‘By doing just actions we become just; by doing the actions of self-mastery we come to be perfected in self-mastery; and by doing brave actions brave [ . . . ] So then, whether we are accustomed this way or that straight from childhood, makes not a small but an important difference, or rather I would say it makes all the difference.’ – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
It takes a school to discipline a child. Good moral habits, like any other habits, can only be formed with repeated practice, and children will not gain the practice necessary if they behave differently in different parts of the school, or with different teachers. Consistency is essential, for practical and for moral reasons.
Doing the right thing needs to be a habit. If you are a polite person, you are in the habit of acting politely. You don’t have to think about such questions as ‘Shall I interrupt this person, or allow them to finish what they are saying?’ or ‘Shall I respond to this person’s points with personal insults, or with reasoned critique?’ Interrupting and insulting are alien to you, because you are in the habit of being polite.
How did you become polite? You weren’t born that way. Small children do not have good manners. They learn them, through the culture in which they mature. If that culture does not exemplify and demand politeness, then they will not get the practice necessary to form the habit. In fact, they will be practising rudeness, not politeness. If they are not reprimanded for interrupting, they will continue to interrupt. If only one adult in their life reprimands them for interrupting, but the rest tolerate it, they will grow up with bad habits.
For good habits to be formed, those in authority over children must act consistently, so that they don’t have to ask themselves how to behave with each adult. This is abundantly clear in schools where there is no consistent culture of good behaviour. Children will behave politely for one member of staff, and rudely for another. In this situation, they are not developing the habit of politeness, because they are not practising it consistently. It’s equivalent to having to give different answers to sums for different teachers. It’s confusing, it’s ineffective, and most importantly, it’s wrong.
It’s wrong because it does not teach children that there is simply a polite way of behaving which should be used in all circumstances. It is not okay to be rude to certain people, when those people are perceived to be weaker, or unable to exert their power over you. It is simply right to be polite, whether to the headteacher, the classroom teacher, the caretaker or the cleaner. Politeness is not something which is only required in relation to the power and position of the person; it is something that is always required.
When there is no consistent school-wide behaviour policy that is centrally determined and enforced by centrally controlled sanctions, children are learning the poisonous lesson that you can mistreat some people, as long as they don’t have the power to make you treat them well. Weaker members of the community can be abused, whether they are less experienced teachers or less popular pupils.
Without a thorough and consistent school-wide discipline system, we are not only allowing bullying, we are promoting it, because we are refusing, in practice, to insist that there is only one right way of treating other people, whoever they are.