TT #11 – Punishment

It is possible that the most pernicious effect of “progressive” education is in the area of punishment.

The whole concept of punishment has virtually disappeared from the modern classroom. The word itself certainly has. In the time-honored process through which simple terms are done away with and replaced by less judgmental – and less descriptive – terms, punishment has been replaced with the phrase “Classroom Management.”

The difference is more important than it at first appears to be. The term punishment assumes that the students knowingly did something wrong and is being held responsible for it. Classroom management implies that any misconduct is the responsibility of the teacher’s failure to properly “manage” the students.

Traditionalist Teacher hopes that the readers will forgive a personal story that will illustrate this point.

Once upon a time, a shade over three decades ago, Traditionalist Teacher was a newly minted classroom warrior who still believed in the basic ideas of Deweyism. TT’s first assignment consisted of was five classes of seventh-grade Civics students.

At that point, the flavor of the month was ‘mainstreaming’. One of not-yet-Traditionalist-Teacher’s classes contained four gifted students whose intelligence was off the charts. It also contained three Special Education students for whom this was their first experience being mainstreamed. One of these students had so little impulse control that screeching out lines from popular songs was a regular occurrence.

There was simply no classroom activity that would take the gifted students more than five minutes to complete that the mainstreamed students could do in a month. Attempts to give the gifted students an assignment that the rest of class did not have to do were met with cries of “UNFAIR!” More difficult assignments stunned the mainstreamed students, who quickly gave up and proceeded to misbehave.

A parent of one of the gifted students was understandably concerned. When she approached Embryo Teacher, the responses to her questions were not impressive – because ET had no clue about what to do. A couple days later, her son was admonished to pay attention and said, “My mom says you can’t punish me because you can’t run your class.”

That is a dangerous attitude.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 3.5 million elementary and secondary teachers in the United States (2013).[1] It is ridiculous to believe that they are all superstars, able to engage every one of their 50.1 million students (2015)[2] in an atmosphere of continual mental stimulation.

Each school needs to have a discipline system that will work for both superstars and for marginal teachers. For a school to abandon the discipline needs of a marginal teacher because “he/she can’t run their class” is to abandon the students in that class. Even if the teacher is a newbie whose contract won’t be renewed, helping him/her to get through and teach something is far preferable to that teacher simply abandoning the class and having to get a series of subs to finish out the year.

So, what are the components of a workable discipline system? Traditionalist Teacher sees four primary components –

  1. The system must be simple enough for the students to understand how it works.
  2. The system must be consistent.
  3. The consequences must be immediate.
  4. The objectionable behavior must cease as a result of the discipline.

What happens in most schools? A student misbehaves, and is warned by the teacher. Repeated misbehavior results in repeated warnings. Another repetition results in a detention being assigned at some future date. Further repetition results in a referral to an administrator. Sometime later that week – a day or two rates as a miracle of rapidity – the administrator sees the student, who manages to come up with an explanation that enables the administrator to pretend that he/she has done something about the situation. The teacher gets his/her copy of the referral back with the notation, “Counseled student”.

This “system” fails on all four counts.   The teacher is powerless. The administrator is ineffective. The misbehaving student is empowered.

Who wins? The student.

Who loses? The obvious loser in this situation is the teacher. However, there are other losers as well – the other students in the classroom who witness this charade, and whose education is negatively impacted.

Who can do something about it? The teacher clearly has few tools to deal with serial misbehavior. The administrator’s hands are tied by the number of misbehaving students – a number that grows as students come to see misbehavior as having no negative consequences.   The parents don’t even know what is going on.

What can be done about it? Traditionalist Teacher believes that it is time to give teachers some of the tools that were abandoned (or even forbidden) since the late 1960s. Some of these are –

  • Writing lines – simply copying a sentence like “I will raise my hand before I talk in class,” repetitively
  • Copying passages from a textbook or dictionary
  • Standing in the corner
  • Being forced to wear a sign describing the misbehavior for the rest of the day, including lunch and gym class
  • Posting grades on the bulletin board
  • Sitting in the hall until an administrator comes to get you
  • Missing lunch
  • Paddling

Traditionalist Teacher can hear the shrieks of horror from the progressives. “What will the child learn from those punishments?” It is simple, the child will learn not to misbehave.

No matter what your theories say, that is a very important lesson





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38 comments on “TT #11 – Punishment
  1. Robert says:

    I give my students a choice. One of the effective “traditional” methods above, or the prescribed discipline of late – the referral. A process so heinous students will choose to do push-ups rather than have their name and actions written in triplicate on a carbonless copy document that will be dealt with in the next several days.

    • Ed says:

      Certainly, this method will often work. However, it is based on the student’s possession of some sense of honor as well as a sense that the school has something in it that is of value to him/her. The hypothetical situation described in the post was one in which the “student” had no intention of getting anything resembling an education; and the weakness of modern school administrations in dealing with her.

    • Ed says:

      Many thanks! Please let your friends and associates know about it. Obviously, Traditionalist Teacher is not an Internet professional but only a practitioner who is growing increasing dismayed at the current state of the teaching profession. There is no corporate sponsorship – or the marketing budget that would come with that, so word of mouth is the only way that the traditionalist alternative will get any traction in the marketplace of ideas.

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      Thank you. I do try to present a view of education that is seldom heard, but which – I believe – is widely held by those of us who actually teach.

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