Last week, China’s Ministry of Education published a draft of new rules meant to guide elementary, middle, and high school teachers in enforcing classroom discipline, and they included a request for public feedback.
The public required little prodding. On popular microblogging platform Weibo, a related hashtag attracted over 100 million views in just two days as users carried out a lively debate on the rules’ merits.
“A student at our school broke open a security guard’s head, but the teachers only reprimanded him — they could not hit him or implement corporal punishment,” wrote one user. “His parents pretended to criticize him at school, but they continued to spoil him at home, and he was only in third grade. It’s not that the teachers don’t want to educate him, but when teachers can only be monks mumbling lectures, how will that work?”
“I don’t remember any student who received severe corporal punishment changing their ways because of it. In fact, some of them went further off the rails as a result,” wrote another.
The level of authority teachers should have to discipline and punish their students is becoming an increasingly controversial topic in China. This July, a middle school teacher in China’s eastern Shandong province was suspended for beating a pair of truant students with a textbook; she also had her yearly bonus withheld and was placed onto the county’s social credit blacklist. Interestingly, the public generally sided with the teacher, as many believed the penalty was too harsh, and the county education authorities later amended their decision.
In September, however, a draft law in the southern province of Guangdong renewed the debate about what constitutes appropriate punishment by legitimizing practices such as forcing misbehaving students to jog or stand for extended periods.
The MoE’s draft rules, which would govern teacher behavior nationwide, forbid the use of punitive measures such as “hitting and pricking” as well as “being made to stand for an abnormal length of time.” Yet acceptable punishments still include “standing or facing the wall inside the classroom for no longer than the length of one class period” and “requesting parents accompany their children in class.” Although the rules aim to regulate the scale of punishments, they have generally been seen as being pro-discipline, since they empower educators to enforce rules through punitive means.
Why has the question of teacher authority become so contentious? Public acceptance of teachers disciplining students is perhaps higher in China than in many Western countries, the result of a deeply rooted cultural belief that teachers should be respected, no matter what. According to Chinese notions of hierarchy, the status of teachers is higher than that of students, and it is therefore considered normal for the former to discipline the latter — regardless of whether or not the punishment is fair.
But there are signs that public acceptance of teachers’ ultimate authority over their classrooms is beginning to slip. This is partly the result of changing values: More and more Chinese now advocate equality between teachers and students. Teachers no longer have the unconditional right to punish students, and they are increasingly being asked to justify their disciplinary decisions.
At the same time, teachers’ social status has taken a hit over the past few decades, as teacher salaries have lagged behind those in many other sectors. Many parents now earn more than primary and secondary school teachers, and some have taken this fact as license to look down on their children’s teachers and treat them with disdain.
Even many teachers are conscious of the inferiority implied by their low pay and feel as though they are unable to hold their heads high in front of parents — and sometimes even their students. Schools, worried about newly combative parents making trouble, also sometimes choose not to punish students when they break the rules.
This has led some observers to complain that teachers are increasingly “unable, afraid, and unwilling to manage” students. They worry that lax classrooms could lead to students going astray and have called for society to “give teachers back their rulers.”
Opponents of punitive discipline, on the other hand, believe that in most cases students still suffer from classroom power imbalances, as teachers abuse their pupils and hide the full extent of their use of corporal punishment from the public. If teachers’ disciplinary powers are not curbed or changed, they fear, students will end up paying a mental and physical price.
In reality, classroom discipline norms vary greatly between different regions of the country. In urban areas, helicopter parents rarely tolerate teachers reprimanding their children, let alone punishing them, which can make it difficult for teachers to enforce discipline.
But in rural areas and smaller towns — where parents are often absent, working elsewhere — teachers are more apt to abuse disciplinary punishment. Some do so simply to maintain their authority. Since teacher evaluations and pay are closely linked to student test scores, however, many teachers punish students not as a means of regulating students’ behavior, but because their academic performances fail to meet expectations.
These regional differences mean that any centralized rules could pose a number of problems. Capable teachers can often achieve their educational and teaching goals without having to use disciplinary measures. It is primarily in rural areas, where low pay and quality of life issues make it hard to attract talented educators, that punitive discipline regimes prevail. And because the new rules do legitimize punishments as a disciplinary tool, they could be interpreted as an endorsement of ultimately less-than-ideal pedagogical methods.
And even if the new rules are implemented, there’s plenty of doubt as to whether they will be effective in regulating teacher behavior. A number of other laws already prohibit the use of corporal punishment on students, without any seeming effect on the number of abuse stories trickling out through the media. Part of the problem is that there is no clearly designated body responsible for investigating and punishing teachers for misconduct, but the new rules do little to clear up this ambiguity.
Students must learn discipline. Without it, a student becomes a car without brakes: their growth lacking direction and boundaries. Yet the answer to this problem can’t be found in the introduction of official nationwide rules governing what constitutes appropriate punishment.
In other words, discipline should be based on individual circumstances, and teacher autonomy respected. That said, perhaps students can take part in establishing a system that combines both self-discipline and external discipline. For example, teachers and students could work together to outline classroom norms and the consequences for their violation.
Equally important, China must invest more in education, particularly rural education. Only then can it raise the ability and quality of the country’s teaching talent pool. Teacher training programs should also be implemented to press upon teachers the possible consequences of excessive punishment, as well as the need for rethinking how they communicate with and educate their pupils.
Fundamentally solving the problem of classroom discipline will take more than simply rushing forward with a new set of rules after each controversy. Instead, we should seriously promote student and teacher autonomy, advocate increased equality between teachers and students, and raise the quality of teachers.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A teacher demonstrates how to raise one’s hand during a class at a primary school in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Aug. 31, 2019. Wang Jiankang/VCG)