Thursday, February 25, 2010

Truth and Consequences

What follows may seem to readers of this blog as needing context...I don't disagree but I don't have time for that right now...I just want to post this before it slips away from entirely...suffice it to say that the issues addressed below are on my mind these days. Lastly, there are really two separate posts spliced together here...they may or may not read as a seamless text.

Let me begin by saying that I am unimpressed by the zero tolerance model of discipline for high schools. While it makes a great show of seriousness, I don't believe that it does much more than create the public perception that its proponents care more deeply about the problem than the rest of us who have learned to live within the ambiguities and gray areas of real life.
Regarding the issue of how best to deal with students who violate our school policies concerning drugs and alcohol, I think that we need to keep in mind always that we cannot help kids if we do not remain engaged with them in meaningful ways. The threat of expulsion should not be, in my opinion, the centerpiece of our approach to young offenders. I do not want to see education become co-opted by the ethos of law enforcement any more than I want to see it co-opted by the ethos of industry.
Any legitimate approach must begin with first principles which then become the animating forces promoting our school climate and culture. I propose three such principles which, taken together, describe the epicenter of our professional concerns as educators.
  • First, we recognize and respect the individual needs of each and every student enrolled at school.
  • Second, we believe that all people desire happiness and are always, within their own personal and social contexts, working to obtain it.
  • Third, all learning leads us inexorably and sometimes painfully in the direction of greater awareness of the possibility and the nature of happiness.
Ask yourselves, do you want a school culture defined by rules and penalties or one defined by human relationships and values? I would argue that a student offense ought to trigger an examination by the student of his behavior and choices, the formulation of a plan leading the student back into the classroom, and the exploration of experiences designed to enlarge and enrich the student's awareness of possible paths to joy, peak performance, or pleasure. In other words, our focus should not be punitive; rather, it should be educational.
I don't have time to explain how I am not proposing doing away with consequences or suggesting the abolition of harsh penalties like suspension or expulsion. If you are really curious about whether what I'm suggesting has any practical merit, visit the website of Park School here:
Park is a private school, yes, but I'm always struck by the paradox that what people with means will do for their children is somehow inappropriate for our own children. People pay good money for things they really believe in. Wouldn't it be nice if we could furnish taxpayers with the same sort of thing?

I am struck repeatedly by the way working inside an institution creates a rule bound mentality that tends to override human judgment and replace it with legalistic thinking.

I am not embarrassed to say that I intentionally treat kids and other people on a case by case basis, that I care enough about consequences to tailor them to the person and the circumstance, and that simply laying down a rule and then waiting for a kid to make a bad choice is not my idea of constructive intervention.

I absolutely believe in consequences. I have no problem with expulsion for the young person who is a repeat offender of a drug/alcohol policy or who is unrepentant and unwilling to make an effort to learn after a first offense. I do not believe that failure to adhere to one component of an action plan (tardies for example) or behavior contract (late work for example) should put a student in jeopardy of expulsion. Expulsion should be reserved for violations of serious policies like drug/alcohol.

We seem to lack the imagination to fashion consequences that will actually trigger a process of reflection and perhaps reintegration.

My concern always revolves around a bias I carry against institutions, namely that they tend to act in their own interests and not in the interests of individual people. People make institutions less efficient, more problematic, they tax the patience of those charged with enforcing rules. The message I hear is, " if only people would read the policy book and abide by it, life would be simpler"...sorry but that's not my idea of a healthy human place. I got into this line of work in part because I'm drawn to the messiness of learning. Until and unless an institution has exhausted itself in the service of or at the very least inconvenienced itself on behalf of it's clientele it is not fulfilling its mission.

I'm deeply suspicious of the impulse to cleanse our population of ne'er-do-wells, to remove kids from our presence who don't believe us, to create through attrition and subtraction a more compliant population. It smacks of a desire to make our own lives easier. I don't think that's what we're paid to do....then again, maybe that's exactly what we're paid to do.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


The quote below is my favorite part of your recent post, not only because it is (typically)well-stated. The concept behind this is one that more people in education need to remember. It is a "people business," not something that should depend merely on rules & consequences & "consistency" & test data. Thanks for sharing. I appreciate the thought you put into your posts! Doug

"I am not embarrassed to say that I intentionally treat kids and other people on a case by case basis, that I care enough about consequences to tailor them to the person and the circumstance, and that simply laying down a rule and then waiting for a kid to make a bad choice is not my idea of constructive intervention."

9:56 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home