"The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders.... They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company…and are tyrants over their teachers."
This was not a quote from a concerned Darlington parent from today, but from Socrates in the 4th century BC. Humans, it seems, have a habit of overestimating the scale of the rebellion or bad behaviour of any new generation, and always seem to think it’s never happened before.
However, could it be true that in certain areas, in the early years of the 21st century, that in some specific areas it has finally come to be true? For example, in Socrates' final worry - that they are "tyrants over their teachers"?
It’s clear that in some classrooms, and certainly in many state schools, disruptive children are preventing others from working, I believe in a way that they really didn’t 20 years ago.
Here’s an example issue, that of physical contact. I've just talked to my dear friend Richard, who is a schoolteacher in Huddersfield. He is assertive, smart, streetwise and funny. A good teacher, and kids like him. But he tells me that he, like all teachers at his school, sometimes finds keeping order difficult. Why? Try the following conversation:
- “Stephen, I don’t think you should be playing MP3s on your mobile phone in the classroom, you know that’s not allowed. Please give me the phone.”
- “No, you’ll have to get it off me.”
Now Richard can’t do what my teacher would have done, simply reach over, grab the child gently by the wrist, and remove the phone from his hand. Because that’s assault. Detentions are useless because the kids don't turn up. He can send the kid to the head, but he’s already sent 3 this week for similar things. And you can’t really suspend or expel a kid for playing a mobile phone, so what will the head do (even if he did ultimately expel the kid, the school loses funding for every kid expelled)? So he’s stuck. And he’s a good teacher – someone less self-confident wouldn’t ever achieve a sensible lesson in that school.
Now, here’s the question: is it right that we are now so protective against the possibility of corporal punishment – or is it that we really secretly believe that our teachers are all trying to molest our children? – that we preclude any kind of physical contact, even when it’s quite harmless and in the interests of the whole class? And what about other things which have changed in the last 20 years which might affect order and discipline, like the seemingly ever-increasing intervention of parents on the side of the child, rather than that of the teacher?
I'm not talking about the wider issues of the curriculum, teaching standards, academic standards and so on - just whether teachers can keep order or not with the tools they're currently given. I’d be interested in your thoughts.