Look Into the Discipline Mirror
It wasn’t lost on me that my last blog post, Aiming for Discipline Instead of Punishment, used the word discipline rather freely. This was not a big deal to many of you. For you the title made sense and alerted readers to the content of the post. To others of you with a Choice Theory background, though, the word discipline may have stood out to you. If it did, just know that it stood out to me, too.*
The reason it stood out to us Choice theorists is that, beginning around 1990, William Glasser came to reject the idea of discipline as it was being applied in schools. In fact, he came to the point where he flat out stated that he no longer believed in school discipline programs, including his own.* Yet here I am tossing the word around like that never happened.
Drawing on portions of the Glasser biography – William Glasser: Champion of Choice (2014) – it is clear that he saw discipline programs as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Noting the key elements of Reality Therapy and Choice Theory, and also of the compelling ideas of W. Edwards Deming,* the biography describes how –
In the spirit of Reality Therapy, schools needed to place a high premium on supportive connections; according to Choice Theory schools needed to recognize that an individual is motivated to meet his or her needs in the best possible way at any given moment; and according to Deming, schools needed to relinquish the habit of coercing and forcing students to do school work and behave themselves. So important were these elements, especially the last element, Glasser would write The Quality School wherein he described the importance of managing students without coercion. He would later credit Deming with leading him to write The Quality School. The point is that as a result of these insights he began to disassociate himself from school discipline programs. “I was trying to get people to think in terms of preventing discipline problems,” he later explained, “and if I focused on discipline problems, I, in a sense, would be admitting that they’re going to happen, that they’re inevitable.” pgs. 296, 297
For Glasser, the focus had to be on the system, not on the student. Creative and committed efforts must be put into prevention of misbehavior that doesn’t rely on punishment. In one of his memos to his institute members he wrote that –
I believe that teachers are getting the wrong message: focus on the student’s misbehavior, not on the system. No matter how you do it, when you focus specifically on what a child is doing wrong, instead of putting all your effort into improving your relationship with that child, it is unlikely that the child will ever put you into his or her Quality World. pg. 311
And a short time later he wrote that –
I believe that discipline programs are stimulus-response based and focus on changing students rather than changing the system from stimulus-response to Choice Theory. I believe it is impossible for any school that focuses on discipline to become a Quality School. pg. 314
So now you may see why the word discipline should get our attention.
It is interesting to think about the origin and use of the word discipline. To do so is to look into a special mirror – a mirror that reveals your deepest management beliefs. For instance, you may see the word discipline and quickly think of definitions that hearken back centuries – definitions like penitential chastisement or punishment or treatment that corrects or punishes. Discipline from this definition family has everything to do with manipulating behavior through threats, discomfort, and even pain.
Hearkening back even further, though, is the word disciple, the root from which discipline comes. From this root, discipline is about instruction given, about teaching, and about knowledge. It is about mentoring and training. It is about a relationship and patient tutoring. Discipline, when seen through the lens of this definition family, becomes an act that is personal and supportive.
Discipline = Teaching and Mentoring Built on a Positive Relationship
It may be that your life so far, saturated in stimulus-response ways of being, has you seeing discipline as strategic manipulation, a necessary coercion in a world that operates according to external control. But as the two definition families remind us, there is another way. There is a discipline that focuses on relationship, teaching, and mentoring. Which do you want?
* I included this explanation at the end of the Aiming for Discipline post, which I want to say again here – Some of you may be like me and prefer the word management rather than discipline when talking about student behavior. However, the discipline word is the one I see presently being used in the educational literature. It may be that Choice Theory authors can in the future point out the importance of using the word management when referring to classroom behavior.
* Click here to link to a quick overview of what used to be Glasser’s Ten Step Discipline Model.
* Click here to access Deming’s 14 Management Points.
I just hope, Jim, that there can be such a thing as “supportive management” or something similar. I love the old word and its meaning but it got so misused that our understanding of it changed–it strayed far from its own definition! This is a terrific piece; thank you for writing it.