Tuesday, April 26, 2011

School Discipline

I clearly remember the first time I was sent to the principal's office. I was in third grade. Our grade was spending the afternoon in the school cafeteria doing square dancing for physical education. Like almost all of the boys, I found the activity less than pleasant — especially when we had to join hands with the girls at our sides. Yuck!

Whenever we had to circle or promenade, the boy across the square from me would run. This caused some problems with dance, and that is exactly why he did it. This boy was a frequent mischief maker. But dance after dance he got away with his shenanigans.

From my viewpoint, it looked like the boy was having great fun. Other boys and even some of the girls were laughing about it. Although I knew it wasn't kosher, I thought I'd give it a try too. The next time we were to circle, I ran rather than trying to keep time with the music. So did the other boy. By this time the joke was old, so fewer classmates chuckled.

Suddenly I felt a hand firmly grip my shoulder. I turned to see a seriously angry teacher. She was actually a small woman, although, at age eight she looked pretty big to me. She marched me unceremoniously out of the cafeteria as my classmates gaped. I was taken to the principal's office. The principal wasn't there, so the teacher pulled a chair into the doorway of the office and made me sit down. She said that I was not to move from that chair until she returned for me.

I knew that I deserved the treatment I was getting. I was upset with myself for following the example set by one of our grade's most notoriously obnoxious members. It chagrined me that he had gotten away with the same behavior multiple times, while I was punished on the first offense. Still, a part of me secretly admired this feat.

As it turned out, this episode occurred quite close to the end of the school day. Soon the bell rang and hundreds of students streamed past the school office. Most gawked at me. Some wondered aloud what nasty thing I must have done. The teacher had purposefully set the chair so that I would be publicly humiliated. I have to admit that it was a pretty effective tactic. I had tears streaming down my embarrassed face.

I was glad when the school grew quieter because there were no more students to ridicule me. For a while I could hear lots of noise from outside the building. But gradually even that noise faded. I sat in the chair for a total of about 40 minutes. For an eight-year-old with nothing to do, that's like an eternity. The hands on the clock seemed to move ever so slowly.

Finally I heard the footsteps of someone approaching the office. It was the cross teacher. She told me to come with her. I wondered what new forms of torture awaited me. But she simply escorted me back to the classroom, had me get my stuff, and told me to go home. I was glad to get out of there, but I was still crying as I raced home on my bicycle.

I never went to the principal's office for discipline again during my school years.

I'm still not sure what was going through that teacher's mind that day. Although students might not believe it, teachers are human too. They are perfectly capable of having a bad day once in a while.

Obviously it is necessary to maintain some level of decorum in school settings in order to facilitate learning. Especially in this day and age it is difficult to know precisely how far educators should be permitted to go in pursuit of this goal.

One of the schools I attended had a large whacking board hanging on the wall of the office emblazoned with the phrase "BOARD OF EDUCATION!" I never saw it used. The threat of its use was enough.

When I was in junior high school, I was once sent on an errand by a teacher during class. As I came near the school office, I could see the gruff assistant principal harshly yelling at a boy that was one of the school's main screw-ups. Not only was the man yelling, he was kicking the boy in the butt over and over again. Hard!

Just then one of the larger male teachers brought another boy who was a frequent participant in the first boy's escapades. The assistant principal was wearing square toed dress shoes. He turned to the second boy and yelled, "I'm going to ask you some questions and you had better answer me straight!" Lifting his kicking foot, he said, "You see the toe of this shoe? It was pointed when I started!" I could see serious fear in the boy's eyes before I turned the corner.

This kind of behavior by an educator would not be tolerated today. It could even result in jail time.

There have in recent weeks been several news stories about educators that are accused of going too far in disciplining a student. In some cases parents have sided with the educators. People have gotten on radio shows and written on websites stuff like, "Why, when I was a youth, if a teacher had to whack me at school, I got whacked much harder when I got home."

Positive incentives are to be preferred over disincentives such as punishment. But punishment must exist as well, since not all disruptive behaviors are prevented through positive means. The question is exactly what is permissible and what isn't.

Frankly I believe that it is not possible to precisely codify what educators may do to punish unacceptable behavior. It probably isn't even desirable to do so. What is permissible is necessarily governed by community standards and general school culture. Certain lines may be drawn. Indeed, some lines should never be crossed.

But the more refined rules regarding punishment become, the less flexibility educators have. Knowing that they could easily step over one of the myriad rules, they are more likely to refrain from punishment at all. School districts that have gone this route often have a very high level of dysfunction. The inmates run the asylum. Teachers in these battle hardened schools just try to make it through the day so that they can collect their pay and go home. Any learning that occurs is a luxury.

I'm not calling for a return to the day when it seemed appropriate for an assistant principle to kick a kid in the butt hard enough to cause bruising. The older I get the less I am convinced that abusive treatment accomplishes much good. Still, it is good for students to learn that in the real world there are harsh consequences for harsh behavior.

Pretty mealy-mouthed stuff, eh? I'm afraid that real life is like that sometimes. We rarely have clarity in developing approaches to solving our most serious issues. It's the nature of life. It's a good thing that some educators are willing to accept this hard work. Perhaps learning this kind of thing from a teacher's example is as valuable as the academic learning a student will get during his/her school years.

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