Teaching Opinion

The Pursuit of a Perfect Pencil Policy

By David Ginsburg — November 07, 2010 3 min read
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It never occurred to me as I prepared for my first year of teaching that I’d need a plan for addressing student requests to borrow a pencil. This was high school, after all, so I just assumed kids would be responsible enough to bring supplies to class. Bad assumption. Yet equally bad was the assumption students made: that I would honor their requests (more like commands: “Yo, give me a pencil, dude”).

No way was I going to reinforce such irresponsible behavior. Until, that is, an administrator observed my class, and saw a student sitting idly without a pencil. A note in my mailbox later that day made it clear that it was indeed my responsibility to indulge students’ irresponsibility.

Still, even if I would have to supply pencils, I was determined to do so in a way that was least likely to disrupt class and most likely to motivate kids to bring pencils in the future. I first tried doing this by requiring students to give me a school ID card in exchange for a pencil. No ID, no lunch, so I figured many students would be reluctant to fork over their IDs and risk forgetting to get them back at the end of class. Others, I hoped, would find this process to be such a hassle that they’d remember to bring a pencil to class. Well, I was right about one thing: exchanging pencils and IDs was a hassle--for me, not them. Yet what ultimately convinced me to scrap this idea was the realization that I was not only enabling irresponsible behavior, but was also, in effect, punishing responsible behavior--by giving so much attention to kids who came to class without pencils at the expense of those who came to class with them.

Plan B involved charging students ten cents for a pencil, which they could then keep. Much better than the ID-as-collateral approach since this was a one-way exchange. But no better in terms of motivating kids to bring pencils to class. A dime a day just didn’t mean much to them, so I was spending way too much time on pencil transactions--in class and at the office supplies store.

At this point I wanted to let students help themselves to a pencil, while still compelling them to bring one in the future.

A colleague suggested I do this by leaving on my desk a box of pencils that had been sharpened down to thumb-length. Clever? Absolutely. Effective? Not exactly, since anything done in a spiteful spirit is bound to backfire when you’re working with kids. And in this case, even though the stubs were too short for students to write with, they were just right for flinging at each other--and me.

Beyond exasperation, I finally settled on two pencil policy objectives: avoid losing instructional time and encourage students to be resourceful. Why resourcefulness? Because many of my students lacked it and, I believed, would never be successful without it. And since resourcefulness is about solving problems as much as preventing them, I decided to focus less on deterring students from forgetting a pencil and more on how they could get one--without eating into instructional time.

Of course, not eating into instructional time meant not involving me. And really, why was I students’ go-to person for pencils in the first place? (Do you go to the Principal when you need a whiteboard marker? Did you go to the professor when your pen ran out of ink?) So from this point on, when students asked me if they could borrow a pencil, I replied, “Yes,” and then turned away from them--not rudely, but in accordance with what proved to be the perfect pencil policy: Please bring a pencil to class, but if you forget one, of course you can (and should) borrow one--from a classmate, not me.

Image provided by Phillip Martin with permission

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