When Teachers Discipline Students

by Robert Pondiscio
September 17th, 2010

All I know about this story is what I’ve read on this Wall Street Journal blog.  But assuming the facts are as described, I imagine teachers who read it are either a) silently saying “Amen!” or b) liars.   I shudder to think what my Dad would have done had I acted the way this kid is alleged to have behaved in school.  (Which, of course, is why I never would have in the first place)

Cogs, Compliance and Comformity

by Robert Pondiscio
January 14th, 2010

short blog post on classroom management has ignited a fascinating and at times contentious debate on our expectations for children to behave in certain ways in classrooms.  Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant blog typically concerns itself with technology implementation in schools.  But overhearing a preschool teacher tell her class “Good job!  I like the way you all are staying in line. You’re so good at this!” prompted McLeod to respond with two simple sentences:

The socialization to be a cog in the machine begins early. Woe be it if you don’t stay in line.

This is the most common positive reinforcement trick in the classroom teacher’s bag of trick (I’ve even joked it’s the basis of Race to the Top).  McLeod’s quip implies it’s mindless compliance, but teachers see it differently.  “I don’t see the woe in this, just courtesy, common sense, and safety,” writes one.  Walking quietly in line in preschool shows consideration for the other classes, notes another. “You could say that the teacher should explain WHY being quiet is good in the hallways, but trust me – she did, about 20 times already.”  A third teacher writes,

I can only assume, Scott, that next time you go to the movies or the grocery store, you’ll stand randomly by a check stand and hope someday it will be your turn. A queue is not necessarily a means to transform us into lemmings.

And this:

Sometimes it’s about safety. We drive in lines, not clumps. Conformity for the sake of someone else wielding their power is a problem. Conformity for the sake of everyone’s well being is a good thing.

Most of the commenters on the blog, presumably educators, see nothing sinister at work.  But a few see conformity and coercion in the teacher’s praise for her young charges’ ability to stand quietly in line.  ”If we only occassionally asked for mindless compliance from children, but most of the time encouraged them to be active participants in their learning, I would be lot more satisfied,” writes one.

I’m with the common sense crowd.  Lack of self-control and consideration for others was the biggest impediment to learning in my classroom and in my school.  On a scale of one to ten, it was a thirteen.   A little self-discipline and self-control goes a long way.  And besides, isn’t lining up and walking silently a form of group work and cooperative learning?



Two Birds, One Stone

by Robert Pondiscio
November 23rd, 2009

School budget shortfall?  Student discipline problems?  Solve both by……charging for detention!  A pair of school board members in Nutley, New Jersey are proposing precisely that. Yes, they’re serious. 

The board members, Steven Rogers and Walter Sautter, say they are hoping to adopt a policy by next school year that would charge parents for detention, which they estimate costs the district $10,000 a year in overtime and maintenance fees.

“It may not seem like a lot of money, but it adds up over time,” Rogers tells the Newark Star-Ledger. “Parents need to step up to the plate and to be held responsible and accountable for their children’s habitual actions.”

Frank Bellusciop of the New Jersey School Board Association says even though schools charge for extracurricular activities and field trips, charging for detention may be in violation of the state Constitution. “Discipline is part of a public education,” he tells the paper. “Since detention would have to be used to enforce discipline, it is doubtful that you could charge for that, the same way you can’t charge for someone taking a history class or math class.”

Nutley.  You can write your own punch line.

Britain Prepares a Crackdown on Student Discipline

by Robert Pondiscio
April 15th, 2009

A British government study into classroom behavior calls for holding parents accountable for their child’s classroom behavior, including fines for condoning truancy.  “More schools will also be encouraged to use traditional methods such as detentions, suspensions, isolation rooms and lunchtime curfews to punish badly behaved pupils,” London’s Telegraph reports.  ”They will be told to order pupils to remove caps and confiscate mobile phones. Guidance also calls on schools to punish rowdy behavior, bullying and fighting outside the school gates, including incidents on public transport, to stop poor behavior spilling onto the streets.”

