The Pressure to Punish Part II

Briliant hues

Last week, I wrote about a student who sent an angry email to a teacher during winter break. I talked about my own initial instinct to “jump to punishment” instead of finding out what had happened.

Returning from break, I was reminded of another layer of complexity: the parents’ pressure to punish.

The day we returned from break, I assumed that the student who wrote the email would feel remorseful. We would start off with discussing why the email was a problem, the student would apologize, and all would be well.

Nope: the student returned to school angry, sure that he was “right” to express his feelings in the email.

“Wasn’t that more professional than going to class and yelling at the teacher?” he asked me. I did see his kid-logic.

The student explained why he was so angry: “I was supposed to go on a trip to Pennsylvania and my parents canceled it after they got the phone call from the teacher.”

Aha. In many of our students’ cultures, teachers are highly revered. Almost all of our students are newcomer immigrants. For many parents, a phone call wouldn’t be seen simply as information, or as a request to talk to their child.  A phone call would be seen as an embarrassment to the family and a serious call to action– a pressure to punish.

Interestingly, the student didn’t blame his parents for the canceled trip; he blamed his teacher. The teacher, to his credit, took it in stride: “I get it: in his mind, I’m the reason he didn’t go to Pennsylvania. I had no idea that calling would lead to his trip being cancelled.”

This student’s parents also had the best of intentions: the cancelled trip was the best way they knew to teach their child and support the teacher. When I called the father, he said, “This is my kid, I can’t let him go down the wrong path.” I thanked the father for being so available. Knowing the student listens to his father, I asked the father to talk more with the student about why he needed to repair his relationship with the teacher.

The student came in the next day ready to apologize. The teacher was masterful in starting off by casually complementing the student’s shoes (this immediately softened the student), accepting the apology gracefully, and saying he was glad to have the student back in his class. The teacher also expressed that he was sorry the student had missed out on his trip (this really made an impact). Finally, the teacher told the student that he cared about the student, and he had the student articulate what he’d do to ensure he stayed on the right track. The student left looking lighter, happier.

The interaction showed me that the teacher was mastering the supportive tone we are going for in discipline: building rapport while holding the student accountable.

At the same time, I saw that this teacher’s response was possible after hours of training in restorative practices to discipline. As an entire school, we have not yet mastered these practices with consistency. The education field itself is now full of great theories and structures for restorative discipline, but most educators’ skill level in implementing these theories is still at a beginner level. Even I consider myself new to it. Putting it plainly, we have great ideas but we’re not yet good at putting them in practice with kids. That’s why some parents and educators argue for a “return to consequences,” by which they mean punishment.

I left this interaction feeling a strong level of partnership with the student, teacher, and parents. I was re-inspired to take the time we need to get skilled in new approaches to discipline so students can learn not only the subjects we’re teaching, but how to be the great human beings we know they can be.

Photo/ art credit: brillianthues, Creative Commons License.

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