, the milder punishments, which the teacher must depend upon most of the time, do not do the job if they are inconsistently applied.
Another complication of the Hedonistic School, or of just about any school of discipline, is resentment and competition. Rats and pigeons can be rewarded or punished as if the manipulator were a god. The rat or pigeon does not, I presume, resent being punished. It does not feel a strong need to retaliate. A rat can be punished without losing face. It suffers the electric shock, or whatever punishment that is being used just as a person would suffer a fire or a flood. The rat does not retaliate against the shock. But humans are not rats. Humans have face to lose, and face to defend. To endure punishment is to lose face. This loss of face is probably always felt, but if the punisher is two notches higher than the punished, then the person being punished accepts his punishment as he would a fire or flood. Whatever resentment this person feels is repressed. The problem occurs when the punisher is only one notch above the punished. In this situation, the punishment elicits resentment and retaliation. It invites competition. The Hedonistic School offers only one approach to this competition - further punishment. This may or may not be effective. It may be just a breeding ground for escalation, a problem I discussed in chapter four.
The Hedonistic School is a valid system of discipline, so far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far. Used by itself, it is much less than a hundred percent effective. This is not to say that any method is a hundred percent effective, of course, but it is possible to greatly improve on the Hedonistic School. Teachers use more than one school of thought in dealing with discipline problems. I will describe several different schools of discipline as I have observed them.
The Desert School of Discipline is similar to the Hedonistic School, but it is less flexible. The Desert School is based on a moral judgment, on the unquestioned assumption that a crime “deserves” a punishment. Its theory is sometimes expressed as “getting even,” but it is not necessarily the teacher who must “get even” with the offender. Rather the teacher often sees himself as simply the agent by which this evenness is attained. The world, or the gods, or society, or fate, or something has ordained that it is only right and natural that if you do something wrong you ought to be punished for it. This is an irrational idea of desert, having its roots, I presume, in innate drives of retaliation, which in turn is rooted in the basic drive of ego expansion and maintenance. A follower of the Desert School does not accept this type of analysis, of course. The offender “deserves” punishment and that is all there is to it.
Teachers often act on the dictates of the Desert School, but will turn to the Hedonistic School when pressed to explain their actions. Indeed the two are synonymous in many peoples’ minds. “You don’t want him to get away with it, do you?” they explain. “Then there’d be no stopping him! Therefore he deserves to be punished.” The distinction I make between these two schools is that the Hedonistic School, unlike the Desert School, is flexible enough to change. Just as a scientist who is training a rat will change his methods when punishment fails, so will a teacher, following the Hedonistic School, change his methods when punishment fails. The Hedonistic School is not concerned with fairness, only with results. The Desert School is concerned only with fairness - a rather primitive idea of fairness - and not at all with results. Its creed states that a crime deserves a punishment, and nothing more. If a student offends twenty consecutive times, then he must be punished twenty consecutive times. He “deserves” to be.
Extenuating circumstances are admitted in the Desert School, but not always in a sensible way. Since the offender must get what he deserves, then the teacher must make every, effort to find out just what he does deserve. All circumstances must be considered and a “fair” punishment must be determined. This leaves the teacher wide open to a hard game of debate. For instance, if a teacher separates two fighting boys, then they may both avoid punishment by blaming the other and refusing to admit to any guilt on their own part. A teacher following the Desert School may punish neither because he is not sure just which one deserves the punishment. A teacher following the Hedonistic School will simply punish both, so as to discourage future fights.
A further problem caused by the inflexibility of the Desert School is that if a student decides that a crime is worth the punishment, then he has a license to offend. The Hedonistic School would put a quick stop to such an arrangement by applying a heavier sanction. The Desert School could not do this since the offender does not “deserve” a heavier punishment.
A third school of discipline is what I will call the Bad-guy School of Discipline. Like the Hedonistic and Desert schools, it is essentially negative. In this school of discipline the teacher puts on a strong display of aggression, seeking to subdue by overkill. By keeping the students scared of him, or at least at a distance, he hopes that they will refrain from their usual offenses. To be sure, there is very definitely a place for overkill in discipline, as I have mentioned several times in previous chapters. However, it is not sensible to try to base a whole system of discipline on it.
