Is the emphasis in your school on punishment and compliance or autonomy and dignity?

Deluxe teacher grading kit

When I was in high school, we didn’t have an ‘open campus.’ We were supposed to stay at school and eat our lunches in the cafeteria. Many of us would drive off anyway, hoping that we could make it back in time for our next class. We often were late because of the distance between our school and the fast food joints. But since I ran with a crowd of ‘good kids’ who got high grades and were heading off to college, we could stroll into class late – sometimes with coffee or an ice cream cone for our teachers – and suffer no adverse consequences. At the time I was blissfully unaware of the privilege I enjoyed simply by being a white, male, middle class, high-achieving student (or that I ‘earned’ by being mostly compliant).

Fast forward thirty years… Today we see a number of ‘no excuses discipline’ schools – particularly in urban school districts – that punish students for the slightest noncompliance. Tardy to class? Shoelace untied? Not walking quietly enough? Failing to follow the taped line in the hallway? A stripe on your sock? Slouching? The wrong color undershirt? Not raising your hand with a straight elbow? Rolled-up sleeves on your school uniform? Not tracking the speaker with your eyes? ‘Willful defiance,’ however arbitrarily defined? Yelling, shaming, assignments that get ripped up, public tracking charts, demerits, detention, suspension, expulsion, and numerous other academic and disciplinary punishments await…

Critics of these schools note that the children who attend them invariably are ‘other people’s children.’ They’re not the children of the white middle class. They’re typically black, brown, and poor. And the folks who often are the strongest advocates of these kinds of schools would never, ever send their own children there. But, you know, ‘those children’ need more structure. ‘Those children’ need that kind of discipline because they don’t get it at home. Hey, don’t blame us, those parents ‘chose’ that kind of environment for their children. And so on…

But here’s the thing: educators and parents who are aghast at these ‘no excuses’ schools need to recognize that most traditional schools aren’t much better. The discipline may be slightly less draconian for most students, but the heavy emphasis on punishments and rewards remains for virtually all students. In most schools students lack significant agency, are told what to do nearly every minute of every day, rarely have meaningful choice or input into their own learning environments, and are punished by teachers and/or administrators if they don’t comply with whatever is demanded of them. Students can tell you how disrespectful, disempowering, and apathy-inducing these environments can be. It’s pretty stifling to have so little choice in what you learn. And it can be soul-killing to be 17 years old and still need permission to use the bathroom. So, yes, like for myself, the ‘good kids’ may be afforded a smidgen of leeway and autonomy that seems utterly lacking in the ’no excuses’ schools. And, yes, traditional schools – back in my day and now – may be a little less worrisome because the penalties usually are slightly less severe. But when it comes to our disciplinary practices, we need to climb down from our pedestals because the differences are mostly a matter of degree, not orientation.

My University of Colorado Denver faculty colleague, Dr. Manuel Espinoza, has been talking with us about the concept of student dignity – about the idea of affording students basic, inalienable rights of autonomy and respect. Not because they comply with our demands. Not because we bribed or forced them. Not because the economic need for self-directed workers has never been higher. But simply because our children are human beings – precious, unique individuals – who deserve to be cherished and treated as such rather than as mere objects of our desires for control and order (no matter how well-meaning our motives are). To quote Manuel, “What would it mean for schools to treat children as if they were of supreme value, of invaluable exchange?” And, no, this doesn’t mean chaos and anarchy in our schools…

Learning environments that empower students as meaningful contributors and choice-makers – that recognize and treat students as worthy of basic dignity – look very different than those that view students as unable or unwilling partners and/or problems to be managed. Which views predominate in your school system? And before you answer, ask yourself 1) what alternatives to punishment/reward disciplinary systems do you see around you, 2) how many times a day and in how many ways is a student’s basic dignity disrespected, 3) what happens when a student disagrees or doesn’t comply with a classroom or school behavior policy, and 4) who gets to make and enforce the policies in the first place.

2 Responses to “Is the emphasis in your school on punishment and compliance or autonomy and dignity?”

  1. Wow! That’s a thought provoking post and will challenge many school systems and administrators. Your bolded statement about learning environments makes your point clear. Dignity and respect. If we don’t model it, how will they learn it? If they don’t feel respected, they can’t respect another? The harsh negativity of so many schooling institutions makes my heart bleed. What happened to education?

  2. If teachers and principals were to videotape themselves in their offices, classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, etc. and then watch themselves interact with students, I wonder how they would honestly answer those 4 questions. Great mirror check!

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