How do we Discipline Christianly?
Discipline is an integral part of teaching in the elementary schools. In a more general sense, discipline begins with setting the stage – students lining up, following classroom routines which the teacher has set, following the school rules which the staff has adopted, and then, listening respectfully to the teacher when the teacher notes misbehaviour – behaviour that does not follow that accepted set of classroom rules or school rules. It goes without saying that our elementary students need a well defined set of rules for proper conduct. Respect, routines, rules and the consistent maintenance of them is essential to good discipline in the school.
How does discipline break down in an elementary school? Discipline can break down because the student or students misbehave. The students may not follow the written or unwritten expectations of the teacher. The students, due to outside influences, may not respect the teacher. Yes, despite the fact that the students are covenant children, they can and do show evidences of their totally corrupt natures.
Discipline can break down because the teacher may show a sinful reaction or may show a lack of wisdom. The teacher may not show respect to the students. The teacher may not be enforcing the rules consistently. The teacher may not be “bumping up” discipline measures in the classroom because he or she doesn’t recognize that the student has bumped up the discipline problem. The teacher may be over reacting to the discipline problem.
The teacher may not recognize the background or origin of the discipline problem. The teacher may not understand or be able to deal with the “culture” or “sub-culture” of the students. Hopefully not, but the teacher may not even recognize that there is a discipline problem. Discipline may break down further if the principal or the parents may not support the teacher. Teachers and principals are sinful too, and must do all they can to stop discipline from breaking down.
To ensure good Christian discipline in our schools, we need to first provide the right atmosphere of discipline in our schools, as we do in our homes. Douglas Wilson writes in his book Standing on the Promises that discipline is effective only in a spirit of “pleasantness” (124, 129). He expounds:
But in many homes chronic unpleasantness reigns all the time. When discipline occurs, it is simply a matter of going from bad to worse. Godly discipline is not like that; of course there will be acute unpleasantness from time to time during the discipline, but an atmosphere of joy and peace and graciousness reigns most of the time. (129)
So what is an atmosphere of “pleasantness?” An orderly, happy atmosphere. How do we accomplish this in our schools? Good routines and school rules are a must! Other factors should be considered. Principals and staff should not overload the calendars. Teachers must seek help from more experienced teachers. Share problems! Teachers must recognize discipline problems before they frustrate you the teacher (and therefore the rest of the class). Teachers must call parents for support and help. Teachers must not be bogged down with planning and marking so that they feel that discipline is a nuisance for which they don’t have time. Teachers must have enough sleep to deal with the dear students the next day! Students should be praised for positive actions, and can encourage each other to do so too. An atmosphere of togetherness or family should be cultivated among students. In the end, principals and staff must work on upholding an atmosphere of pleasantness by consciously gauging the atmosphere in the school.
Perhaps a lot of unpleasantness in our schools is our own fault. Douglas Wilson also mentions that discipline should be done quickly. Children easily forget. Is our system of discipline too “slow?” Is our system of detentions, suspensions and expulsion too drawn out for the elementary school and thus too ineffective? Is our system too “punishment” oriented? What about those students who are always in the hall, or always in the detention room? According to Wilson, if detentions are anything like grounding at home, he detests them and says that all they do is create an atmosphere of unpleasantness. Perhaps we should revisit our written or unwritten “discipline” policies and procedures to see if we are not causing an unpleasant atmosphere because of our “system” of discipline.
Disciplining, like everything else, must always be an act of love. The first step of discipline must be to state the wrong, but that the second and third steps of discipline must be present too: instruction and restitution. Instruction is teaching the child the reason for proper behaviour: How should we behave? What does Scripture teach us? Restitution means a proper apology that states the wrongdoing, admits the guilt, and asks for forgiveness. Proper restitution for serious offenses should also include prayer – a prayer for the strength of the Holy Spirit. If we now reflect on this aspect, have our elementary schools not erred in the past, and perhaps are we not even erring now? And by skipping the last two steps, doesn’t discipline automatically become a negative experience?
The discipline in many homes may not be similar to the school’s, but the school cannot change that. School must provide and enforce a fair discipline policy (produced with parental input) in their parent handbooks. Schools could ask parents to sign that discipline policy to have them show their support of it. Yet, if a student continuously breaks the school policy, what can a school do but call a meeting with parents? For is it not the parents that have the divine authority to nurture their children? If the meeting(s) between parents and school do(es) not produce the desired results, what can a school do but suspend or even expel from school?
As a principal, I can assure you that disciplining in a scriptural way is a difficult task. It’s time-consuming. It seems to interfere with our lessons. It’s practising self-control to discipline in love. May we not become frustrated with this task of disciplining. Fennema in Nurturing Children in the Lord writes:
Christian teachers should not be overly dismayed or discouraged over the presence of problems within the school. The distinctiveness found within the Christian school is not the absence of problems ... but in the manner in which they are resolved.
Teachers, parents and principals should do all we can to discipline in love. In our Reformed schools, we should work together to have our covenant children recognize that misbehaviour is sin, that it breaks down, and they must seek restitution. Only then can the misbehaviour be “forgiven and forgotten,” and only then can covenant children build one another up.