Why I Don’t Punish My Students

PunishmentPosterWriting lines, missing recess, demerits, the Principal’s Office, forced apologies. None of this stuff teaches a kid how to do right. I may be a bit late in writing this. It seems most teachers have come around to this way of thinking already, but just in case a few were missed, I’ll share my thoughts on the topic.

I don’t punish my students.

Punishment is like whacking your car, because it won’t run, or kicking the tire, because it’s flat. It does nothing to solve the problem.

More than that, though, it’s usually an attempt at control after losing one’s self in a sea of frustration.

Here’s what I mean.

You’re with your student(s), it’s been a rotten day, there are thirty things on your to-do list and no time to do them. It’s hot (cold, humid, etc.), you’re tired, and somebody does something just outrageous. I know. I’ve been there. It’s not pretty. Some of the things we say and do in this state, we’d rather forget.

Then there’s the other day. The cold day. The day of righteous indignation. You know the one. You feel like you were calm and cool in meting out just desserts for misbehavior. After all, it’s your duty as their authority figure.

Maybe you went with some kind of level system. Pulling a card, moving down your clothes pin, getting a frowny face on the behavior chart. I’m not saying any of that stuff is inherently bad, but it’s like we think if we conceal our punishing in the clothes of calculated and scientific data analysis it lets us off the hook.

There is another way.

There’s a way to get to the source of the misbehavior. There’s a way you and your student can work together in harmony. There’s a way to prevent problems in the future. It’s gonna take some emotional work, and, most importantly…

You have to see your student as your equal, even though you are his or her leader.

Yes, you have years. Yes, you have experience. Yes, you have training. That doesn’t make you better than your student. You’ve got to listen to him with total faith and confidence that his insights are valuable. It’s like that saying of Goethe’s: “Treat a man as though he is already what he should be, and he will become what he ought to be”. Your student is a future something: a president, a scientist, a parent, doctor, tax attorney, or police officer. Give him or her a chance to be on your team, and win together!

Something we believe in my church is that we lived for time immemorial before we had physical bodies and were born into the world. During that time we did stuff, learned things, and had experiences. The essence of who we were during that time, even though we can’t remember it, is still with us, and comes through in spite of all kinds of adverse conditions: poverty, disability, abuse, addiction, illness, etc.

When I remember that my students (and I) have this glorious background, it’s easier for me to believe in their potential to help solve problems. I can visualize them drawing from that source of power that’s still in them, even though they can’t remember how they got it.

I’m less inclined to find fault with their misbehavior when I think of them as eternal beings of great worth and with a divine mission.

I’m less inclined to have a patronizing attitude toward them, or to dismiss their ideas and feelings.

What I’m saying is that it’s easier for me to have compassion, when I think of my students this way. Then, when it comes time for discipline, I can really hear them when they’re trying to tell me what the problem is, and how to fix it.

Seek to understand, then work together to solve problems.

And, for heaven’s sake, exercise some humility! If you go into the problem-solving situation with discipline as your goal, and you think you have all the answers, your student will write you off as just another adult who thinks kids are a problem to be fixed rather than partners in finding solutions.

Too often, a punishment seeks to stop a behavior in its tracks rather than working out a solution to really prevent it in the future. If that’s really all you want, read no further. If you want more and better for you and your students, read on.

Think of it this way. If your best friend came into your classroom and accidentally knocked over a shelf full of picture books during silent reading time, how would you react?

Now, what if a student did it?

There shouldn’t be a difference in the regard we have for students and other categories of people. They may be young and inexperienced, but they are still people. If you have trouble with that concept, check out this sweet TED Talk on ageism.

Here’s what that problem solving might look like:

Broken iPad:

Me: “I see there’s a broken iPad here.”

Carrie: “Yeah! Natalie pushed me, and my elbow knocked it off the table!”

Me: “I see.”

Carrie(s): “I know I should have pushed it more away from the edge, but I forgot. She pushed me!”

Natalie: “It was an accident!”

Me: “Oh.”

Student(s): “Yeah.”

Me: “This iPad needs to be repaired or replaced.”

Student(s): “We don’t have any money.”

Me: “Hm, we have a problem. iPad repairs cost money, but we don’t have any right now.”

Students come up with shockingly awesome solution.

I’ve dealt with an almost identical situation with real students, and, I kid you not, that’s what happened. They came up with an excellent solution all by themselves. Do you think they were more careful with iPads after the experience?

You bet.