The conclusions are presented in a major review by Sir Alan Steer, the Government’s leading behaviour expert. They came as teachers warned that existing methods were failing as a “reward culture” seen in banks was spreading to schools. Jules Donaldson, from the NASUWT teachers’ union, claimed some headteachers were fuelling the problem by handing out prizes if children promise to behave instead of setting proper boundaries.

“Children can’t learn if classes are disrupted by bad behaviour,” said Ed Balls, Britain’s Schools Secretary. ”That’s why parents tell me they want tough and fair discipline in every school. That means we must all play our part and back our teachers when they use their powers to keep good order.  Everyone needs to share the responsibility of maintaining discipline, including governing bodies and parents. Where parents are unable to do this, it’s right that local authorities should consistently use parenting contracts as a way to support and help parents face up to their responsibilities.”

A teacher’s union survey of 10,000 teachers in Britain shows an average of 50 minutes of lost classroom each day due to misbehavior.

Foot Massages for Disruptive Students

by Robert Pondiscio
November 3rd, 2008

Disruptive students in some South London schools will be given foot massages in an attempt to improve their behavior.  London’s Daily Mail reports Lambeth Council in South London is spending nearly $150,000 to send ”reflexologists” into its schools to soothe unruly kids.

The firm is run out of a flat in Brixton and its website claims reflexology ‘releases energy blockages’, ‘can calm aggressive feelings, improve listening skills, concentration and focus’ and ‘relieves headaches and sinus problems’.

The idea that a foot massage is going to keep disruptive students happy is laughable, says a member of parliament.  “Experienced teachers have a range of ways of dealing with badlybehaved pupils and stroking their feet is not one of them,” notes Tory MP John Penrose.

I’m still not convinced this story isn’t a hoax.

The Few and the Many

by Robert Pondiscio
October 15th, 2008

A British school engaged in battle of wills with a parent has inadvertently turned a spotlight on the issue of student discipline.  The school in Doncaster, England, won’t let an 11-year old return to class until he spends a day in the school’s “isolation room” for letting the air out of a classmate’s bicycle tires.  But the boy’s father describes the room as a dungeon and compares it to a cell in Guantanamo Bay.  He has threatened to remove his son from the school in protest.   

The room is painted totally black. The walls, the partitions, the window blinds – everything was black,” said Andrew Widdowson.  “The partitions down one side created four cells where school kids are expected to sit at a desk all day.  My son has never been in trouble. The first time he’s done something and he gets told to go into isolation. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I was shocked they were putting children into that room. It’s more like a prison.

“In my days as a young teacher, in the early 1990s, I was very trigger happy about sending irritating kids to such places,” former British teacher Francis Gilbert, writes in the Guardian. ”It gave me a huge feeling of power.  However, I began to notice that it was always the same pupils going there. Increasingly, they became rather too happy to leave my lessons. Indeed, spending time in the ‘cooler’ – as one of my schools nicknamed it – was seen as cool.”

Gilbert’s observation is familiar to anyone who has ever taught in a school plagued by chronic disruption.  There’s  a familiar cast of characters in most schools that use “in-house suspensions” – typically off-the-books punishments not officially reported to districts.  Nothing is expected of such kids, who are merely being warehoused on-site.

As the Children’s Rights Alliance for England has pointed out, by not expecting anything of them, the school is depriving them of the right to an education and contravening the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Moreover, these internal exclusions seem to disproportionately affect our most vulnerable children: looked-after children, pupils with special educational needs, children from poor and ethnic backgrounds. Experience suggests that internal exclusions have played a role in contributing to the rock bottom levels of achievement of our most deprived children.

