[An older version of this article was originally published with Totally TaeKwonDo Magazine.]
Ah, the instructor life! Walk into your local well-established school and you’ll find little angels in sharp uniforms lining up quietly, standing in clean, disciplined lines. Every beck and call of the instructor is met with a confident “yes sir!” or “yes ma’am!” What a picture. You think to yourself…I can do this. My children’s class will be the best!
Then you’re in class. Johnny is crying, a snot bubble pulsating with every heave. Jake hit him but you didn’t see, and now he’s on the ground flopping like a fish. Susie is off in the corner refusing to participate. Billy stands amidst it all, bewildered. You stare agape.
What you didn’t realize is that this culture that you observed at the established school was not symptom a child’s natural state. What you saw there at that school was a hard-won culture, cultivated by hard work and strategic planning.
A couple years ago I was hired as chief instructor of a brand new school being built from the ground up. I, too, had this conception of children who, with just a little structure, would behave swimmingly in class. Boy, I was wrong. It was a learning experience, and I learned quick. After a while, I got into a groove. Soon enough the parents of new students would remark at how respectful and disciplined most the students were.
I kept track of what I did during the time. This article is the 8 biggest principles to keep in mind while developing your culture of discipline. Stick with it. One day, you’ll have an excellent kid’s program, too! And those children will learn so much more than if it didn’t have a culture of respect.
1. Be Upfront About Rules and Expectations. I made the mistake of randomly popping some rules onto my students. It doesn’t go over well. They immediately challenge you and point to instances where the rule was obviously not enforced. It is best to be upfront with as many rules as possible so the children know exactly what is expected of them and what will happen if they do not meet those expectations. If you have to change or implement a new rule, make sure you let them know about it and briefly explain why you are implementing it before any possible infractions can occur.
One thing we have done at our dojang is posted a list of basic rules on the counter that divides the lobby and the mat. Anyone sitting in the lobby or coming to bow on the mat can see it.
2. Phrase those Rules Positively. Instead of saying “don’t talk in attention stance,” you should say something like “we stay quiet while in attention stance so we can pay attention to the instructor.” If you tell a rebellious child that he can’t do something, his first impulse will be to prove you wrong. It’s not right for him to do, but if you want to get somewhere with him you have to know how to play the game. In some instances you can even quell misbehavior by explaining that disobedience can result in injury. It’s important that, when you can, you make it clear that the rules (and good behavior) are something that benefits the student. It keeps them safe. They get something out of it.
But sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes explaining what “we” do doesn’t work. At that point you still phrase your correction positively but you do it more directly: “stay quiet in attention stance.” If the infraction comes from someone who repeats this behavior often, you should skip the “we” and immediately stifle the rebellion with a direct command.
3. Be Consistent with Consequences. You can’t favor some kids and not others. With few exceptions, your discipline has to be impartial and consistent. That means you can’t ignore actions that require discipline. Obviously if you didn’t see it you didn’t see it. You can’t help that. But usually you can. And the other kids are watching and taking note. If you don’t act, they will think they can get away with the same thing and will probably start copying right then. The perpetrator will assume the same. And when you correct someone else for the same thing later on, they will certainly point it out to you. This damages your credibility.
Sometimes kids that are typically well-behaved suddenly act up. The reasons are numerous — a buddy joined class, an event proves a new environment, he gets too comfortable in class. You like this kid a lot and can usually count on him, so you are hesitant to correct him. Don’t be. He’s a child like all the others who has done something that requires correction. Speak up and act. You can’t play favorites even if you have favorites.
4. Define and Emphasize the Merits of Being a Leader. Every parent wants his or her kid to be a leader. And most kids do, too. So you must define a leader as “someone who models (does) the right thing.” Encourage your older students to be leaders and help new students to know what to do. Assure them that leaders gain respect and allow themselves to get good things in life. Give considerable praise and recognition to students who show those leadership skills. And I really mean recognize them. Student of the month, applause at the end of class, loud verbal praise during class — whenever and however you can do it. Other kids will look at that and want it.
5. Get the Good Kids to Help You. All instructors have their godsends. I have a core group of kids that just seem to transcend negative peer pressure. They are always listening, polite, and never disobedient or disrespectful. These are the types that you want to employ as your helpers. Explain to them that you’d like them to always model the correct behavior (which the do already). But also ask them to politely remind other students what they should be doing if they are being unruly or inattentive. In return you can reliably point to these students as examples — on and off the mat. (On another note, these are the children you should keep an eye on for grooming into future instructors for your school.)
6. Be Disciplined and Respectful. If you tell your students to leave the equipment alone unless directed, it is prudent not to randomly walk up to your bags and kick them or fiddle with others. These are the same sorts of things you asked your students not to do. If you want your students to exude discipline you yourself have be disciplined.
The principle applies to respect. You might think that because you are the instructor that the only obligation between you and your students is for your students to show you respect. But if you want to be a leader, you have to show them first. This also leaves them without excuse when they are disrespectful or less than courteous to you. Here are several ways to show respect to your students:
- Answering questions seriously.
- Remembering and often using their names.
- Answering to them with sir and ma’am.
- Using Mr. or Ms. with their first or last name.
Most of these habits cause your students to feel more important and grown up, consequently encouraging them to be more mature. It also allows for teachable moments. Apply the golden rule in a unique way. You can really make a child think when you say, “I still call you sir and show you respect,even though I am a black belt and the instructor. How come you can’t do the same for me?”
7. Frequently Use Games and Challenges that Improve Focus. Now when I let the students have a water break, I no longer let them go all at once. I use it as an opportunity to teach or remind the students the proper way of coming out of line (stepping behind the line and running all the way around it, rather than cutting through). This is an important piece of etiquette in Korean martial arts that insures both safety and orderliness. It also reinforces respect toward fellow classmates. If a student mistakenly cuts through the line I either say “is that the proper way?” or I joke that he has just offended the two students closest to him when he cut through.
Every once and a while I will make charyut (attention stance) a challenge. I’ll say “let’s see who can have the most alert attention stance” or “if anyone moves from charyut in the next ten seconds, everyone does 5 push-ups!” Recently I have also started playing “Sabum Says” which is just another way of saying Sensei or Simon Says. This seems to be working well, too.
8. Bias the Culture. Make subtle remarks during class. Make a big deal at the end of class. Mention it casually in conversation. You have to get it into your student’s minds that the only way to be cool and gain clout in the dojang, is to be a disciplined and respectful person. In other words: a leader. Act accordingly. If a student is exhibiting these values, make a huge deal. Make it very clear that the student is cool and someone you should hang around. Slowly but surely the kids begin to say the same things you do. And suddenly, months — maybe years –down the road, you find that you’ve built a culture of discipline.
Children cannot learn in a chaotic environment. They need structure and discipline to not only improve their own self-control but to effectively learn anything at all. It is therefore paramount that an instructor first strives to foster a culture of discipline among his students. In so doing the process of instilling discipline is streamlined and successful education can take place.