How We Discipline Kids In Schools Is Worse Than Their Behavior

by Andrew Reiner

When I started a new career teaching English to sixth graders at a private school in Baltimore County last September, there were few things I feared. This wasn't because I had nerves of steel. It was because I already had had professional experience. I had taught writing at the college level and had worked for six years as a writer.
The one area of education in which I did feel trepidation, however, was in discipline. Up to this point my experience in discipline had been limited to making disruptive children run laps around the court when I used to teach tennis. But I knew that this behavioral modifier would be moot once I was in the classroom because it's hard to teach about run-on sentences when half the class is running on a tennis court.
As it turns out, my worries were for naught. Now that I am halfway through my first year teaching, I'm finding that I fear less the behavior of my students than the way in which we discipline them.
Discipline is a hot topic these days in education, what with everyone, myself included, clamoring about a lack of civility amongst America's children and teenagers. Discipline, or lack of it, is one of the big reasons that many middle class parents are pillaging their savings in order to send their children to college preparatory schools. These parents are hoping that private schools-which, unlike public schools, have the freedom to impose strong moral codes-can instill in their children the values they are perhaps not getting or learning at home.
In many instances, private schools seem to be the only bastion where children at the turn of the 20th century are taught how to be responsible persons.
But all that glitters isn't gold. Recently I learned that two preeminent area prep schools instituted a policy that students who drink alcohol or ingest non-prescription drugs during the weekend, off of school grounds, are subject to be expelled.
How would administrators from the school find out if a student drank beer or smoked pot? Other students would snitch on them. That's the way in which one student was caught, and then expelled.
Maybe it's my naiveté, but such policies seem to undermine the very principles private schools are trying to instill. These practices deny teenagers-many of whom are responsible and at a point in their lives where they need to experiment in order to learn what is right and wrong-personal accountability and risk-taking, two values both schools claim to exhort.
And these policies send a clear Orwellian message that every waking moment of the students' lives, including personal time, is never beyond the clutches and reproaches of Big Brother. Such discipline methods promote a climate that erodes loyalty between friends and breeds fear.
Fear seems to be the oil that lubricates the mechanics behind most school disciplinary measures-even down to the smallest misdemeanors. At the school where I teach, demerits and demerit warnings are the enforcers-of-choice. Whenever a student misses his homework or talks too often when he should be listening, we either threaten with a demerit or hand one out. If a child earns enough of these, he will receive detention or be suspended.
With my students, demerits work swift and deep-they have the power to conjure images of parental wrath. At first I resisted handing any out, opting instead to create contracts with students who disrupted class too often. But soon I caved in to the ease of silencing a perpetrator with the wave of a slip of paper. This way I didn't have to devote even more time to an already frenetic schedule to meet with a student, and have him write an essay which I would have to grade, as punishment.
About a month ago, however, I handed out my first two demerits, and it ruined my weekend. At first I was angry at the two students for pushing me so far that I took such extreme measures. Then, by Sunday, I was angry at myself for not figuring out a better way to discipline excessive talking.
I'm not against drastic measures. I just think that classroom lawbreakers, from the felons down to the petty offenders, can be taught the difference between right and wrong without having their self-esteem purposely wounded and, sometimes, paralyzed. Throwing a child out of school or even something as simple as doling out demerits for talking in class sends the wrong message. It tells children with porous self-esteem that who they are is not sufficient; that they aren't (insert school name here) material because of their natural identity.
Such messages contradict the mission, as I understand it, of private schools: to mold and nurture young minds so that these children trust and rely on their own creativity, humanity and intelligence as they prepare to become many of tomorrow's leaders. There has to be a smarter, more humane way to prepare these future leaders. I hope for their sake that I figure it out before tennis season begins.

Andrew Reiner will keep our readers informed about what it's like to be a teacher in an ongoing series on education.

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This story was published on March 5, 1997.