Overkill has a place in teaching, but it takes an aggressive teacher to use it well. A non-aggressive teacher who tries to use it too much may either make a fool of himself or must make himself a very bad guy indeed. This was the case with one of my fellow teachers at the prison school. Though he was more aggressive than I, he was still not quite capable of using overkill unless he put his whole heart and soul into it. He made himself a bad guy, and unfortunately that was about all. He had many good qualities as a person, but he was not a good teacher. He was too busy being tough. He would chew out an inmate for any little offense. He would chew out his whole class just as a matter of course. He would assume the worst from any inmate and would never give an inmate the benefit of any doubt. He had taught in public schools for a number of years, with varying degrees of frustration. When he found the prison job, he was so impressed with the tightly run school that he could think of nothing else. He held the view: “Discipline is ninety percent of the job. If you can keep order, you’re bound to teach them something.”
The Bad-guy School of Discipline is unaware of games, but it is very much aware of challenge and escalation. The basic idea of this school of discipline is to get two or three notches up on the class and stay there. Since the proper object of challenge is “one notch up,” the students will not misbehave. This is sensible. A teacher should indeed be more than just one notch above his class. I’ve been one notch up on many classes and it’s not a comfortable place to be. I’ve also been two notches up on some of my classes, though not by applying the Bad-guy School, and this is a much more comfortable situation.
The Bad-guy School of Discipline is certainly not all bad. In fact if a “bad-guy” teacher would learn a little about games and more positive forms of motivation, and if he would be willing to use this knowledge, he might do well. This is illustrated by one of my fellow teachers in the school where I had the horrendous seventh grade that I described at the beginning of this chapter. He had no trouble from the seventh grade. He applied an overkill of aggression, that is, he chewed them out at the first hint of misbehavior. He could lay down the law and make it stick. He was certainly more than one notch up on the class. The students behaved well for him, though of course they still didn’t learn a whole lot, for they were just not a capable bunch of kids. This teacher used overkill effectively, but he was not really a “bad-guy” by any means. He gave credit where credit was due. He didn’t chew out anyone without reason, and he enjoyed the respect of both students and colleagues. He was a bad guy only in that he knew how to stay more than one notch up on his students.
The Hedonistic and Desert Schools are not aware of ehool of discipline - not all are negative. This fourth school of discipline, which I will not say too much about, is what I call the Good-guy School of Discipline. It asserts that students have a natural “desire to learn” and that one can avoid discipline problems by capitalizing on this desire. It has the fatal flaw of thinking that this is the only, or at least the dominant, drive in normal school children. This, of course, is not the case. There is indeed a certain desire to learn in a normal human being, but there is also a natural desire to do a lot of other things, things that can not always be allowed.
The Good-guy School of Discipline is not a school of discipline at all in any real sense. It asserts that discipline problems are a sign of failure on the part of the teacher. It asserts that it is possible, and therefore morally obligatory, to dispense with all negative sanctions entirely. This offers absolutely nothing to cover our shortcomings, or the shortcomings of our students. We are not perfect and our students are even less perfect. Therefore the Good-guy School is not a practical school of discipline.
In spite of such obvious shortcomings, the Good-guy School of Discipline seems to be the only perspective of discipline endorsed by the educational “establishment.” This establishment seems unwilling to admit that students are normal human beings with normal human faults. This leads many teachers to hold themselves up to the unrealistic ideals of this school, only to fail with sometimes serious consequences. In their failure they grasp at straws and turn to the Hedonistic School at best, or the Bad-guy School at worst. I saw this happen a number of times with one of my colleagues at the prison school. He felt that he must “relate” to his students, that he must draw them out by getting their interest first and then by guiding them into constructive learning activities. He was a sucker for any game in the book. When he would finally get to the end of his rope, he would punish severely but clumsily. To his students he appeared inconsistent and capricious. He was inconsistent, of course, for he was trying to substitute motivation - his unrealistic concept of motivation - for an effective system of discipline.
A school of discipline need not be entirely negative. The Good-guy School has some value, but only in conjunction with a more realistic and immediately effective school of discipline such as the Hedonistic. None of the schools of discipline I have described in this chapter can stand by themselves. In the next chapter I will describe what I consider to be a workable synthesis, a school of discipline that integrates the advantages of several schools of discipline with the knowledge of what actually goes on in a classroom.