Learning to Discipline

By Metzger, Margaret | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Learning to Discipline


Metzger, Margaret, Phi Delta Kappan


At the start of her teaching career, Ms. Metzger confesses, she ricocheted between being a drill sergeant and Mary Poppins. Here she shares with new teachers the many lessons she's learned along the way about classroom discipline and classroom management.

Dear New Teachers,

No one is born knowing how to control 125 adolescents for five hours a day and teach the curriculum at the same time. Learning to discipline takes years. Mostly, it's trial and error. Nothing works all the time, and what works well in one class has no effect on another.

However, over time, our repertoire of responses grows; we learn what we can tolerate; we gain a sense of timing; we make alliances within a school. Trust me, you will improve.

When I began teaching, I struggled to control my classes. I did not yet understand the difference between classroom discipline and classroom management. So let me start at the beginning.

A Confession

I still wince at my early attempts to "control" my classes. Here's what I painfully remember about myself as a young teacher, trying in vain to control classes.

* On the first day, I told a huge football player to change seats. I was stunned when he obeyed.

* I identified emotionally with the students rather than the teachers.

* I pretended competence, certainty, and adulthood - though I didn't feel any. I was still working out my own issues with authority figures, so it was hard to be one.

* I ricocheted between being a drill sergeant and Mary Poppins.

* Kids liked challenging me, and it was fun for them to see me squirm. Kids attacked my most vulnerable character flaws, and they could undo my self-esteem in a matter of minutes.

* One critical comment could haunt me for days.

* I thought everything was my fault.

* The kids who behaved worst got all my attention.

* Desperate, I used the curriculum, grades, and my own education to coerce (bully?) students.

* I was so afraid to admit failure that I didn't ask for help.

* The very idea of discipline exhausted me. I hated it.

* I felt terminally vulnerable.

Some Progress

I hated disciplining adolescents. If I was going to stay in education, I knew I had to get past the discipline issues.

I tried to write down all my mistakes in order to find a pattern and not repeat them. That didn't help. I just kept making the same mistakes over and over.

More helpful was remembering my own recent high school and college experience. I wrote down what I liked and hated about my own teachers, so I could at least pretend to be someone who knew what she was doing. I remembered how much I wanted the teachers I adored to like or notice me; I remembered how criticism bruised my fragile academic ego; I remembered how I resented teacher power plays. Mostly, I remembered how much I hated the infantilizing nature of high school. Those memories got me through the first years of teaching. I reminded myself that I already knew a lot - just from the student side of the desk. If I could keep remembering, I could convey genuine empathy and have honest interactions.

My mother, an outstanding teacher, was the best help. She listened patiently that first year as I complained - or cried - that my classes never went as I planned. Finally, my mother said, "Look, you can't expect to know how to teach instantly. You wouldn't expect to do brain surgery in your first year of medical school. If you think you can learn this in one year, you degrade my profession.

"Now, let's look at your failures. First, you need to see failures as opportunities for you to learn. You need a theory for each problem. Why is it a problem? What do you bring to the situation? What could you have done differently? What other lens could you use to understand the situation? …

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