Also, after that, they turned into problem-solving machines. Just pumping out solutions all over the place. A group of kids who could barely stand each other, at first, have become really close and very collaborative.

No punishment necessary.

I could have made them write lines, forced them to apologize to me or each other, or taken away gaming privileges. None of those would’ve taught accountability and problem-solving, though, which is ultimately what we want. That’s the thing about punishment. It always misses the target. If you need proof of that, just check out the recidivism rates in our country’s prisons.

What to do instead.

The real Yodas of the alternative approach are Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, who, you know by now, are my heroes. Also on the list of punishment-alternative experts are Jesus Christ, Viktor Frankl, and this guy, with whom I got to spend a week a few summers ago (he’s hilarious, by the way) during which time he told me about how he forgave the men who cut off his hands during the Rwandan genocide.

I know it’s hard to change, but I promise you this: learning how to problem-solve instead of punish, will only take you a couple of tries before you’re hooked. It helped me to believe again in the power we humans have to create peace together. It starts with baby steps between students and teachers, and can spread to entire nations. Just give it a shot!

Apply these principles:

-Just describe the problem without passing judgment or evaluating (name-calling) the students’ character.

-Reflect, restate, and clarify their position. Student: “I hate you, Mrs. Heaton”! Me: “Oh. I hear you’re not liking me right now”.

-Keep it simple. One- to two-word maximum responses. “Oh.” “I see.” “Mm.”, or just a nod will suffice.

-Solicit suggestions for solutions. “Hm, I’m not sure what to do. We have xyz problem, got any ideas?”

-Accept any and all serious suggestions, then be honest about which ones you can or can’t live with.

A word on the big things.

This post, indeed the blog setting, is probably grossly insufficient to really get to the heart of punishment in the context of really really bad things, i.e. rape, murder, abuse and neglect. If you need more help with that, I highly recommend the book The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. Sometimes, in dire circumstances, a person will hurt others in spite of all attempts to reconcile, and then there’s a way to stop them that won’t cripple you emotionally. More on that in a later post.

For now, I’m anxious to hear how the application of punishment alternatives have worked with your students. Please message me or comment below and let me know how it’s going.


The Mission of the Transient Tutor is to provide…

Mission Statement

I wanted to form a mission statement for my tutoring and mentoring. I didn’t really know where to begin, because I’ve never created a mission statement before, so I did what every good American does, and googled it. A few I found are the following:

“Proclaim the Gospel, Perfect the Saints, Redeem the Dead” by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“…to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life” by Brigham Young University

“Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet” by Whole Foods

“To be the leader in wilderness education that serves people and the environment” by NOLS

The four pillars of Outward Bound: “Self-Reliance, Physical Fitness, Craftsmanship, but above all, Compassion”.

Wow! My eyes were shining. The idealist in my heart burned with resolution. What lofty aspirations!

But they weren’t my aspirations, so I played how-are-these-alike, and discovered that all good mission statements share a few common elements.

No. 1 A good mission statement is short and to the point.

Dang. I’ve never been good at short and to-the-point. I tend to wander in tangential trails. But I’ll work on that. So, what now?

No. 2 A good mission statement reflects the strengths of the organization.

Cool. I think I know what I’m good at. Listening seems to be my strong suit, so I thought I’d better include that in my mission statement. I’m also pretty good at organizing ideas into coherent sentences that other people can understand. So, speaking (communicating in general) makes the list, too. But people want to know how I do these things.

No. 3 A good mission statement gives a sense of what sets the organization apart, makes it unique, and specifies the way they do things.

I mean, I could listen and communicate, and still be a big jerk, right? So, how do I reassure my students and their families that coming to me for mentoring is a good thing? Time to throw in some adjectives and/or prepositional phrases. I went with compassion, because I want to promote an it’s-okay-to-be-yourself-and-talk-about-anything-on-your-mind vibe. I feel a good mentor not only listens, but has real respect for the student’s ideas, feelings, desires, and goals. That taking-the-student-seriously-ness seems like compassion to me, because compassion really means esteeming the other person as much, if not more, than yourself. However, that only tells half the story. I’m not just a diary for people to pour their hearts into. I also want to impart guidance, recommend reading, and inspire.

No. 4 A great mission statement leaves no doubt as to why the organization is doing what it does in the way that it does it.

