Because sometimes it's better to see what's on the other side...

Much ado about punishment

Students at the opening ceremony

Students at the opening ceremony

WARNING: THIS POST TALKS ABOUT CORPORAL PUNISHMENT USED ON CHILDREN IN SCHOOLS
Ok, picture this. The bell rings, and you slowly walk across the hot dry courtyard. You climb up the steps, and then you are standing by the door, waiting for the teacher before you to leave. You see their look of frustration as they run out of the room, seeking any sort of escape. You take one deep breath and walk in and…..GOOD MORNING MISSSSS PRESSSSTOOONNNNN!!!!

The first time they shout it, it’s cute. The second time seems over eager. By the third time, those 90 kids have given you a headache. And it only gets worse. As you attempt to throw up work on the board, a student comes in to ask to borrow a book from a classmate. A parent then interrupts, giving money to their kid for lunch. Each time you try to ask a question, a student is by your side, interrupting, asking to go to the bathroom. You see them standing in the back, kids pushing and shoving….when you tell them to be quiet they are quiet for one second and then start talking again…..It makes you want to…..you know….you think about in your craziest dreams…. about hitting that one kid, and whipping the whole class into shape. But as a liberal, new age millennial American youth, I can’t, and I won’t. But this isn’t America, nor are my colleagues American.

While I was in the midst of walking to my class, my colleague told me to not bother, since we were going to have a school assembly. Soon the hoards were assembled, and unlike the typical somber mood of the flag ceremony usually held in the morning, the school was abuzz. As the principal spoke in front of a sea of 2500 bobbing heads, he could barely hear himself over the microphone. And so, without even skipping a beat, he sent out his fiercest teachers to search out “examples.” As my colleagues waded through the crowd, they separated the masses like a sea, and a deadly silence fell over the entire school. Soon the principal was announcing the students who would be the example for those who left the school campus before the last bell. As they lined up, it was finally time to watch the inevitable, and soon the cheers, screams, and eerily laughs filled the courtyard as one by one, the principal lashed them with a rubber whip, reaching far out, and swinging hard.

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I soon became like a deer in a headlights, watching, or more like staring as child after child received lashings. Some screamed, some tried to run in which the principal found them, grabbed their arm, and continued. Some were stoic, refusing to budge as the punishment was dealt on their behinds, crossing their arms in front of them, refusing to show any signs of emotion. As my colleagues stood by, they weren’t watching the children getting whipped. Instead, all eyes were on me, hopeful, amused. Everyone wanted to see my break down and cry. Somehow, they wanted to have one up on the American education system, which everyone assumed was so perfect. To their disappointment, I didn’t cry. Rather I just stood, and stared like the stoic kids.

I’ve talked about corporal punishment with many of my fellow teachers and administration, usually in a curious manner. Why do you do it? When do you do it? Who do you do it to? Everyone at the school knows I am from the west, and they know how the Western world views corporal punishment, or so they assume. Ironically, if you think about it, it was only a generation ago where this form of discipline was commonly used in schools, and in some places used in parts of America today. The term spare the rod, spoil the child doesn’t seem that far off. So why is it then that today, the moment you talk about corporal punishment in America most people I know start tearing up, or getting enraged, full of emotion?

When I mentioned to a German aid worker about the time the principal had two students whip each other in front of me in his office to show me what punishment was about, she was furious, and told me that I must immediately figuratively lash back, by showing my absolute disgust and anger. But what she did not understand, was that that was exactly what they expected me to do, and to an extent, wanted me to do, so that they could argue with me about it, defending it to the end of all time. When talking to the administration, they felt a sense of pride almost, in how “tough” and disciplined their students became after being punished. Here were my colleagues, the people I love and respect the most, telling me that they disciplined the children out of love. They are not monsters, they are my friends. They also warned me that it was the only way.

It seemed horrifying when it was proven slightly true, as my nasty 7th grade class that would scream and yell became absolutely silent, the day my colleague whipped them into shape before leaving the class to me. I had never seen such dead silence. But I had also never seen the look in their eyes before: a look of fear. To this day, those students have never given me serious trouble, and know that sure punishment would meet them if they did. Classroom discipline has never been my strong suit, but fortunately I reminded myself that actually, there is another way, or rather many other ways to punish children as my fellow volunteers have told me about their past successes.

As the weeks progressed on, I tried to show my colleagues that I could, actually punish children. Some students would spend 20 minutes picking up trash outside in the sweltering heat. Some cleaned out the gutters by the classrooms. Once, enraged, I had a group of truly bad 8th graders clean the toilets and clean the campus for an hour. Another time, barricading a group of sixth graders in the classroom during their break. The one form of discipline, however, that seems to be the most effective, is grades. Take a point away from their final grade, they panic.

Give a point to a child, they feel empowered. And so, despite all of my best efforts to be scary, I’ve resorted to what I do best: rewarding those for good behavior. Positive reinforcement has become, by far, the most rewarding style of behavior changing habits I can think of. Rather than fearing me, some students have been encouraged to speak up, and participate in class, to get a point or two for their group. Some students have gone from being the least enthused to some of my most enthusiastic students. There are some days, especially Fridays when I bribe them for good behavior by bringing my guitar that I feel on top of the world. And then there are those days…….where I just want to….where I almost understand why teachers would…..and then I stop myself. No. There has to be a better way.

3 Comments

  1. Laura Preston

    Thanks for the feedback! I was surprised at how popular this post was, but glad to hear that it interested my readers. I’m constantly struggling to find a way of understanding this topic better, but it is a challenge.

  2. Catherine Snapp

    Great article! There is always a better way. With time and experience, one will emerge.

  3. Jeremy Martin

    What a unique context to work in! Should provide for interesting conversations! Thanks for the updates.

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