This is a thought piece about a simple word in education, a word I take issue with… obedience.
This may be click bait… but I am not out to tie a burning straw man to a pole on this one. It is an important topic. In fact right now the concept of obedience is one of the most important topics out there.
I do not want every child to be obedient. In fact I would question what kind of society we would have if obedience reigned supreme? Let’s all obey Trump – no questions asked, in fact lets imagine he is never opposed? This is a pretty dangerous road to travel but I think it has much to explore.
I do believe that every child needs to understand the commitment and sacrifice that education demands. I do believe in respect and the rule of law. I believe that teachers should be able to teach and students should be able to learn. I have no issue with detentions… if the place in which we work or play is clear about the rules and they are easy to understand and fair I feel that this is a great grounding in life. I also believe that rules should be questioned, always, and broken sometimes and we go through life trying to work out which rules they are. I only need to reference the suffragettes or the human rights movement to prove my point. I think you can still function in a law abiding society without blind obedience to some form of authority – though I am not naive enough to think it is easy.
I also believe that life is something that happens as we deal with our mistakes. Therefore, consequences are one of life’s great lessons but obedience is a choice we make in response to a direct order from another individual (sometimes representing a higher order). That person in usually in authority and tells you to do something and you do it. So, obedience involves hierarchy and power. I have never personally witnessed a teacher who has lost control or power over behaviour. I have seen the barriers they have to over come but in my experience schools have always had the strongest hand and continue to do so. I believe that teachers have something much stronger than a right for a compliance to obedience. They develop respect and moral authority. This can be abused but in most cases, in the schools I have worked in, it never is.
I have an issue with the way obedience can used to get children to be compliant.
When I worked in Tower Hamlets (more than 15 years ago) a child protection discloser came in. Four very nervous children disclosed to a Learning Mentor that they had been beaten the night before, at a evening Koran reading class. As deputy I spoke to one boy who was said to have got the worst of it. I knew him well, he was in my class for a second year. He had very severe eczema. The children had told us how they were beaten in certain places. K had been beaten on his feet, and when I spoke to him his shoes were damp with blood. He slowly and painfully took off his socks at my request. His eczema inflamed and bleeding. He could hardly walk and yet he did, even though the pain was terrible. He was 10 years old.
By the end of the day twenty two boys had come forward to say they had received beatings and humiliations from a ‘pop up’ reading school on the local estate. Some only once but a few were constantly hurt. One child had keys held against his face whilst the so-called teacher karate kicked them and another had to crouch in the corner of the room with a broom handle slid over his neck and between his elbows… He would often have pig or cow written in chalk across his shaved head. He had special educational needs and was a complex boy. One of my proudest teaching feats was supporting him to get a solid level 3 in writing in two years from a level 1 in Y5. It was about investing time and effort. A lot of time and effort. He may never set the world alight with a Booker prize for writing but I do not regret a single moment.
When I talked to the boys I asked them what caused the violence towards them.
“Getting things wrong…”
“When we are naughty…”
I was struck by, “When we are naughty…” Why be naughty when you know how severe the punishment will be? Why does this not stop certain children from doing something that will result is such extreme punishment? Why is it that children would choose to misbehave when the consequences are so severe? Why is it that others only got punished once? Why did they not learn after one misdemeanour? If misbehaving is a choice children make… why make it? If children would play class clown or throw a paper ball when the consequence is a beating to your fragile feet… what deterrent could any state school offer in the modern era?
Maybe a personal motivation to learn would be more powerful? That takes real effort and time though. Something I am not pretending I have all the answers to. We know that some children will forever push at the boundaries of the rules and some will just simply step over them. The concept of obedience to even basic rules do not seem to work for some, in the same way they do for the majority. In fact why have the word obedience in a school setting when the vast majority are totally able to function within the rule system they are in? They do not need to be told to obey the rules because they understand how society is set up and their place within it. The others would very likely learn little from detentions – they may learn other stuff though. They will most likely be repeat offenders until we slowly watch them drop out of of education. They are the type that brazenly and easily ignore the rules, burn their bridges and defy authority… for some the idea of obedience is like a bull to a red rag. We could just give up on them I suppose; I tried but they wouldn’t conform… or we could try to see if there is a different way to get them to work within the system. Can we make a success of this person despite the odds? This is a question I keep asking whenever I deal with behaviour. I know a big part of the answer is in the development of a sense of worth in individuals. A sense of direction and having a more certain future. I am not sure that schools are the best place to do this – not in the current climate.
