Discipline and love at schools – Prof Jonathan Jansen

Where there is tough love, there is discipline

In the voluminous published literature in educational research journals, the word “love” hardly appears.

Yet in our recent studies of Schools that work, we found that disadvantaged schools that achieve consistently high results are marked by a strong sense of love.

By love I do not mean some soppy, sentimental, “hug-the-kids” culture – it is a deep sense of care and compassion for the children. Poor schools where pupils achieve high scores in their subjects are not narrowly focused on results – they are also acutely concerned with the humanity of their children.

What we found interesting, though, was the symbiosis that exists between love and discipline.

The discipline is tough.

All children are required to wear uniforms; and they do. Girls’ hair is neatly cut and tied. There are no boys who have long hair, or hanging trousers. There is zero tolerance for late-coming. Gates are closed and opened on time, with no concessions made for latecomers. Lines form to and from classes and pupils enter either a big hall or little classroom in well-ordered streams of bodies.

In this strict disciplinary regime, the roles between teachers and pupils are clearly defined. In the words of one principal: “I do not respect them; they must respect me first, then I respect them.”

Tough? Look at the schools’ results and, more importantly, look at how the children understand that discipline.

In the course of time, the firm disciplinary structures are no longer necessary. Gates in some schools remain open because no one arrives late, or leaves early. In other cases, gates remain closed solely for security reasons.

Once discipline is internalised, the schools tend to be less obvious about the controls they would otherwise apply.

At first glance, the disciplinary measures appear harsh and unyielding – until the pupils express themselves on discipline.

In most cases, the model of discipline is expressed in one or other form as “tough love”. They understand that the principal, or teacher, cares for them. Children who transfer from unruly schools initially find the adjustment tough. Once they see the intensity of teaching and the sacrifices made by the school leadership, however, they become transformed. They see that discipline rests on a foundation of love and commitment to pupils.

The model of care is without bias. The pupils receive equal attention. In Schools that work, teachers and principals not only know every child, they also know their families and siblings who passed through the schools in earlier years. Also, the care extends beyond the classroom, with staff demonstrating an active interest in how pupils fare in athletics and whether, for example, seniors handed in application forms for admission to university.

That all-embracing love is the framework within which the discipline applied is understood. The teachers’ sacrifices – arriving at school early and leaving late – translate into a positive response from pupils when difficulties arise with discipline.

Often, the compassion extends beyond the immediate task of the school – such as the provision of food for hungry pupils and raising bursaries for those who cannot afford to pay the modest school fees. Sometimes, the pupils’ families are even paid visits in their homes – rather than waiting for children and parents to show up at the school – to discuss academic results, or disciplinary problems.

In the said schools, I find the purpose of love is to make discipline easier. Schools that discipline pupils harshly in the absence of a loving, caring culture will find that young people either ignore the disciplinarians, or, worse, retaliate. In other words, there is no context for the application of discipline and it is experienced as an extension of poor children’s realities in gang-infested communities, or broken homes. Where discipline is preceded by and couched in love, children respond positively.

This is the missing variable in the school change literature – love. It will no doubt be an unpopular word for those who believe their role is simply to deliver instruction. Still others will feel that love is what parents do; our role as teachers is to teach.

What makes matters worse is there are no modules I know of in teacher training programmes that speak of the role of love in the education of our youth.

Our research shows that love not only enables discipline, it is also a powerful form of discipline.