Disciplinary issues in Italian education

The article below is based on an opinion piece submitted by Ann Wand (DPhil) in 2012 to Oxford University’s workshop, ‘Teaching in the field: investigating the ethics of education in ethnographic research’. 



In November 2011, my colleagues and I organised a workshop at Oxford University entitled, ‘Teaching in the Field: Investigating the Ethics of Education in Ethnographic Research.’ Intended to focus on the vast array of obstacles that ethnographers encountered when teaching while conducting fieldwork, the workshop led to a discussion about the ethics of disciplining students while adjusting to cultural norms in a non-Anglo [1] education setting. What ensues is my opinion pertaining to issues of discipline within a non-Anglo context drawn from my first hand experience teaching in an Italian private Catholic school from 2011 to 2012.

Discipline and Education in the Field

As an anthropologist, as well as an English language instructor, teaching English in the Italian-Austrian Alps was a critical component to my fieldwork research. In order to study the education system I needed to work with and amongst Italian Alpine students to see how the local education system created social trends between native Italian- and German-speaking minorities.

For eight months I worked at a combined private middle and high school in Bolzano, Italy. At the beginning of the school term I was told by the principle that I needed to teach middle school English through the local vernacular language as their English proficiency was rather low. What was originally intended to be a low-level English language course evolved into what I would characterise as ‘Italian-ish’ lessons where the students enhanced my Italian while I taught them English. While the lessons themselves were only two days a week, the difficult teaching experience made the classes feel longer. As the instructor, it became increasingly difficult to gain respect and control within the classroom. Additionally, discipline in school was not uniformly supported in the home, which resulted in some students behaving in an unruly manner [2].

In observing the other teachers, I noticed that their manner was much more tactile, verbal and forceful than I was accustomed to from my background in the United States education system. If a student was disruptive, a teacher could act verbally or aggressively towards a pupil without the private school administration interceding. Taking students by the arm was also permissible if a student attempted to hit another student, even in jest.

This forced me as an educator to reflect on how discipline is administered based on cultural context at the private Catholic school where I worked and conducted observations. The absence of a clear school code of conduct [3] meant that teachers could discipline where they felt it necessary. While this might prove positive in some respects, disciplinary measures were left at the responsibility of the teacher rather than equally distributed between the teachers, the parents and the school administration.

Disciplinary Tactics in Italy versus the United States and the United Kingdom

Luigi Leo of the Italian education journal, Nuova Secondaria, asserts that, ‘the school is the only difference between man and animals’ (2011: 16). Although his assessment does reflect a negative assumption towards the Italian scholastic environment, personal observations and conversations with fellow educators in the Italian school system insinuate that Leo may not have been too off the mark.

At the start of term I had difficulties maintaining control of my middle school classes. Students would enter class with loud voices sometimes shouting while getting their items from their school lockers. Once in their seats it took several minutes for their attention to be drawn to the front. Several of my students in my first middle school class were diagnosed with behavioural issues and learning disabilities. Since my Italian was at the most basic level, it was challenging to get their attention, but I noticed the Italian-speaking teachers had similar difficulties with students regardless of my language barrier.

Some parents also had a tendency to deny the possibility that their children might have learning disabilities. One student in particular showed signs of autism, but his parents insisted it was an inner-ear problem. Given these constraints, it was unfeasible to create a sound classroom environment that was devoid of student disruption.

The middle school hallways added another element to student mismanagement. Some teachers would let their students leave class early so they had time to get their books for their next class. The lockers, however, were located in other classrooms. As a result some students, having finished their classes early, would enter my classroom as I was finishing a lesson. Since there were no hall monitors to monitor student behaviour, I was forced to hold my classroom door shut with my hand firmly placed on the doorknob. In one instance the students in the hallway decided to push the door open with me on the other side. This left me with 40 students without any administration available to control the large crowd.