February 5, 2017 at 10:52 am
You make some good and moving arguments. But seriously, schools that make clear the boundaries of behavior and tie those boundaries to appropriate reasoning and language – moral, social, personal. etc. – generally do not get this wrong. When we stop focusing on a child’s potential to learn, grow, demonstrate behavior that ranges from appropriate at the minimum to that of a global leader at best, then we’ve lost perspective.
The U.K. has a problem in schools now with behavior that is so extreme, in many contexts, schools don’t know how to inspire respect in kids…for self, others, property or learning. Some of that is to be expected. Much is OTT. So this small to medium no of students controls the situation in classes and 2/3 of a class goes through the process of suffering unduly and underachieving because so many schools are caught between a rock and a hard place and don’t have appropriate levels of counselling or professional pastoral support. Meanwhile the world over employs trained psychologists full time in schools.
There is an unwillingness to fund alternatives for extremely disturbed or disturbing children. All too often they are sanctioned, spoken to, returned to the class with nothing more done than time out. Nothing changes for them.
I as a long term supply teacher saw this over and over again and now in an international school, I see students who are promptly held to account. If they don’t comply, they are put on the path to expulsion. This is vetted by lots of support first, of course, and I mean a year’s worth of parental communication and attempts to get parents to help. This may involve interventions if a child is abused but students know where the line is. In the U.K. the line is never made clear except in good schools and good districts.
Discipline is not a dirty word. The intention behind it is perhaps in need of clarification. If it sets off bad connotations perhaps it should be reframed as self mastery. Look at the world over. The U.K. has a way to go in getting student achievement to be at an acceptable level. Motivation is needed. Love is needed. Great teaching is needed. Discipline for to sake of learning in a classroom and at home is needed. Or we can call it commitment or focus. But let’s not get so politically correct we lose the true meaning of what in the 21st Century anyone of right mind means by discipline.
The U.K. has huge safeguards to protect children. Self discipline isn’t an evil. Teachers model it, can teach it and the language can develop positive connotations with success. What you describe is abuse. It’s different from discipline.
February 6, 2017 at 1:26 pm
Hi Lisa… I agree I did describe abuse in this instance but it was obedience that allowed it to happen in the first place. Abuse is what can happen if obedience runs unchecked.
February 6, 2017 at 7:14 pm
I was pleased to read your blog and the issues raised. As Lisa portrays so very well, many schools get it right, but I offer the following example to highlight where some get it wrong, both through my professional experience and the anecdote I offer here. A friend of mine had worked in the private sector for over 15 years, he retrained as a teacher and at his first school; he was astounded on how the leadership team in one school poorly managed discipline (he soon moved on to another school). He related what he witnessed to the real world of work (where obviously remuneration requires a certain level of complicity anyway) and made the following observations:
In any formal and structured setting (work setting or educational) there is a requirement for rules, leadership and clear lines of communication and responsibility. One of the main issues he witnessed was the inconsistency in the way rules were applied, from one child to the next and from one teacher to the next. If there is no consistency to the adherence to the rules, then there are no rules (and in the work place no jobs)! The same applies in the the way consequences are used or not, this too was inconsistent and sometimes influenced by how difficult the parents were too. All schools have a code of conduct and a set of disciplinary rules, but the relationship between teachers and pupils is becoming more inconsistent as teachers fewer teachers stay in one post for more than 18 months and are often asked to move around the school to cover here and there. Occasionally off with stress too (not surprisingly) and according to “The Guardian” 4 in 10 teachers quite within thier first year. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/31/four-in-10-new-teachers-quit-within-a-year. I know it is not rocket science but, mutual respect, a clear set of rules and consistency comes from the trust and sense of well being children have in the classroom. If children feel uneasy or even threatened then they will find ways to protect and defend themselves, and often end up taking the blame for someone else’s outburst. After feeling isolated in the classroom, they are sent to isolation!? Is this the best way to help them improve thier social standing and responsibilities to each other?
I would suggest that the use of the word “Obedience” implies a requirement to be unquestioningly subservient, in the same way you might take a Dog obedience training, which I think is what you are partly implying in your blog as unacceptable. This would rightly suppress any desire to challenge an idea, think creatively or press your on point of view. But that may be me being a little simplistic. As the issues around managing behaviour in schools today is much more complicated than it was many years ago. A superficial world has grown up around our youth, it is a creeping cloak, conspiring to obstruct young people from having to mentally and patiently process and manage the more difficult tasks of social interaction. They often live thier lives like an open book on social media, with no where to retreat to. Their learnt behaviours are not born of the more organic experiences of self managing stresses, but from instantaneous responses based on thier want it get it now, have it now, The Amazon child.
It is important for children to understand that to be part of a community you have to comply with a common set of rules, and as I am sure you are well aware, all children like to know what the parameters and that the person in charge can appropriately and consistently apply the rules and consequences. Sadly this can be sometimes undermined by the lack of consistency and parental support for the schools approach to dealing with behaviour and disengagement.