As always, there’s another side to this coin.  Profoundly disruptive children represent an enormous drain on educational resources in struggling schools, not the least of which is teacher and student time on-task.  Certainly, letting the air out of another kid’s tires doesn’t seem to meet the definition of profoundly disruptive.  But finding an effective way to safeguard the education of the many ready and able learners in even the most chaotic schools, while not giving up on the few disaffected and disruptive is a balancing act that very few if any struggling schools seem to get right.  The problem is typically compounded by a knee-jerk “blame the teacher” response for failing to control his or her class.  In this way, inexperienced teachers learn to place a premium on classroom management, and not much else.  The net result is…pretty much what we have.

Yer Out!

by Robert Pondiscio
October 9th, 2008

Some baseball fans wear their hearts on their sleeves.  Zachary Sharples, a Florida 7th-grader chose to wear his on his head, and that got him suspended from school.  Zachary got a “Ray-Hawk,” a kind of Mohawk favored by some players on the Tampa Bay Rays, sprayed it blue and cheered on his team in the AL division series win over Chicago. 

Before Zachary went to bed, the Bradenton Herald reports, he made sure to wash off the dye so he wouldn’t get in trouble at school the next day.  Didn’t work.  Zachary’s mohawk still earned him an in-school suspension for violating the school dress code.  “I did nothing but sat there,” Zachary said Tuesday. “We couldn’t talk, it was stupid.”

His dad says school officials told Zachary he can either shave his head to be allowed back into his classes, or let his hair grow out – in in-school suspension.  His family is moving to St. Petersburg instead, where the kid can presumably wear his hair however he wants. 

[Hat Tip: The Gradebook]

…And Your Little Dog, Too!

by Robert Pondiscio
October 3rd, 2008

It’s not just books and cell phones that are being banned in schools.  Here is a (very) partial list of items and activities schools have banned, attempted to forbid, or recently rescinded policies against:


Extreme hairstyles and dyed hair.
Spelling tests.
Flags, including the American flag.
Muslim head scarves.
Hugs over two seconds long.
Criticizing the superintendent of schools.
Trendy ties.
Signs at sporting events.
Birthday cakes.
Books about vampires.
Boys wearing makeup.
Playing in the playground before school.
Church flyers. (A California school tried, but was told they couldn’t)
Ugg boots and bar earrings.
Cyber bullying.”
Black shoes.
HPV vaccinations.
Spiky hair.
“Obscene, distracting or disruptive jewelry” including a rosary.
Caffeinated energy drinks.
A corn-eating contest.

Blaming Parents

by Robert Pondiscio
July 30th, 2008

Parents’ failure to impose moral values in the home has left many children out of control, with teachers now expected to effectively raise young people themselves.  So says the head of Voice, Britain’s teachers’ union. Philip Parkin says the standard of parenting skills in the UK had suffered from a downward spiral in the last 15 years as generations of poor parents succeed each other.  In a speech to the union’s annual conference, Parkin said long working hours and the decline in old-fashioned family structures has contributed to the problem

“Schools are being required to take on more and more of the responsibilities that rightly belong to parents; and to provide more of the stability in children’s lives which should be provided by families. There is also the perception that, in general, the skills of parents are declining as one generation succeeds another.”

“In my last 10 or 15 years in school I saw a significant decline in parenting standards.” Parkin added. ”The shortening of many relationships, the creation of more step-families, the emphasis on parents going out to work and the consequent perception of the reduced worth of the full-time parent have all changed the way we behave and the character of childhood.”

I could be very wrong, but it’s hard to imagine such a naked critique of “parenting standards” issuing from a responsible U.S. union leader.  For all the sturm und drang in the U.S. about accountability and overcoming societal ills, it says something about the overarching consensus on what schools ought to be able to do that these comments sound so, well, foreign.

Spare the Rod

by Robert Pondiscio
July 21st, 2008

A Georgia school board has reinstated corporal punishment.  Misbehaving students in Twiggs County can now be spanked to curb misbehavior–with parental permission and witnesses in the room. 

Amazingly, 22 states have not explicitly banned corporal punishment.  “Sometimes these little ones are hard headed and you have to show them you mean business. “I haven’t used it often, but I have used it,” says one principal.