Q. I am just starting out on a teaching career, somewhat intimidated by what experienced teachers tell me of today's discipline problems and the lack of cooperation from parents, either in training kids or in punishing them when misbehavior is reported. My first class will be a second grade in an urban public school. My hope is that if I get them young enough and show enough authority (keeping my qualms to myself), I will set the proper tone and they will pick it up.
Can you suggest some rules for classroom decorum? I want to be fair. But if there is trouble, how do I find out who is really responsible without turning the children into tattletales and getting them into deeper trouble with their peers?
A. According to a wise school director of Miss Manners' acquaintance, a teacher rules through force of personality. Here are some of her suggestions for law enforcement:
All feet belong on the floor at all times.
Personal remarks are never allowed, not even compliments. If you can tell the teacher she is pretty, you could presume it acceptable to mention that a classmate is ugly. If it is all right to point out that a child has nice new shoes, it would seem reasonable to point out that he also has crossed eyes.
Do not debate family values, as in, "My mother says you should hit back." School rules prevail.
You are not allowed to say everything you think; the idea is to learn to think things through first, to sift out what is offensive, irrelevant or otherwise inappropriate.
The idea that a free society permits anything should be squelched immediately, and a lesson be given instead on the meaning of law in a democracy.
When you have permission to leave, leave quietly.
As for crime detection, Miss Manners is told that it is not necessary to use informants because children can easily be persuaded to incriminate themselves. The exercise of letting them do so also serves as protection to the tipster.
First, you round up the suspects and give them a general lecture on the necessity for obeying rules, fairness and so on -- slowly and painfully closing in on the particular infraction. You then question small groups, suggesting that you know a great deal more about what happened than you are ready to share. The weakest of the wrongdoer's cohorts -- they always have cohorts -- will crack and start to blurt out what happened. Before the others can turn on him, you say, "Isn't that brave of him?" thus reshaping his reputation from that of a squirt whom it is safe to attack later to something of a leader himself. The actual leader will have been shown powerless to keep his troops in line, and be a leader no longer.
Miss Manners hopes this will be of use to you as a teacher. If not, she can think of several other lines of work in which you might try it out.