You can (pretentiously) group classroom discipline problems under two headings: The Problem of Political Authority and The Phenomenology of Knowledge.
The Problem of Political Authority- Why should we do what the teacher says?
The Problem of Political Authority is what occurs to an observer, let’s say the assistant principal, when she walks into a classroom where all the kids are yelling at each other, three kids are out of their seats staring out of the window, somebody’s eating, and somebody’s crying. Why doesn’t the teacher do something? Don’t they have any respect?
Teachers are quite limited in the formal means offered to them to get kids to do what they want: they can proffer grades or some more tangible sort of reward (popcorn party Fridays!), they can threaten to call parents or to exile kids to an administrator’s room or to the back of the classroom, but they obviously can’t make the kids do anything. Although teachers are often referred to as in loco parentis, this isn’t actually true: a friend of mine teaching in another middle school had a parent of one of her students tell her that she would be coming in to give the kid a spanking in front of his peers– “I called the Health Department, and the law says I’m allowed to give him three claps on his behind,” and though my friend dissuaded the parent from this unwise course of action, it did illustrate how parents are not teachers and school is not home.
So, instead, teachers must rely on implicit authority, the kids’ desire for their approval or fear of their reprisal, or just the tendency, if everyone else is behaving, to go along to get along. (As Education Realist has pointed out, this makes teachers very, very different from police officers.)
For schoolteachers as well as philosophers, the resolution to the Problem depends on assumptions about human nature in the absence of formal constraint. For example, consider these two Old Master paintings of a schoolhouse with a neglectful school master, one describing a Hobbesian view (in the absence of authority, school becomes a darkened pandemonium, a nasty and brutish war of all-against-all, plus a pig) and the other more Rousseauvian and optimistic (while the schoolmaster relaxes with his newspaper, the pupils engage in mingled work and conversation and play, as light and harmless as the sun streaming in through the classroom window.)
There are a number of books for teachers attempting to resolve The Problem of Political Authority. You can try Assertive Discipline (put kids’ names on the board and then put checkmarks next them) or Positive Discipline (make the kids feel good and they won’t misbehave) or the Responsive Classroom (an engaged democracy of learners is just around the corner). Many of these methods are useful, and will make everyone less crazy and miserable if followed with some finesse.
Of course, as James Herndon argues in How to Survive in Your Native Land, to a degree it’s all horseshit, since kids are, by and large, forced to go to school in the first place, even if no one can make them do much once they get there:
If kids in America do not go to school, they can be put in jail. If they are tardy a certain number of times, they may go to jail. If they cut enough, they go to jail. If their parents do not see that they go to school, the parents may be judged unfit and the kids go to jail.
You go to jail. All of the talk about motivation or inspiring kids to learn or innovative courses which are relevant is horseshit. It is horseshit because there is no way to know if students really are interested or not. No matter how bad the school is, it is better than jail. Everyone knows that, and the school knows it especially. A teacher comes into the teachers’ room and says happily, I had the greatest lesson today! and goes on to tell the other envious teachers what it was that they hadn’t thought of themselves and says, The kids were all so excited! It is horseshit. The teacher has forgotten (as I forget) that the kids have to be there or they will go to jail. Perhaps the grand lesson was merely more tolerable than the usual lesson. Perhaps the kids would have rejected both lessons if they could.
That is why the school cannot ever learn anything about its students…As long as you can threaten people, you can’t tell whether or not they really want to do what you are proposing that they do. You can’t tell if they are inspired by it, you can’t tell if they learn anything from it, you can’t tell if they would keep on doing it if you weren’t threatening them.
You cannot tell. You cannot tell if the kids want to come to your class or not. You can’t tell if they are motivated or not. You can’t tell if they learn anything or not. All you can tell is, they’d rather come to your class than go to jail.
The Phenomenology of Knowledge
What is the teacher even talking about?
A considerable number of classroom discipline problems arise not because the teacher is not charismatic enough, or assiduous enough in writing down names and putting checkmarks next to them, or calling homes for good behavior or bad, or engaging the kids in democratic decisionmaking and group process, and not because the students aren’t at least theoretically enthusiastic about learning all that school stuff and making their parents proud, but because the students have no idea what is going on academically in the class at all. This may be a solvable problem, it may not be.
I went to visit the classroom of a young math teacher in Spanish Harlem once– a charismatic guy with incredible drive, who like many of his students, was a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic. He clearly was working like a madman in the classroom and out to make his students love math and learn all the crazy problem solving techniques that the New York State 8th grade test was now testing. Most math teachers wave at “inquiry methods” on their way by and then go back to the old standbys of assigning problems and explaining how to solve them, but this guy put his money where his mouth was and made sure every single lesson involved group problem solving, use of math manipulatives, gradual introduction of new topics in algebraic reasoning by moving from the concrete to the representational to the verbal to the abstract.
An acquaintance ended up student teaching in this guy’s class. She said he was great, the kids were great, they all loved his class, but the class ended up being complete madness half the time, because the kids were on a 3rd or 4th grade level and he was insisting on teaching them what they were supposed, according to the New York State Department of Education, to learn in 8th grade.
Some problems in the Phenomenology of Knowledge can be resolved by going slower, by teaching again what was not understood before, to do as this teacher did and develop carefully planned interactive lessons with a variety of materials. But some problems cannot be; the expectations of the planners of educational programs may just be too far afield, and the rest of us can never catch up.