Discipline and motivation are the staples of our life, the ever-present topic of any educational discussion. I used to treat them in a very simple way. One, I have never had any discipline problems, or if there were some I could always cope. Two, motivation was not an issue since I could always learn what a student needed and create an individualized approach. Throughout my 25 years of work with all ages and levels I have never come across situations where the students were so different from any school children I had to deal with previously that several completely new strategies were needed. Step one for me was communication with colleagues. I received various information which could be summed up into two main trends.
A very talented colleague of mine recently left her much-beloved job at school and found a position at once of the city’s universities. She shared her story with us EL teachers, and it turned out that many of us had a similar experience. She had been teaching the same three classes since their second year of school; now they were all seniors. Suddenly several new pupils were introduced into her classes, all of them orphans living in the state asylum house. Actually it turned out that they were the so-called social orphans: their parents were either in prison or drug addicts or simply abandoned them in infancy. Once she started her very first lesson the newcomers up and told her they had never had any lessons conducted in English before; all the work was done in Russian. They had never seen such textbooks; their teachers never used ICT in the classroom; their caregivers did not know any foreign language and could not help with the homework. Add to it the fact that by some long-forgotten bureaucrats’ regulations for such state-run institutions, the children for instance never do their laundry, never cook, never clean up the dormitory and generally do nothing much for themselves, and you can imagine their outlook at life. They are provided with all the necessities of life and taken out on school breaks to some very good camps, something which many families cannot afford. Basically all they know, sadly, is that someone is supposed to give them everything and to solve all their problems. It is a topic much discussed in the press, and a lot is being done to change the situation and to better prepare the children for independent adult life.
My colleague spent the weekend drawing out a plan which she presented to the school headmaster. She suggested that two separate groups are formed, one consisting of her own students, the other solely of newcomers. She outlined a number of measures, offered to work out individualized lessons so that the new children could raise their level and later become members of the other groups. Her request was denied: the headmaster insisted that the new students must be integrated at once, and scolded her for trying to separate the orphans from the family children. She struggled during the first term, by the end of which all the teens began to remonstrate and to act out during the lessons. All the students were frustrated and the parents were angry. The teacher realized that she was beating her head against the wall – and resigned because, she said, her own family life suffered too. She said she knew that she could help all the children regardless of their family situation if only she was given a chance.
I shared a different story. A few years ago I met a high school headmistress and visited her school. There were about five hundred students total there; forty of them, all either real or social orphans, lived in the adjacent ward. As per state regulations there was a whole staff of caregivers: the director, the nurse, the cook, the janitor, even the psychiatrist. The headmistress began by getting together the parents’ committee. They discussed the upcoming academic year and worked out several strategies. The new children were arranged into several small groups and signed into different classes; their friendships and preferences were taken into account. The headmistress held a special meetings with them at which she told them about the school, about their new classes and about a few special arrangements awaiting them. She gave the children what was to become their first lesson of real life: to wit, she taught them to brew tea – and to wash their socks. After the regular lessons, by agreement with the participating families, all the orphans went to visit with the families. They formed friendships, did their homework together with the new friends, and picked up many skills which were natural for children living in families, like washing up the dishes and generally cleaning up after themselves. It took a while to persuade the dormitory staff that “the poor orphans” aged 14-16 could very well learn how to perform a few simple chores. Once all the children and the adults managed to find a certain rhythm and to work together, the real integration started. Everybody was so busy there was no time left for misbehavior.
To reiterate: I have never had any discipline problems in my classes, be it primary school kids or adult university students. Partly it is due to the fact that I find many things normal, like young kids laughing uproariously or teenagers sulking inexplicably. Partly it is my own confidence and my attitude which translates itself into any audience I face: I am here to teach you; I am happy to see you – and you are happy to see me. It works. Every year I would get a few new students, same as any teacher. The first thing I do is conduct some sort of test to understand what I have to deal with. Is it a very good student or indeed a student whose teachers had never conducted their lessons in English?? Can the newcomers become part of the traditional process, become integrated at once, or do they need some time to adjust? Then I would work out a few individualized tasks if needed. It is not necessary to deliver curtain lectures or to try and make them all imbibe the new knowledge. Once we find the key to each child’s personality we can help them integrate, become part of the educational process. Barring serious psychological or mental problems, I believe any teacher can manage to solve the eternal discipline problems.
Nina MK, Ph.D.