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The Punishing Reality of Education

With so much on social media and in the news around ‘Lose The Booths’, Cate Knight clarifies why she doesn’t like the word ‘punishment’ and how she deals with challenging behaviour.

I instinctively dislike the term “punishment”. It is slightly more palatable when wrapped up in bows such as “punitive measures” or “sanctions” but even then it hints at an abuse of power and control.

  1. the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence.

extended present participle stem of punir “to punish,” from Latin punire “punish, correct, chastise; take vengeance for; inflict a penalty on, cause pain for some offense,”
Old French punissement, from punir (see punish). Meaning “rough handling” is from 1811.

All etymological research shows I’m right to be uncomfortable. Punishment isn’t something I would ever want to have inflicted upon a child of mine.
Similar research shows that ‘punitive’ has the same stem and ‘Sanction’ comes from the original term “sancire” meaning to ratify, berate.

verb – ARCHAIC

verb: rate; 3rd person present: rates; past tense: rated; past participle: rated; gerund or present participle: rating

  1. scold (someone) angrily.”he rated the young man soundly for his want of respect”

They are just words. I can hear the response of many teachers justifying the terminology. Meanings change, of course they do, but how we choose our terminology can often affect its impact.

These words have their origins in anger, retribution and retaliation. They are not appropriate for use in a situation where a young person is faced with an adult run system.
Sometimes all that young person has ever experienced is angry judgements, harsh retaliation. It is our job, as teachers at all levels, as adults in positions of potential power, to be better. To model better.

With the heat still palpable from Lose the Booths and the profession divided on matters of exclusion and isolation I want to ask this:
Why are we teaching?

Is it to provide a generation of homogenized, compliant citizens whose morality depends upon the presence of deterrents like punishment?

Or is it to help young people develop into autonomous, morally independent humans who know right from wrong and will be able to stand up against the unjust or evil in society even when social pressure to conform makes that difficult?

The argument for “the 29” is a moving one. Having been a “good kid” in a class with 3 “naughty kids”, I remember the frustration of disruption. I also remember the anger of my teacher. I remember the inevitability of each situation. I remember never once thinking about what happened to the naughty kids once they left the lesson.
I have no doubt that there are times when it is necessary, even essential, for a learner to be removed from a class for their own benefit and the benefit of the 29.
My concern is with what happens next.

For most schools it is an impossible task to have restorative conversations there and then with that young person.
But it is what is needed.

The predominant emotion lingering will be anger or fear. Neither is healthy or helpful in moving forward. We need to move forward. Because sometimes the 1 can be the greatest example to the 29 and because it is our job to ensure that Every Child Matters.

Ideally we could see a separate program. An initial counselling session to establish the “Why?”. A tailored timetable of sessions to tackle the issue: boredom, anger management, home life, attention seeking.

And, rather than punishment, a meeting (mediated) with the teacher whose class was disrupted. A chance to hear the impact their behavior had, a chance for them to explain their behavior.

Where is the deterrent??? What is there to stop it happening again!!???

Firstly, low level moral decision making eg. good behavior after punishment only continues whilst the deterrent (punishment) is present. Once this fear abates, the behavior will return and the next punishment must increase in severity to be effective. It is a slippery slope.

Secondly, restorative practice is not without consequences. These are not punishments though.

The best example I can give is a learner who smashed a ukulele. I sat with him and tried to discover the reason for his behavior. It turned out to be an argument from before school that was still causing upset. We worked out a plan to deal with the conflict. I then explained the cost and disruption implications of his actions. I explained that I needed him to understand the “worth” of those instruments and my time and so he would come and help me retune and restring all the ukuleles at lunch until they were done.
He came every day for a week. At the end of the week there were still ukuleles left to string and tune but I felt the lesson had been learned. I told the learner he did not need to come on Monday lunchtime and I would finish the process myself.

The staff in the staffroom told me I was “soft” and that it hadn’t been a harsh enough punishment. I agreed. I hadn’t wanted it to be a punishment. It was simply another part of the learning.
On Monday the learner turned up to help. He claimed he enjoyed it and wanted to be useful. He had reached the second step of moral reasoning. He wanted to do the right thing because someone of influence had modelled it. He wanted to please me.

I’m glad he enjoyed learning the consequences of his actions because the learning process does not need to be painful or unpleasant.

It is not our job to segregate children based on what a system deems to be “appropriate” behavior. It is not even our job to drill that behavior into them. It is certainly not our job to frighten or punish them into compliance.

It is our job to teach them how to recognize the impact of their actions, how to make amends and how to make better moral choices, autonomously, in the future.
We are teachers not jailers

2 Replies to “The Punishing Reality of Education”

  1. Margaret says:

    Totally agree! It takes much more time but you are addressing that child’s learning needs at that particular time. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

  2. Catherine Knight says:

    Hey Margaret,
    Absolutely. Every thing that happens in a school day is a learning experience. We need to be mindful of what lessons are taken from our actions.

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The author

Cate has been a teacher for 20 years. She has worked internationally and across all key stages in the UK. Her secondary specialism is Performing Arts with a keen interest in PSHE/RSE. Cate is recently married with two cats who keep her busy and an allotment that requires more time than she can give it!

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