When discussing these issues with the Vice Principle of the middle school her response was rather surprising: teaching middle school is like fighting a battle every week. Your weapons need to be your disciplinary techniques. Consciously aware that there were no written guidelines or recommendations on how to deal with these behavioural issues, I was instructed by other teachers to maintain a firm voice and teach with an iron fist. Many parents, I was told, had left disciplinary responsibilities to the administration and the educational school system. As a teacher working at a private Catholic school, I soon learned that it was assumed by many parents that proper punishment would be distributed accordingly by the teachers and administration once the children were in an academic setting.

In addition, I was informed by one colleague that students in the high school, who were a bi-product of the middle school environment, had in the previous year launched miniature campaigns to protect what they perceived as their personal rights in response to a drug search at their school. At the sight of police dogs, the students insinuated that the drug search was a violation of their ‘right to privacy’. This suggests that while on the one hand, parents were relying on the education system to discipline their children accordingly, some students were
asserting a ‘right’ to complain and a ‘right’ to avoid work, rather than a ‘right’ to focus on their responsibilities.

As a result, Mariastella Gelmini, the Italian education minister, advocated that teachers needed to have ‘common sense’ (Tosolini 2008: 118) and that the school board needed to reform its didactic objectives to reduce the lack of motivation and separation that existed between students and school. But as colleagues observed, the dilemma was the consequence of the administration’s lack of responsibility, along with the parents, to teach Italian students the importance of accountability. ‘It is not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you’ which became the altered political objective for students at this private Catholic school.

The United States and the United Kingdom are confronted by a different political agenda when addressing how best to deal with behavioural concerns existent in education. In 2011, The BBC alleged an increase amongst UK parents to reinforce student accountability through corporal punishment in the school system. According to one article, ‘[n]early half of parents of secondary school children say corporal punishment such as the cane or slipper should be reintroduced…’ while parents were, ‘concerned that teachers had become more fearful of their pupils (91%), the parents of their pupils (86%), and of facing legal action over disciplining children (90%)’ (BBC 2011). This challenges the notion that corporal punishment should be abolished worldwide. Rather than concentrating on approaches to dismiss physical discipline, researchers Lansford, et al. advised that ‘normativeness’ (Lansford, et. al. 2005: 1235) places a decisive factor on whether students adjust to physical discipline. Researchers in Tuscany concluded that physical punishment is a common practice in Italy reporting that ‘minor violence’ (Bardi and Borgognini-Tarli 2001) is perceived as an educational apparatus; rather consistent with other articles, which elucidate physical punishment as accepted discipline in several cultural contexts (Gracia and Herrerro 2008; Lansford, et. al. 2010; Ripoll- Nuñez and Rohner, 2006; Clarke, et. al. 1982). While physical discipline might not be the requirement needed to encourage Italian student liability the objective of the previous articles suggests that ‘cause and effect’ should be a requirement in education so that students understand the consequences of misconduct.

In addition to the above perspectives, personal ethnographic fieldwork suggests that occasional conflicts arise between teachers and parents on how to deal with a student’s distracting behaviour. ‘La mamma Iperprotettiva’, or ‘overprotective mother’, is a common complaint amid Italian educational professionals. This title alludes to the figurative mother in Italian society. She is the protectorate, or ‘mamma’, that strives to bulwark her family and offspring regardless of her children’s imperfections. Not dissimilar to some American mothers, or more precisely parents worldwide, the teacher is responsible for informing the parents of their child’s continual disruptions. Unfortunately, a parent’s response can be rather abrupt suggesting that the ‘fault’ lies in the teacher and is the reason for their child’s misbehaviour.[4] Consequently, future interventions with these parents are weighed based on previous communications and are on some occasions avoided completely.

In a meeting at the start of the school year with an Italian school psychologist and various staff members, the psychologist concluded that a student’s insubordination was the result of the teacher, excluding the necessary role of the administration or the parent in instilling good performance in their children. Based on my observation, however, the absence of ‘cause and effect’ in the school system and the home environment may be a disputed point that is missing in this specific school setting.


