I’ve often expressed my wish that there were more effective discipline at my secondary school. But when I read an article a few months ago about how a 12-year-old New York City student was actually arrested and handcuffed for merely writing on a desk, I was almost impressed with how my school deals with certain issues.
While I’m almost certain that the student and probably most of her classmates will never tag up a desk again, I am positive that this zero-tolerance approach is not the most effective way to deal with discipline issues.
At my school, graffiti is common and is not really addressed much by the administration. Suspended students may be forced to remove graffiti, scrape gum off desks or clean black and white boards in the classroom. It is probably not right to have students doing manual labor around the school, but it gets the work done and the parents are unlikely to complain about it. Most of the direct teaching about how to respect public property, however, falls to the teachers.
In the past few weeks of school, I have begun to take discipline into my own hands in certain ways. I went to track practice myself a month or two ago and fetched a student who had cut my class earlier that day. I made a deal with her: you leave practice now and make up the work you missed and I won’t tell your coach you cut class. She has not cut my class again since that day.
The issue of graffiti has also come to my attention, as has throwing trash on the floor. I like to keep the students who are responsible after school to remedy the situation. But unlike the administrators, who often hand the student a rag and bucket of water before heading back to their offices, I sit with my students as they work, often even helping them.
This shows them that I, too, take responsibility for the cleanliness of my classroom. It also gives us time to talk, not about school, but usually about what interests them and what they want to do once they get out of high school. I have built relationships with many of my most troublesome students in just this way.
One student in particular stands out. Let’s call her Mary. She was extremely talkative all the time in class and came late to school every single day. I kept her after school one day for cutting my class and had her clean graffiti while I helped tidy the classroom. We chatted and joked around, so it didn’t feel too much like punishment, I’m sure. As she was leaving, I warned her that the next time she cut my class, it would not be quite so fun.
Then we had a weeklong break and when she returned, she came to school on time two days in a row and did excellent work in my class. I capitalized by calling her mother and telling her what a change I had seen in Mary. I asked her mom to encourage her to keep up the good work. Mary was excited the next day and has done great work for me since then. She hasn’t cut and has actually done her best to keep other students from being distracting during class. I have a new ally where I used to have an adversary.
This is exactly the situation that you want to create as a teacher. And it is exactly the opposite result of what a zero-tolerance policy will create. Instead of dealing with the situation and student on a personal level and using the situation to build a good relationship with the student, the teacher or administrator sends the student a message that he or she does not care about the individual, only about the action. There is no attempt to explain to the student why it is wrong to write on a desk, only punishment and embarrassment.
While I think it is important for students to have rules and consequences, discipline should also focus on having students understand what they did wrong. Otherwise, they will only associate the punishment with that one specific action and not translate it to other similar situations. Besides, if we arrest them for doodling, what do we do when they do something really bad? It limits the ability to escalate punishments and will only make students resent school officials and teachers who turn them in.