being a student, being a teacher, being me, punishment

When We Don’t Just Punish

He stares at me in silence, eyes cutting through me like knives.  He turns his back, message sent loud and clear; conversation over, nothing resolved.    And I feel my heart beat faster, my judgment gets cloudy and part of me wants to punish.  Wants to give a consequence.  How dare you turn your back, how dare you refuse, how dare you not do as you are told.

I could send him out, I could call the principal.  I could take away, I could call home. I could punish, many probably would, yet I know that it wont solve, it wont make it better. I need a solution and that wont come from a phone call, a detention, public shaming through a behavior chart, or a lost privilege.  In fact, it won’t come from corporal punishment either although some states still seem to think so.  The answer doesn’t lie within the punishment. It hardly ever does.

So when we don’t punish a child, when we don’t force them into behaving, then what?  When we lose the easy way out, and trust me punishing a child is always the easy way out, then what do we do?  We worry, we reflect, we reach out to to others, and we don’t give up.  We search for answers that may not be easily found and we realize just how inherently human we are.  That it is hard to work with students who seem to take pleasure in finding every one of our buttons and then pushing them over and over.  Just waiting for our reaction, waiting for when we will give up and finally dole out a punishment.  That sometimes, even when you have been teaching for a while, you do not have all of the fixes and that when you are working with human beings there are no easy answers.

His back glares at me, seemingly waiting for my response, and so I clear my throat, clench my fist and say, “I am here if you need me” and I walk away.

That day I didn’t solve the problem.   Complicated situations always take more time.  In fact, I wonder if I ever will, but I know that if I had punished, if I had gone down my list of what to do that someone taught me in college, that child would not have changed.  He would have dug his heels in and fought me harder.  Because sometimes the kids that push us away.  Sometimes the kids that fight us the hardest.  Sometimes the kids that seem like they hate us with every fiber of their being are the ones that need us the most.  Even if they find the hardest way to show it.

So I will continue to take deep breaths, knowing that tomorrow brings a new day.  To realize that perhaps this is personal because it really is, because in the defiance is a test of relationship; how far can I push before the love is gone.  How far can I go before this teacher finally snaps.

I am only human but within my own humanity I find my answer; don’t give up.  Keep trying.  Stay the course.  Don’t punish but continue to be there.  Continue to try.  Sometimes simply not giving up is the only answer we need.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


12 thoughts on “When We Don’t Just Punish”

  1. Agree Pernille. As hard as it is, we must NEVER give up! Keep taking deep breaths, keep holding our frustrations at bay, keep wondering and trying to figure out how best we might build a bridge with a student rather than build walls.

  2. One of my ceas put a sign up on my office that “here is where we solve problems” – some problems may require time & space, but not as many as may face the ‘detention lineup fir public shaming’ (some personal memories!) I much prefer to help solve problems than punish repeatedly (which is what happens when consequences come without learning opportunities)

  3. I have a student who is really testing and pushing limits right now. I have learned that anger at these young ages (K-12) is such a protective mechanism for them. But my school counselor reminded me this on Friday again when I asked her some more questions about this student’s history. It can be hard not to let it get personal. I love your description of your heart beating faster. It is such a natural response and I go through it myself. We are only humans, but we are the adults in the room, and as teachers I think our role as adults needs to be first and foremost being the safety net for these kids. When we punish, we remind them what they already know, that there is no safety net. It is complex, especially with the most challenging kids. Also, things I don’t mean as a punishment can be taken that way: a polite direction to change seats, a perception of being called out or singled out for a one-on-one talk, etc. After much trial and error as a new teacher, what I focus on now is to try to speak sofly or calmy no matter what I am saying and I try to give it as much privacy as I can within the classrom, directing myself only to the person I am speaking to, not meant to be overheard by everyone else. It’s certainly a challenge to be mindful of it in every interaction, every hour of every day, but it’s important. Posts like these are great reminders and reinforcers for us.

  4. Check out “Why Gender Matters,” by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.. Boys and girls respond differently due to brain development. Most boys will not seek to talk with the teacher.

    1. Thanks for the tip! Sounds interesting, even as a parent. My own children have very different personalities, and one of my boys is most definitely a talker, while I can see how the other one may be less inclined to want to open up to a teacher, as he is much more reserved, and maybe this will be more so as he grows older into teenage years. Will check the book out just in case.

  5. I have one of these students in my class this year, and every day is a struggle to remind myself not to let the frustration usurp my desire to help. Many times, there is more than we could ever imagine going on behind those obstinate eyes that glare back at us. Thanks for the reminder to stay the course. I may not succeed academically with this child, but perhaps my goal can only be to be a positive, steady presence in this student’s tumultuous life.

  6. Okay, talk about hitting the nail on the head! I’m constantly challenging the admin at my school to give up the punishment game. Especially because most of the kids who misbehave are the ones who don’t get noticed any other way.

    If a kid gets a consequence like a detention more than 3 times, then the consequence isn’t working. But they just keep doling them out, and the same kids are in detentions for the 4 years.

    “But what are we supposed to do?” they ask. When asked what he would say to the kids who shot up Columbine High School, Marylyn Manson said, “I wouldn’t say anything. I would listen.”

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