Thoughts on discipline

Disclaimer: I do not have children, but my job requires me to spend most of my workday with children. I have observed a few things.

I was asked this week about what “life lesson” a consequence for a trivial mistake serves. In the grand scheme of things, is it that important that a student put her name on her assignment. Logistically, yes. I have 90 students. If no one put her name on her paper chaos would reign. On a deeper level, though, does  it matter? I thought about this all day yesterday. I thought about it for 14 long, painful albeit on-pace miles last night (not-so-humble bragging).

Conclusion: yes. But holding students to a standard is oh-so-painful. I’m told things used to be different in education; that parents didn’t choose to believe their child over the adult (although, really, I am a professional and an adult, one who has never lied to you. Why would you believe your child, who most certainly has lied to you before, over me?). I have no desire for school to be more authoritarian or to deprive parents’ and students’ of their right to object to unfair/unjust treatment and policies. And yet, I think my students are losing a lot by not suffering the consequences of their actions or inactions.

What seems the most ironic to me is that I think people equate stepping in and going to bat for the kids (a kind of “my child right or wrong” attitude) as being the loving thing to do. I’ve watched a few episodes of the new cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Is it the new Parks and Rec? Only time will tell), and there’s a kid whose dad constantly bails him out. He vandalizes property, steals, get drunk, etc. and never suffers the consequences. One of the officers comments that he’s one lucky kid. But then the wiser boss says that he feels sorry for this young man. “What father cares so little for his son that he lets him get away with everything?”  Hebrews 12:6 says something along these line too. I’m not saying that parents who get their kids out of trouble don’t really love them, but I do think that letting your kid experience the consequences of their actions is the more loving thing to do.

So…where does that leave me, the enforcer (I would like this to be my new nickname)? It leaves me in a place where I am tired of the enforcing the rules when it means I will get a lengthy email chastising me for my actions followed by an in-person meeting where my decision is scrutinized and criticized in detail. I know that I teach at one of the loveliest schools in the nation with some of the loveliest students and parents. The sad truth is that the one or two negative encounters sticks in my memory. But I wonder about the future of education. At the heart of the matter, I guess I see human beings differently than most people. I see human beings as fallen, flawed, and ultimately cursed/gifted with free will. I am willing to look for the good in students most of the time, but I also think we rob them of their free will if we tell them that they couldn’t possibly make wrong choices. Telling them they’re not capable of choosing wrong implies they’re not capable of choosing at all. Is it “as flies to the wanton boys are we to the gods?” (to quote Shakespeare, an excellent student of human nature). If there is no sin (yep, I think my students sin) there is no forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation. We are left with misunderstandings, confusion, and frustration.

So…how hard is the GRE Lit exam? The GMAT? I think I’m kidding because I do love my job, and I can’t imagine being happier doing anything else, but…maybe it’s time to move on.

P.S. Yesterday was a very bad day. Today didn’t get much better. But I did see two of my first-year 6th graders yesterday. And they were so sweet, polite, and grown-up that it made me remember why I love doing what I do. Also, my team  (other 6th grade teachers) is there every step of the way, sympathizing and listening and usually offering some very good advice.



2 thoughts on “Thoughts on discipline

  1. I agree so much! As long as the consequences are fair and consistent – let there be consequences!
    I’ve been on the parent side of this – sometimes when the consequences were not so fair or consistent, and sometimes when they were. It’s not easy, but I would much rather have my children suffer the consequences of their actions and, as a result, learn to make better choices.
    Henry’s kindergarten teacher observed that he wasn’t finishing his desk work. When the rest of the class had moved on to the next activity, she would allow him to continue working, she would sometimes even allow him to choose WHERE he wanted to work: in the hallway? in the playhouse? no problem! She would let him move his desk so he could “work” AND watch the cartoon the rest of the class was watching. (Don’t get me started on how much TV he watched at school in kindergarten!) And, I was not made aware of the issue! I am SO thrilled that now, his second grade teacher makes him miss out on privileges if he doesn’t finish his work on time. She also let me know when he had one particularly bad-work-habit day, so I could tell him he can’t play on the iPad until he does his work at school! When I thanked her for keeping me informed so I could work on the issue as well, she thanked me profusely for my support – so much so, it made me sad. I am afraid that is not the usual reaction she gets when she has to discipline children.
    It’s not just teachers though. Parents often have this misguided “support” of their children when confronted with other parents. A boy once bit one of my kids at a park. I marched him over to his mother (whom I didn’t know) and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I thought you would want to know that your son bit my son.” Her response, “MY son DOESN’T bite.” I was so dumbfounded, I turned and walked away. I only made it about 20 feet until I looked down and saw the bite marks on his arm, and I went back and confronted her again, showing her the mark. THIS time, she turns and looks at her kid, “Did you bite him?” The kid said yes! I didn’t hang around. I couldn’t believe she jumped to his defense without even asking his side of the story!
    Keep fighting the good fight, Bethany! Discipline is oh-so-rare and so very appreciated…if not by the student’s parents then by the parents of the other students!

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