This is the part where the most exciting thing happened for me. If I am listening compassionately to the students as if their ideas were as real and important to me as my own, we might then be able to have a discussion as equals. Then what would I say to them? What could I possibly tell them that really mattered/impacted their lives for good/helped them grow as learners and humans, etc? So, I had to delve a little deeper into my personal philosophy of teaching. It’s a philosophy in process. It’s still flexing and changing. What I currently believe was arrived at after years of pondering the topic. I expect by the time I die it will have morphed dramatically, and it could even be 360 degrees different tomorrow, but all I really have to go on is now.

So, what I basically believe is this. We are all free moral agents in a world that presents infinite possibilities and choices. Many lead to evil and many lead to good. In other words, there is a villain and there is a hero inside each of us. The villain usually chooses evil and the hero usually chooses good. Whichever is spoken to the most affirmatively, will eventually take the lead role. What I mean by that is that when we listen to/speak to a person as if she is already a villain, it affirms the reality of the villain within her (and within us). It teaches her the language of a villain so that her inner voice itself even speaks to the villainous part of her.

Now, I reject the possibility that this dooms her to be a villain forever. No, no, I believe that by beginning to speak to the hero in her, she may yet save the day. I believe the hero in us never truly dies, but can be beaten to a bloody pulp by the villain and go dormant for long periods of time. The hero never really goes away, though. He or she is always there in the background waiting for a chance to prove him or herself.

So, I feel my calling as a teacher/tutor/mentor, whatever you want to call it, is to speak to the hero in every child. The hero is already in there, is already capable of arriving at solutions on his own, is already a sentient and conscious being with thoughts and feelings and ideas. There’s not really anything I can put into him to change him. The changes will always come from the hero himself. However, a hero is usually accompanied by a mentor of some kind: wise relatives like Uncle Ben and Aunt May, or an inspiring teacher like Professor Dumbledore. These people never entertained, even for a second, the possibility that their Peter Parkers or Harry Potters were villains, and certainly never treated them as if they were. They might have, for both stories certainly show that each hero had dark moments in which they doubted their ability to be good. But their mentors invited the heroes to the conversation, and gave them space to solve their own problems while also setting an inspiring example themselves.

This is ultimately what I want to do for my students. I want to listen to everything in them, good and bad, and coach them through the times of doubt when evil might win. I want to cheer them on and believe in them as they wrestle with life’s choices.

Too many students come away from the learning experience feeling beaten, rejected, and stepped on. We speak to them as if they were clumsy, childish, untrustworthy, incapable, an annoyance, aggravations, basically wrong and in need of correction by the morally-superior and experienced adults. Is it any wonder they begin to bow to the villain within them? Considering the verbal darts thrown at them all day, I’m not surprised. How often do we hear teachers calling names (lazy, disrespectful, irresponsible), using sarcasm (So you want to be an architect? Well, judging by your math test that’ll go over just great.), using punitive and embarrassing methods of correction (You didn’t finish your homework? Well, then you can just stay in for recess until you learn how to work harder)? How often do we hear statements like “Oh, you don’t really mean that.” suggesting to the student that she doesn’t really know herself, that the adults know better, and just to reject her feelings until they go underground and start manifesting in unpleasant behaviors. When you hear yourself described, and spoken to, in this way, you eventually start to believe it’s true, and a kid will act the part every time.

I know what some of you are thinking. “Well, she’s never had kids of her own.”, “Just let her try and see for herself when she’s a real teacher.” Yeah, ‘kay. That’s great, but I don’t have to have kids to know what it feels like to be one, and I don’t have to be a teacher in order to know what it felt like to be a student. 

That’s the key here. I remember when teachers got it right and how that made me feel, but I also remember the times teachers got it wrong, and those scars can last a lifetime. Making the feelings, ideas, and inner realities of my students as real as my own, and just as important, is what makes learning possible. Yes, the teacher may have more years and experience, but until the more experienced one allows space for the other to be heard, and speaks to that person as if they are capable of achieving years and experience, no amount of experience will help. It’s like knowing the phone number, but having no cell service. Until you hook up the line, they can’t hear you. You’d be more successful trying to eat the Great Wall of China. As Dave Ramsey says, “You can’t smack somebody in the back of the head until after you’ve got your arm around their shoulders”.

So, that, in a nutshell, is my teaching philosophy, and the final portion of my mission statement. Getting it all into one sentence seemed impossible, but I think I did alright. Today, I’m off to tutor some very nice people. They’re eight-years-old. I’ll let you know how it goes as I aim to practice what I preach.