Discipline in the classroom: what, why and how (Updated)

An orderly classroom is a happy classroom! Picture from pixabay.com Licence: CC0

An orderly classroom is a happy classroom! Picture from pixabay.com Licence: CC0

Love, relationships and discipline in the classroom

It is at once disappointing and encouraging to discover that someone else has written a very similar article to the one you’ve been working on in silence. Disappointing because it means that as you’re not going to be first to publish, people might think you a copycat. Encouraging because it means that at least one other person shares your views and concerns. I’ve always believed that if holding particular views is a symptom of insanity, it’s comforting to know that you’re not alone!

I mention all this because while I was mentally writing the article you’re about to read (I hope), Andrew Old published one that expresses similar views. It’s an excellent blog post about noise citing research and experience to support his preference for making silence the default state in the classroom. It’s an excellent article which I thoroughly recommend.

The reason I was going to write something about discipline in the classroom (not just noise) was a recent discussion on Twitter. Unfortunately, I didn’t save the details, but the gist is as follows.

A new teacher tweeted that she was about to take up a position and meet a class of kids for the first time, and that she was feeling quite nervous about the prospect. What followed was a whole lot of comments intended to be useful, but which I think would be anything but.

For example, one person said she should get the relationships with her kids sorted out, and learning would follow.

Someone else advised loving the children.

I think that both comments, while well-meaning, have got things back to front. In my opinion, having a good relationship stems from ensuring the kids learn and achieve in your classroom. As for loving them, sometimes the best kind of love is tough love. Indeed, the teacher who I believe was highly instrumental in ensuring my later success in life was not overtly a particularly loving person. Apart from hardly ever smiling, his form of discipline was brutal in its way. For example, at the end of a three hour exam, with about a minute to go, I whispered to my friend “I’m glad that’s over!”, and my friend replied “Yeah.”

Mr Dale casually walked up to our desks, took a page of each of our exam answers, and tore them up. We never spoke again during an exam.

What is discipline?

I think that the word “discipline” probably conjures up images of a Dickensian character dispensing cruel and unusual punishments in order to derive some sort of sadistic pleasure from doing so. I don’t think of it like that at all. In fact, perhaps a better expression would be “order”, or “rules of conduct”. It has to be clear who is in charge in the classroom.

Why is discipline needed?

Even if a teacher thinks that being pals with the kids is a great idea, he or she still needs them to do what they ask them to. Also, I agree with Andrew Old on the subject of noise, but even if you believe that noise is healthy or even useful, you need to be able to make the class be quiet and not have to struggle to shout louder than them or have a debate about whether they should stop and listen to you. After all, what if there’s a fire alert? You have to be able to give them clear instructions, and make sure they understand them, both of which are pretty hard to do if you’re having to bellow.

This brings me to one of the key reasons that discipline is important. As the adult in the classroom, a big part of the teacher’s job is to provide a safe environment in which the pupils are able to learn. I think that safety in the classroom has a number of dimensions:

  • Being protected from ear damage, headaches or “merely” sheer exhaustion from a constant barrage of noise.

  • Schools and other institutions seem to be designed with extroverts in mind. One of the characteristics of extroverts is that they enjoy having external stimulation -- the more of it the better. Introverts prefer the opposite, and welcome periods of quiet reflection. The classroom needs to recognise and cater for their needs too.

  • Kids need to be physically safe. In my experience, a noisy environment often has the potential to turn into an unsafe environment, with kids leaving their seats or throwing pens or other objects across the room. I don’t know why this should be the case, but it happens. I think it’s a kind of “mission creep”: if noise is ok, and allowed to get louder and louder, then other kinds of behaviour don’t seem out of place. As someone who has taught computing and used education technology, I believe that having a physically safe environment is crucial. Apart from the fact that the last thing you want is a pupil being hurt in some way, you also don’t want expensive equipment being damaged.

  • Pupils need to be able to feel safe to voice opinions or give answers that won’t result in ridicule. Unless the teacher establishes rules for feedback then someone is bound to start shouting “idiot” across the room. It’s happened to me in forums where rules have either not been laid down or not enforced, and it happens on Twitter; it should not happen in the classroom.


I think there are a number of ways in which a new teacher, or a teacher who is new to the school, can establish discipline.

  • The single best piece of advice I read when I was training to be a teacher was “Don’t smile before half-term.” If six weeks sounds a bit too long to go without smiling, then maybe avoid it for only five weeks. I’m serious. Unless you are very fortunate and teach in a school or a country where teachers are respected by default, you will have to earn respect, and quite frankly you probably won’t be able to do that by smiling and being ultra-friendly right from the start. Perhaps a more useful way of thinking about this is that it’s a lot easier to relax your stance once pupils have realised that you’re the boss, than it is to tighten up later.

  • Line the kids up in silence before they enter the room.

  • Make sure they’re dressed properly, for example that ties are not at half-mast.

  • Patricia McLean said on Twitter that she inspected for clean hands.

  • You decide where they sit. I always devised a seating plan because that not only meant that I split up cliques but also that I was able to learn their names more quickly. It also established right from the start that although this was our classroom, I was the one in charge. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that children actually want adults to provide them with boundaries, not try to be their best friend. In any case, you can always relax this rule either temporarily (for group work) or permanently once a relationship has been established.

  • Have a good starter activity. The start of the lesson will either be noisy, unproductive and unconducive to learning, or a great springboard from which learning can take place.

  • Make sure lessons are really interesting. That doesn’t mean telling jokes or doing handstands, but providing the opportunity for interesting activities. There are some ideas in the article called 37 features of outstanding ICT and Computing lessons. (That didn’t refer to ‘outstanding’ in the Ofsted sense, by the way.) When I was training to be a teacher, my first three Economics lessons with a class of 14 year-olds were pretty dreadful because of all the kids not listening and shouting and joking. But in the fourth lesson I put a question on the board: “If the balance of payments always balances, then why do politicians talk about the balance of payments crisis?” We started to have a discussion about that and when a couple of the usual ringleaders of raucous behaviour started hooting, the rest of the class told them to shut up.

When I think back to my own school days, the teachers who helped me the most were not the ones who were just disciplinarians seemingly for the sake of it, or for the sake of a quiet life, but those who established rules and order in the classroom so that we could all learn. At the end of the day, school is for educating people, and one of the foundations of that is surely the establishment of discipline in the classroom.