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Discipline in Schools: Past, Present, and Hopefully Future

Updated on May 12, 2011

Growing up, we've heard stories of our parents and grandparents being disciplined in school by teachers hitting their hands with rulers or being made to sit in the corner while wearing a dunce cap. Humiliation and pain seemed to be the deterrent of choice for inappropriate behavior, but at least that was on an individual level and as an example to others. At some point along the line, the idea became to punish all for the mistakes of one so that peer pressure would get the job done. Since then, methods have evolved to include the ridiculous. I remember when I was in elementary school, we got yellow-carded for talking in the hallway and even for if it looked like we were listening to people who were talking. We were often told to sit on our hands so we didn't fidget with things on our desks and walk with our hands behind our backs as if wearing handcuffs. In middle school, if someone talked, the whole group was either shouted at or made to go back to where we came from and walk back again until we could make it without somebody talking. Yelling was really how many teachers liked to solve their problems then. Today's kids have it a lot worse according to the news, which sometimes includes actual handcuffs!

There have been isolated incidents across our nation, but they are increasing in number. Many of them involve special needs students and teachers who don't know how to handle them, especially when they act out. Some teachers have tied up their students or called the police to have them subdued and arrested. In some cases, this may have been because of a student wielding something like a weapon. In other cases, however, the arrests were made as part of a no-tolerance policy for something as simple as desk graffiti. Whatever happened to detention and making them clean it themselves? Other incidents involve dress code violations that should never have been an issue in the first place, such as religious symbols, T-shirt slogans, and twins with identical haircuts. Where do we draw the line? All teachers have their own pet peeves and quirks, but they should not punish their students for it. School districts should not endorse it either, as someone needs to be a reasonable adult to defuse a situation and deal with it appropriately without dragging the police or courts into it.

That's not to say people my age did not get punished for stupid things when we were in elementary and middle school, but as far as I know expulsion was the worst that ever happened to anyone whether it was deserved or not. Spilling milk, whether on purpose or by accident, was grounds for separation from the group. Either you sat in the corner or the seating chart at your table was drastically changed so that you couldn't eat with your friends anymore and neither could anyone else. If you brought a memento from home to keep in your desk to prevent you from being missing home too much as a little kid, it was taken away no matter what it was. Desks - and lockers - had random inspections for seemingly no good reason other than for the teacher to dump everything out and make you clean it up again. If you didn't follow instructions to the letter, even if you had a different way of accomplishing what you were supposed to do, you had to sit in the corner. If the punishment does not fit the alleged crime, kids will always remember these discrepancies as transgressions that were committed against them, and sometimes it creates a mentality that has adverse effects on other people (and not always in the way teachers would like, such as the peer-pressure-as-deterrent they were hoping for).

One year a classmate of mine moved away, but his mom still worked at our school, so he was allowed to visit. He was the class clown and often got himself into trouble, but while he attended our school he was the only one punished for his actions. When he was our guest, we all had to stand against the fence at recess for the simple fact that he had made a mistake by fidgeting with his pencil to an unfortunate conclusion and we were all being punished for having invited him. Almost everyone in the class turned on him after that with an almost lynch-mob-like mentality. Another classmate, somewhat of a class clown himself, was yelled at to the point of tears and then sent away to another school, and when he came back he was never the same. He used to joke about aliens on shows we watched on TV, but after that he never talked about aliens again except to say they didn't exist. He also denounced stories about magic and said he didn't like Harry Potter, angering almost the entire class (another almost-lynch-mob-type situation). What had that other school done to him, not to mention our own for inspiring groups of us to punish and reject those who went against the grain?

In short, either private or public, secular or religious, discipline in schools needs to change. As much as the teaching profession feels like a babysitting job, schools should not be run like prisons. The mental health and wellbeing of the students needs to come first. Kids need to know it's okay to make a mistake and that people around them aren't going to love them less for it. They shouldn't be made to feel like criminals for minor infractions, and innocent students should not be dragged down with them to be used against them later. Teachers should get to know their students so that both they and the students can understand both sides of the situation even if they can't see eye-to-eye. Most of all, teachers need to keep their wits about them instead of overreacting to things that don't require a taser, pepper spray, handcuffs, or psychological warfare to resolve. Even if they do end up losing it on their students during a particularly rough day, they can always apologize afterward or at the very least not resort to extreme methods of discipline in the first place.


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      carmichael1 6 years ago

      I think we have many problems in the educational system. Discipline is one of the symptoms that society is not meeting the needs of young people. Not only does discipline need to change, the whole educationa paradygne needs to shift toward a more wholistic education where students are people and not sheep.