Rather than conclude with an applicable solution to disciplinary measures in education, I pause to reflect on concurrent issues contributing to the lack of Italian didactic educational diplomacy. ‘La mamma Iperprotettiva’, or overprotective parent, can act as a cultural component to continual academic disruption. Although some researchers would suggest that parental and scholastic disciplinary matters are a highly sensitive concern (Clarke, et. al. 1982) this does not suggest that discipline should be eliminated from education and would contribute to familial disorder (Lansford, et. al. 2005). Personal observation suggests that an absence of limitations begets further disruptions. Without ‘cause and effect’ the concept of consequence is forgotten in a classroom of chaos. If parents are encouraged to discipline their children who will in turn discipline themselves this may reestablish the borders and perimeters necessary to create a less disruptive classroom environment. Administration should therefore make it their objective to work with parents and teachers in creating school guidelines that encourage positive student behaviour, so that both parent, teacher and administration can work together to promote a more beneficial scholastic environment.




Bardi, M. and Borgognini-Tarli, S.M., 2001. Article: A survey on parent-child conflict resolution: intrafamily violence in Italy. Child Abuse & Neglect, [e-journal] 25(6). Available through: Oxford SOLO database [Accessed 20 January 2012].

BBC News, 2011. ‘Nearly half of parents’ back corporal punishment. BBC News, [online] Available at: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14927898&gt; [Accessed 14 September 2011].

Clarke, J. et. al., 1982. Corporal Punishment in School as Reported in Nationwide Newspapers (1982). Child & Youth Services, [e-journal] 4(1-2). Available through: Oxford SOLO database [Accessed 19 January 2012].

Gracia, E. and Herrerro, J., 2008. Is It Considered Violence? The Acceptability of Physical Punishment of Children in Europe. Journal of Marriage and Family, [e-journal] 70(1). Available through: Oxford SOLO database [Accessed 19 January 2012].

Lansford, J.E., 2010. Corporal punishment of children: Article: the special problem of cultural differences in effects of corporal punishment. Law and Contemporary Problems, [e- journal]. Available through: Oxford SOLO database [Accessed 19 January 2012].

Lansford, J.E. et. al., 2010. Corporal Punishment of Children in Nine Countries as a Function of Child Gender and Parent Gender. International Journal of Pediatrics, [e-journal] 2010. Available through: Oxford SOLO database [Accessed 19 January 2012].

Lansford, J.E. et. al., 2005. Physical Discipline and Children’s Adjustment: Cultural Normativeness as a Moderator. Child Development, [e-journal] 76(6). Available through: Oxford SOLO database [Accessed 20 January 2012].

Leo, L., 2011. Il ‘disturbo’ dell’educazione. Nuova Secondaria, [e-journal]. Available through: Oxford SOLO database [Accessed 21 January 2012].

Ripoll- Nuñez, K.J. and Rohner, R.P., 2006. Corporal Punishment in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Directions for a Research Agenda. Cross-Cultural Research, [e-journal] 40(3). Available Through: Oxford SOLO database [Accessed 19 January 2012].

Tosolini, A., 2008. Le linee programmatiche del ministro Gelmini: pareri a confronto. Scuola and Didattica, [e-journal]. Available through: Oxford SOLO database [Accessed 20 January 2012].



[1] While some anthropologists may think that my reference to Northern Italy as a ‘non-Anglo’ region is redundant, personal ethnographic research indicates that Alpine disciplinary norms in education lay outside the politically correct customary response to disciplinary measures in North America and the United Kingdom.

[2] According to one informal interview conducted 25 January 2012, the teacher referred to the students as ‘animals rather than human beings’.

[3] Upon arriving to the school I was sent an email by the head of the language department stating that students were to follow through on their homework assignments even if they missed class. Aside from that email there were no formal guidelines on how to deal with misconduct in the classroom or in the hallways between class times.

[4] The incident I am referring to is a parent-teacher meeting conducted in November 2011. The 15 year old student had demonstrated in previous classes that he was capable of submitting assignments on time. In this instance, the student had failed to submit homework for an entire term and had also missed an exam. The parents were disinclined to hold the student accountable and faulted the teacher for not taking corrective action.



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