The recent kicking to death of two chickens by matric pupils at a Johannesburg school, and the use of the dead animals to scare other children, has highlighted the urgent need to address school discipline and to find effective ways of dealing with pupil misconduct. The focus of the latest Teachers Upfront seminar, held last week at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education, was on alternative approaches to school discipline.
Describing strategies and practices that can enhance discipline in schools, speakers agreed on some fundamental requirements, including the need for school staff to display the behaviour they would like to see in their pupils.
It was agreed that empathy and understanding the background of pupils, as well as fairness and a sense of relationship, are also required for discipline to be effective.
Discipline also necessitates corrective behavioural strategies, otherwise disciplining a pupil will be ineffective and have little impact. Beyond these fundamentals, each speaker argued for a specific approach to discipline.
Dr Thabisile Nkambule of Wits’s school of education called for an approach to discipline in schools that will ensure social justice. She has personal experience of teaching at a school that accommodates children who are not accepted in mainstream schools because they are a threat to other pupils.
Working with these pupils was eye-opening for Nkambule, and refined for her an approach to discipline that she shared with other teachers at the seminar. Fundamental to this approach is that “teachers must always consider the social background of the learners; they should provide behavioural support and model good behaviour”.
Pupils must also be listened to: “We need to engage learners rather than punish them, help them see where they went wrong and think how to rectify their misbehaviour,” she said.
Teachers must involve the community in order to intervene effectively in discipline problems, Nkambule said.
“Sometimes parents don’t understand the issues we are experiencing. Identify adults in the community who are respected and use them to help you address issues of discipline.”
In time, pupils who have misbehaved and rectified their behaviour should be encouraged to become role models in their school, she observed.
Parvathy Naidoo of the education faculty at the University of Johannesburg emphasised the need for inclusion and collaboration in school discipline. “Discipline is not only the teachers’ responsibility – it is the responsibility of the entire school staff,” she said.
“A shared understanding of management issues, curriculum planning and learner discipline is required by all stakeholders,” Naidoo said. “That is: learners, teachers, the school management team, the school community and the school governing body.”
A school’s code of conduct should be drawn up in a collective process, include the desired outcomes of positive behaviour, and communicate the boundaries of a secure and conducive learning environment.
“In turn, teachers and learners should together draw up a classroom boundary agreement that includes the desired classroom behaviour and rules that learners must adhere to at all times. In addition, positive recognition and rewards that learners will receive for adhering to the rules should be explicitly outlined, together with clear consequences when learners choose not to follow the rules,” said Naidoo.
Anne Baker, deputy director of the Catholic Institute of Education, argued for restorative justice practices in schools, an approach that “moves schools from a punitive way of dealing with wrongdoers to assisting them to become accountable for their actions and enabling them to put things right”.
“This strengthens relationships among members of school communities, helping schools to become places of peace that nurture learners and staff alike and build the social capital we need,” she said.
The restorative justice approach originated in the New Zealand Maori community’s traditional way of dealing with young offenders and reintegrating them into the community. It has moved into the justice system across many countries and has become a positive part of changing the way schools discipline children and young people.
In the United States, it is being used to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Most discipline methods as we know them diminish both the offender and the one applying the discipline,” said Baker. “So how can we enable conversations to take place differently and be restorative rather than retributive?”
Although restorative justice asks how to punish the offender, it also asks how to restore the wellbeing of the victim, the community and the offender. It is not a quick or easy approach, and involves a process and a lot of personal work – but, Baker said, teachers respond well to it and learn to ask restorative questions when things go wrong.
Conflict as opportunity
Seeing conflict as an opportunity to promote a different type of development is key to the work. In order to support schools in implementing restorative justice practices, the Catholic Institute of Education has developed resources that teachers and principals can use.
The seminar audience included many teachers who agreed that much of what is going on in South African classrooms today is about discipline and regulating behaviour. They described what they could implement in their classes immediately, including a commitment to showing more empathy, acknow-ledging pupils who are doing the right things and fostering children who learn from mistakes, who are accountable and who can be healed and forgiven.
One principal said: “I like the restorative approaches shared and how they promote conversations with the learners. I particularly like the idea of saying to a learner: ‘Tell me what happened, in your own words.’ To me, that seems like a positive and calm start for a dialogue.”
But ensuring that alternative approaches to discipline are more widely taken up in the system requires supportive interventions.
Naidoo recommended that secondary school principals be exposed to a more specialised and ongoing form of professional development, where the focus includes discipline strategies to address both serious and less serious pupil misconduct.
She said school leadership development programmes, such as the current professional qualification known as the advanced certificate in education on school leadership and management, could be strengthened by including a focus on assertive discipline.
Barbara Dale-Jones is chief executive of the Bridge education network. The Teachers Upfront series of seminars is hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of Witwatersrand’s school of education and the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education