The Pressure to Punish

Snowing in the Bronx

Right before winter break started, a teacher approached me, visibly upset. A student had sent him an email saying, “I hate you” and wishing the teacher a “horrible” winter break, among some other unkind things.

What had preceded this email? The teacher explained that he had called the student’s parents in for a meeting regarding the student’s behavior. Afterwards, the student had sent the angry email to the teacher. (On a positive note, the email was clearly written and formatted correctly, a “modern skill” we now teach in our English classes.)

I thought about what should happen and I realized that first and foremost, it was winter break for a reason: everyone just needed to take a break. I told the teacher to not think about the email over break and to rest. I also thanked him for arranging a meeting with the parents.

Finally, I promised him we’d speak to the student and “deal with it” with a consequence if necessary. I named a few potential consequences for the behavior. The teacher said we should do all of them. Not thinking much about it at the time, I said “OK.”

A day later, I realized that I didn’t even know the full story of what had happened with the student and teacher. I saw that I had rushed to the word “consequence” without knowing how the student had misbehaved in class, or what assignments were missing. I didn’t know what steps the teacher had taken to teach or correct the student before the parent meeting.

Even though my school is learning and implementing progressive approaches to discipline, I admit that I still occasionally have my own “jump to punishment” reflex. “Jump to punishment” is different from teaching behavior and also different from an appropriate consequence. A consequence is a logical outcome, positive or negative, of an action or a behavior. Punishment is the desire to make someone else “pay” or suffer for something they did wrong. Logical consequences can be a part of teaching behavior but punishments simply breed resentment.

Sometimes the word “consequence” is used but what is really meant is “punishment.” I saw that in the conversation with the teacher, while I had used the word “consequence,” it had taken on the sense of “punishment.”

There is a balance to empathizing with teachers and helping them navigate the stressors of dealing with teenagers (there are many), while also teaching them to teach behavior, and not take misbehavior personally. Kids push teachers’ buttons and even the best teachers (and myself) can want to punish a child when we hurt ourselves with what they say or do.

The day I realized I had jumped to a punishment-bordering consequence, I saw I could deal with the situation more thoughtfully– and more effectively. The email was a case of a child venting, and perhaps also, a case of a child trying to prevent future meetings with his parents.

I saw that with the email, we had an opportunity to teach. How many of us have sent emails we regret? I remember attending a workshop for principals in which the presenters said, “You know what the ‘E’ in emails stands for? Evidence. Don’t send an email unless you’re OK with it being used as evidence for anything in the future.” What a great thing to teach kids. We could also teach this student that he cannot manage adults by saying or writing the equivalent of a temper tantrum. And a consequence could be used, but in the spirit of repairing the relationship with the teacher. A face to face apology, if sincere, could be extremely effective because it is so immediate and real. In addition, the student could also create a plan for how to exercise self control in the class, and also show self control when his behavior is corrected. An email apology could also be a logical consequence. His parents could be updated in a way that informs them of how we are handling the situation so they don’t feel pressured to punish further.

As educators, we sometimes think that our main job is to teach math, science, history, English, etc. But ultimately, our job is to teach students to manage the ups and downs of being human with self-control and grace.

Photo credit: Snowing in the Bronx, Kathy Drasky, Creative Commons License

2 thoughts on “The Pressure to Punish

  1. „Jump to punishment “- never saw this need and the resort ( perhaps not quite the right English word?) so clearly explained as in this example in your blog! Excellent!


  2. Pingback: The Pressure to Punish Part II | Classroom 325

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