Education Opinion

Crime and (Inappropriate) Punishment

By Nancy Flanagan — September 21, 2010 3 min read
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“A New Jersey teacher is off to jail for 90 days for protecting the integrity of his class and refusing to be bullied.” Radio show highlights, WSJ This Morning (Gordon Deal)

So how did New Jersey Teacher (who was also a coach) bravely stand up for truth and justice--and earn a stay in the slammer for his valor? He pushed a mouthy kid out of his classroom, seizing him by the ear.

Deal acknowledged that the teacher had some “other issues” but declined to share them, preferring to set the story up as a profile in teacher courage. Deal goes on to share a few nostalgic tales of Sister Torquemada slamming kids against the blackboard in his good old Catholic-school days, when kids knew their place, and parents weren’t helicopters. At last--a teacher who takes swift action against disrespectful punks and teaches them a lesson! Cue the cheering from teachers everywhere.

But--which lesson is that, exactly? The kid (whose transgression was cursing at NJ Teacher while refusing to leave the room) has now been given a colorful display of how trusted adults in authority behave when faced with insolence. In the aftermath, all of NJ Teacher’s “issues"-- a “documented pattern of unlawful behavior,” including assault charges and violation of restraining orders--are now public knowledge. In the eyes of his school district, his students and athletes, he’s toast.

From the start, this story smelled fishy. Teachers who apply maximum persuasive force toward students doing the right thing in class--teachers who strictly and vigorously protect the control and order of their instructional mission--are rightfully admired.

Every teacher who is able to consistently accomplish this classroom integrity (and it’s the Headache That Never Goes Away, believe me) does so with their own unique formula: a lot of respect, a little humor, unending patience, clearly defined and enforced structures and procedures, and, yes, swift correction for misbehaviors--and possibly a formidable stink eye.

Teachers are occasionally pushed over the edge--happens all the time--but smart school administrators don’t throw good teachers under the bus because they lost it, and yanked on a kid’s ear. Principals want efficient but humane discipline in their buildings.

I began teaching in the 1970s when teachers were permitted to use paddles (the “board of education,” ostentatiously displayed on colleagues’ classroom walls)--and participated in any number of heated lounge discussions around just how dire the situation would become if teachers were no longer allowed to smack kids. I was in the classroom before and after laws changed around the country. While I acknowledge that there’s a fine line between necessary force and abuse, I can say with certainty that adult physical aggression is not the defining factor between schools that are safe and orderly and schools that are dangerous or out of control.

My personal, non-researched reasons for avoiding physical force and punishment:
• They don’t work very well to eradicate negative behavior, especially with older kids.
• They humiliate the student and damage relationships.
• They model a negative pattern of meeting bad behavior with more bad behavior.
• They position the teacher as immature bully in the eyes of the other students.
• They don’t teach kids how to deal with conflict or misbehavior in ways other than force.

After the praise for NJ Teacher, this widely circulated audio file of Michelle Rhee, telling new teachers in D.C. amusing stories about taping her students’ mouths shut as a first-year teacher feels particularly distasteful.

What was her intended message for novice teachers? And what’s the takeaway for experienced teachers?

Hat tip to Robert Pondiscio for snagging the WSJ story.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.