But, I should add that children also need to challenge thier borders, and sometimes thier position. It’s a bit primal, but a big part of the learning process. I personally witnessed another example of where the rules went wrong: A 10 year old was engaged on one of my youth programmes, he was angry and vulnerable, his parents had split up and he was being used as a pawn between the two. He developed his own coping stratergies as he was seen as the bad boy in school. Whenever he started to get into trouble at school he would deploy his fast exit plan as follows: 1/ Throw someone else’s lunch box across the Dinning Hall. 2/ Gain as much attention as possible to show how angry he was with the way his parents were treating him. 3/ Be force-ably removed from the Dining Hall and taken to the head teachers office 4/ Throw things around in the head teachers office, causing the head teacher to call his mother. 5/ Mother arrives, duly summoned, is spoken to by the head teacher, is taken to the Car, receives a hug, is taken home to have some Crisps and Coke and Telly to calm him down and keep him quiet, return, react, repeat BOOM! I wonder if it would work for me?
As a father of two, my wife and I have always determined to be consistent and to ensure that appropriate consequences are applied as our children have learnt from a young age. They are now both in thier teens and our work is done in this area. They never need to be reminded of the consequences and at the same time I would say we do not wish them to be obedient (we have a dog for that) as illustrated and both are confident and becoming more life skills competent as they mature. No bed of roses though of course! as a parent you are dealing with teen biochemical warfare and as with all teens a certain level of turbulence. Which I think is a good thing, as learning to self manage and deal with the dramatic pubescent changes and challenges is part of growing up and the need to learn to be understanding, patient and also resilient is one of life’s essential elements. Sadly this is not the case with the way some children are reacted too when they need to explode or test the boundaries. This is often where things go wrong, and when mismanaged, misunderstood a disaffected youth you will have! I have learnt so much from my children and my work, both have taught me to be fair, patient and consistent.
My aim in life is to change the lives of as many disaffected youth for the better as possible, and I have been privileged enough to be able to do just that. Why? because I was once a very vulnerable and disaffect youth. I did not finish my education and left school at 15 ” so that explains my spelling and grammar!
I hope I have been able to contribute to the debate . . Simon
February 7, 2017 at 9:05 pm
Firstly, thank you for such a comprehensive reply…
I am reading through and responding to certain points.
Agree the consistency and seemingly disproportionate use of the rules must frustrate many teachers. I have spent over 20 years in education and can say that applying the same rules to ALL children is one of the great challenges. No two children are the same, no two circumstances are exactly the same… there is a danger that consistent application of the rules without review could discriminate against some children. Especially SEN children. That’s not to say it should not be done but we have to understand the repercussions this will have for some children. I still believe in the natural progression of your actions and the consequences… if you leave your bike out in the rain it will get rusty. If you mess around in lessons you impact upon your education… you also impact upon others and they don’t want that – therefore the consequences should be proportionate – why are you in this lesson when your behaviour is not responsible to learning. It is the conversation that interests me… though I am very tired and have not thought this through as much as I would like.
February 5, 2017 at 11:00 am
Excuse me. I substituted the word discipline for obedience. I’m writing on my tiny iPhone. Obedience is language that connotes the same overblown fears of rules by those who can’t or who refuse to look at the real function and reasons for obedience. If we can contextaluze the word, its negativity disappears. That is my point. There are times you should obey the rules. It’s daft to pretend there aren’t. Yes, it’s a form of social order. What are we doing if we don’t teach kids when to obey and how to APPROPRIATELY dissent?
February 5, 2017 at 11:02 am
Wow, thanks Lisa. Will re-read and digest.
February 5, 2017 at 3:18 pm
My take on this is here: Respect: The Oil of Civilisation https://chemistrypoet.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/respect-the-oil-of-civilisation/ – doesn’t use the O word though. As I say in the blogpost, Authority (as defined by society) does generally require compliance (which could be called obedience), and I don’t see how society could operate without this. On the other hand, mutual respect is the flip-side of obedience. Where there is disagreement then there does need to be a mechanism where this disagreement can be explored (although this is likley to be at a time after compliance has been offered). I do not see that obedience inevitably leads to dupes, or tyranny – if balanced with respect.
February 5, 2017 at 3:32 pm
Thanks Chemistry! Will take a read.
February 5, 2017 at 3:36 pm
Many confuse respect & obedience with fear & subservience. Children should respect & obey but not fear & be subservient.
February 7, 2017 at 9:14 pm
I agree. As in https://julietgreen.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/do-not-teach-them-to-comply/
Apologies for invoking the ‘M’ word.