Sat, 27 Sep 2003

Misperception about school discipline

Simon Marcus Gower, Executive Principal, High/Scope Indonesia, Jakarta

The issue of discipline in schools in Indonesia is often contentious and it seems discipline is often misconceived and misperceptions exist to the point where, what some would construe as discipline in fact ends up being destructive and damaging towards students' willpower and ability to achieve independence of thought and action.

Take the example of a noted, long established and apparently respected school in Jakarta. This school, it seems, has built its reputation on having strict policies regarding disciplinary matters. So strict, in fact, that even parents of students within the school can fall victim to its excesses. Parents are quite literally treated with disdain by the school. Should a parent wish to see the principal of the school such a request is flatly rejected. The parent will simply be told that the Principal will only see parents when he feels it is necessary; that is -- when he summons them.

At another apparently respected school the new students arriving for their new academic year face a barrage of speeches from teachers all designed to emphatically establish that the school has strict rules and there are severe punishments for any rule-breakers. The conclusion of these speeches came from the Headmistress who warned that if any of the new students did not like the rules and punishments outlined to them, they should "leave now and never come back." It seems that none of the students left the hall at that time, doubtless they were cowering in fear in the face of the harsh presentations before them.

It is understandable that new students would be passive and submissive, but one may well question why adult parents would see fit to accept the excessive demands of an overly bureaucratic and dictatorial school administration. However, the answer to this question may lie within the parents' own perceptions of the school. For many of these parents a school that literally bosses them around is, in effect, symbolizing for them the strength of discipline that the school will apply. In this way, parents will quite meagerly and meekly accept heavy handed conduct that borders on disdain and contempt.

The meek acceptance is, though, unfortunate because of the way in which they are being treated. This treatment represents an arrogant, ignorant and even unprofessional disregard for one of the potential key ingredients in any child's education -- namely their parents or guardians. Treating either parents or child with this degree of contempt is not representative of discipline. In fact, it represents a complete misconception of discipline. Sadly many parents and their children would believe it to be a form of discipline. Parents might think that they are exposing their children to good examples of disciplined people, however quite the contrary may be seen to be true.

A society, or community, is likely to be most at ease with itself when it treats each member of the society with respect. Respect for individuals as human beings; not just treating them as numbers or objects that have to be dealt with and accommodated. Where there is a lack of mutual respect, friction and conflict may easily arise; something sadly that Indonesia is all too familiar with recently.

Schools, then, have a duty to teach and educate about such respect and regard for others but where schools treat their pupils, and parents, with contempt they are guilty of a kind of organizational tyranny that is counterproductive. It is the opposite of respect, regard and, importantly, true discipline.

Discipline to be effective has to be internalized. It cannot be something that is constantly imposed and forced from outside. When discipline is truly learnt it has become self-discipline. The child or student has come to internalize discipline so that he or she recognizes that there is a shared duty of care, respect and trust towards others.

True discipline is about constraint but a constraint that is chosen by the self rather than being forced by another. In this sense it becomes a personal trait, a virtue that allows the individual and the group/society to remain free.

But too many schools misconstrue discipline as a demand or command that they must make of their students. They see discipline not as a virtue but as a form of control and power that they are able to claim and force upon their subjected students. Students, then, come to see discipline not as a virtue and something positive for them to possess but as a painful, often harsh force that denies them freedom and creates highly negative sentiments.

Schools have a duty of care to ensure that students are treated as people not as an animal, machine or thing that must be ruthlessly controlled and become the victim of discipline. Sadly, though, misperception about discipline is widespread.

Take the example of parents of an apparently very naughty Jakarta junior high student. After sending him to three different schools they arrived at a fourth requesting that this "more strict" school impose its "strong discipline". They had apparently given up on their own parental efforts to "control" the boy and so were willing to hand-over the duty entirely to the school; which runs rather more of a tyrannical than disciplined system.

Consequently this student has remained unruly. He continues to rebel against the notion of discipline because it remains a foreign concept to him. It remains something that others impose and demand obedience for, rather than something that he can see is best for him and for those around him. Indeed the moral concept of discipline as something for the "greater good", (the shared benefit), is something that many schools fail to comprehend and teach.

Education has to acknowledge the dignity and rights of each person and develop them within the schooling community; so that common and individual characteristics are allowed to grow and blossom. But schools are partners in this process. The formative experience of school life should go hand-in-hand with family life. Discipline that is internalized and so becomes self- discipline comes from both learning experiences in the home as well as the school.

Schools in Indonesia need to grow to foster a sense of inclusion in the concept of discipline. Inclusion that appeals to the students' sense of self-worth. Trust is part of this process; students need to trust themselves and others. But other significant factors include initiative, integrity and a sense of security.

Discipline in Indonesian schools cannot go on being thought of simplistically as a process of forcing "subordinates" to obey and conform. Greater parity and respect for the person will allow self-discipline to emerge that is true and lasting discipline. With such internalized discipline students may go on to adulthood with greater self-control which would, in turn, eliminate the kinds of anti-social and destructive behavior that has so blighted recent Indonesian times.