Successive governments have tended to downplay the snowball effect of school indiscipline until it recently acquired a loud resonance through an outpouring of attention-grabbing misbehaviour which vexed the entire nation and swamped the national conscience. The recent teacher-undressing episode in a secondary school, peppered with words mired in screeching vulgarity, shattered all previous standards of decorum and propriety. The incident left the teacher blushing crimson with humiliation and a feeling of insecurity and vulnerability. Like a tumour, school indiscipline has been worsening over the years in some areas and infecting others to the extent of becoming a defining feature of school life.
Against such a backdrop, the appointment of Discipline Masters (DMs) in schools is a welcome move in that it acknowledges the pervasiveness of school indiscipline in primary and secondary schools, both in frequency and gravity. It also shows the Ministry’s resolve to address the issue before it spins irretrievably beyond control. So far, cases of indiscipline have been wrapped in a veil of silence, preferring to speak only in whispers and hushed tones. For every whistle-blower, there were scores of naysayers who all roared denials, as if reading from the same teleprompter.
Now that the necessary stomach has been developed to admit the existence of the disease, a small shoot of hope has started burgeoning through the proposed recruitment of DMs. However laudable such a decision may appear, the appointment of DMs in itself offers no panacea to all the indiscipline problems plaguing our educational institutions. To assume otherwise would be as futile as whistling in the wind. Indeed, there is a multiplicity of factors, both inside and outside of the school, that coagulate to feed the decline which cannot be arrested from within the confines of the school alone. Corrective measures should be rooted in an analysis of the factors that impinge on the school atmosphere, namely:
- Changing the appellation of DISCIPLINE Master.
Since the school landscape and student profiles have changed considerably over the years, the present appellation conjugates oddly with today’s tenet of a school discipline landscape. These days, the approach calls for a restorative practice to improve the school emotional atmosphere beyond mere management of offenses and their consequences.
b. Young and frail enough to pose as victims, but strong enough to create havoc.
The few miscreants at school are generally the very ones that view their home atmosphere as oppressive and unbearable, and the school as a symbol of alienation and humiliation from regular punishment and academic failure. The admiration, reverence and respect that reverberated with parents and teachers in yesteryears have now been defiled and replaced by vehement defiance. Such deviant behaviour may, however, be symptomatic of deeper family, school and environmental issues whereby students feel their dreams are being lynched, their self-esteem and self-image chiselled. In such a seemingly tortured relationship, the term Discipline Master is bound to be viewed as an additional feather on the already over-feathered cap of oppression and alienation. The likelihood of habitual miscreants becoming hardened enough to group together and develop a pack mentality is real. That may result in an assortment of unpalatable possibilities, as witnessed in innumerable recent incidents at bus stations.
Students should also be made to realise that doing wrong, and suffering for it, is what justice is all about. The Office of the Ombudsperson for Children should make the necessary effort to shed its image of a children-pampering incubator by also highlighting children’s rights and responsibilities.
- Schools’ Multiple Functions
The exam-centric approach has so far failed to provide our schools with the required flexibility to develop the necessary intellectual, social and emotional glow which are the logical outcomes of successful teaching and healthy human relationships. However, in an over-crowded and pedagogically unmanageable class, slow and unmotivated learners are left trailing. Such a situation creates a fertile space for even well-behaved grade 7 students’ initial docility to evaporate progressively in the course of their secondary schooling: at the outset, grade 7 students are generally well-behaved and docile, then they become restless, disruptive, disengaged, aggressive and finally anti-social by the time they leave secondary school.
To motivate even disengaged students, the system should offer meaningful academic involvement and self-directed learning, leading to greater ownership in school transactions. Such an approach inevitably prepares them to work in a structured environment. Once they understand the structure, they will be able to work in an unstructured environment with responsibility and confidence.
- Positive Discipline
A positive school culture amounts to a right balance between rehabilitating a misbehaving student and upholding a high standard of discipline which is a vital element of life skills, indispensable to personal life, study and career. Focusing on positive discipline and being supportive of positive behaviours are therefore crucial inasmuch as self-discipline and self-confidence are two key indicators of future success.
The majority of well-behaved students should also be taken on board by acknowledging their good behaviour in the inculcation of school values. Good students should be ‘caught’ doing a particularly good action, be praised for same during morning assembly, their good deed posted on notice board, and mailed to their respective parents to reinforce a positive school image. That should go hand in hand with activities aimed at student empowerment, confidence building, talent development and cementing a sense of belonging to the school.
- Clear Scheme of Service The duties of a DM should, under no circumstance, conjure up visions of a merciless task-master prowling the school premises, ready to pounce on students to administer punishment the ‘hard’ way instead of the ‘heart’ way. They should primarily be a facilitator, a mentor with a ‘healing touch’, whose interactions with students are to be friendly, but not familiar. Their involvement in the organisation of various activities to develop self-confidence and talents in students should make of them a trustworthy, caring and balanced voice in an otherwise seemingly hostile environment. Students are to be given a choice and a voice in school transactions so as to create a greater sense of ownership and control of their mode of behaviour and pace of learning.
- Community Outreach The challenges facing the DM are multiple: student disengagement, growing drop-out rates, truancy, violence, emotionally disturbed students, extreme cases of parental over-indulgence and extreme deprivation of love and attention. To reach out to parents and the community for a handshake relationship among all stakeholders is, therefore, of prime importance in the DM’s attempt to raise the level of student, school and community aspiration.
- Proposed Appellation In view of the DM’s varied responsibilities with regard to students, colleagues, school administration, parents and the community, the term Discipline Master appears to be an oxymoron because the situation in our schools begs for a positive discipline and culturally-responsive practices that lead to improved school climate. A more appropriate appellation would perhaps run something like Student Welfare and Ethics Coordinator (SWEC) in lieu of the present alienating DM.
Mirroring Commitment through Proper Selection Process
The multiple challenges that are likely to dot the DM’s professional journey are reasons enough to ensure that the new recruit is not a young, inexperienced and immature greenhorn appointed through norms that are honoured more in the breach than in the observance.
To do justice to the job, therefore, it is imperative that candidates with proven aptitudes and commitment should be selected from the pool of practicing teachers who reckon at least 12 years of experience. To attract the best candidates, a minimum of 3 increments as well as an appropriate career path should be offered. Their currency of previous experience in pedagogy, class control, student, staff and parent interactions automatically provide them with the best possible ammunition to tackle the delicate problem of school indiscipline. All they may need is a grounding, by way of induction, in psychology, empathy and UNESCO’s 12 Universal Core Values.
Above all, the selection process should not be duplicative of other earlier recruitment exercises carried out with the levity of a comedian through delegation of responsibility by the PSC. Otherwise, it would amount to putting out forest fires with spray bottles, and prove to be yet another good intention going awry.