Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Sunday | January 25, 2009
Home : Commentary
Leadership and indiscipline in schools
Canute S. Thompson, Contributor

Administrators, policy-makers, teachers, parents and the public at large have been struggling to find solutions to the problem of indiscipline in schools. Stabbings, killings, weapons, assaults, fearful teachers and parents and a public in panic (in many areas) are features of life in many school communities.

There are no easy solutions but the option of not continuously searching for solutions is not an option. Perhaps a large part of the problem of not being as successful as we might have been in addressing the problem is that the road to some of the solutions lies in a direction we have been unwilling to go.

In a recent study, conducted among 160 high-school students across Jamaica, drawn from four high schools (two in Kingston and two in rural Jamaica, two unisex and two co-ed) made some findings which, in my view, point to some painstaking solutions that could help to address the problem. These are not magic bullets, but nuggets of essential strategies.

Changing the culture

Deal & Peterson (2003) contend that more often than not, it is a cultural modification that is required to make organisations successful. One of the cultural modifications that seems necessary is responsiveness to the interests and concerns of students. The need for a modification of the internal culture of an organisation is usually driven largely by the existence of an external force. The school is an open system and is subject to the influence of a host of external forces.

The culture of many schools, and the school system generally, tends to place importance on, and give priority to, the interests of teachers and administrators at the expense of students. It is part of the traditional business culture in Jamaica (which is changing somewhat) in which the customer is not given first place and priority consideration in all decisions. Many organisations take decisions based on what is convenient for the staff and the management, not what is in the best interest of the customer - the business's raison d'être. In a similar fashion, the school system often makes decisions based on what suits the Ministry of Education and staff.

In changing the culture of schools, the order or priorities would be reversed, with all decisions taken with the student - the customer - in mind.

In the study referenced above, I found that 36 per cent of the students surveyed strongly disagreed, or were unsure that their principal was interested in their concerns. The percentage actually disagreeing or strongly disagreeing was 22 per cent. The correlation between the variables 'my principal shows interest in my concerns' and 'I respect my principal' was .680.

As I showed in a previous article, published in The Sunday Gleaner, January 11, titled 'Men on the Margins, Why?', boys represented the greater number of students who felt that their principals did not show interest in their concerns.


My suggestion concerning a path to dealing with indiscipline is simple. People tend to be more easily influenced by others whom they respect. Many a man would not use a swear word in the presence of someone whom he holds in high regard. The badly behaving child tends to cool down when approached by someone whom he or she thinks truly cares for him or her, who, very often is someone whom he or she respects.

Many students complain about the fact that teachers don't care for them and in some cases lament the concern and attention shown for and given to others and not to them and as a result, speak disparagingly about those teachers. It is perhaps one of the most basic and overlooked truths that the respect that teachers expect to get from students must be earned. My assertion is that one of the age-old ways to earn that respect is to show concern for students. Therein lies one path to dealing with the indiscipline in our schools.

William Ouchi, who promulgated the management approach called 'Theory Z', (an attempt to go beyond McGregor's 'Theory X Y') found that a significant part of the reason for the success of Japanese companies, vis-à-vis their American counterparts, was the concern for the welfare of workers shown by Japanese managers. The same expectation of concern that adults in industry have, students in school have, and it is my view that a significant part of the explanation for the level or aggression and 'disregard for authority' that many students display is attributable to the feeling, the perception, that nobody cares.

Caring begins with listening

Listening is a forgotten discipline but not listening is inexcusable for leaders. In our school culture students are expected to do the listening. They are the ones who must learn to do so - or so we have been taught. The study I referenced found a correlation of .749 (stronger than the .680 mentioned above) between the variables 'My principal is a good listener' and 'My principal respects me' and a correlation of .693 between the 'I respect my principal' and 'My principal is a good listener.'

(It is important to note that these correlations do not prove that there is a cause and effect relationship between the variables per se, though there might well be one. What they prove is that there is a strong relationship between the two things.)

This finding of students' perception on listening spotlights once again the need for a culture change and what it is pointing to is the fact that listening, as a function of relationships, cannot be a one-directional activity. Effective leaders owe much of their success to the degree to which they listen with genuine interest to the perspectives of those they lead. This notion has been long accepted in industry; it is equally applicable to schools.

But listening must go beyond merely taking note of and giving sensory attention to what others have to say. It must involve a commitment towards action.

Dr Canute Thompson is assistant vice-president at the International University of the Caribbean and has done extensive work in the area of leadership development. He may be reached at canute_thompson@hotmail.com.

Home | Lead Stories | News | Business | Sport | Commentary | Letters | Entertainment | Arts &Leisure | Outlook | In Focus | Auto |