When I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Morris routinely disciplined our class by having us put our heads down on our desks to "think about" what "we" had "done." I was a painfully compliant child, so these punishments felt mystifying and deeply, deeply wrong. I would clench my eyes and breathe deeply, smelling the sweat on my arms as my nose compressed into my skin. I'd listen to the tick-tick-tick of the clock, betting against myself on how many minutes it would take for our sentence to end. Meanwhile, in the back of the room, Doug Webb and Shane O'Leary snickered and spit, infuriating Mrs. Morris ever more.
Which explains my huge, gigantic pet peeve: When a whole group of innocent kids gets punished for the choices of a few. Or one.
I’ve seen this happen on buses, in classrooms, on sports teams, and, most prominently of all, in the cafeteria at lunch. Especially older kids. One or two of them, usually leaders and usually gleeful in their search for trouble, will gather a couple followers in the hunt for ways to get themselves in trouble. They don’t seem bothered when the grownup in charge resorts to all-group discipline; in fact, it seems to make it all the more fun.
Many years ago, I worked in a middle school where the person in charge of lunch duty would routinely grow infuriated at a group of kids, or a specific table, and she’d lose her mind on the whole room. She’d shout and holler and work herself into such fury that she had to culminate in a big ol’ consequence. “For the rest of the period, it will be silent lunch,” she’d hurl out. “I don’t want to hear a single word. A single sound. For the rest of the period.”
In her defense, lunch duty was a terrible gig, and after years and years, she was sick of it. There were several hundred students in the room, all packed in with their hunger and hormones and teenaged drama. It was hard, hard work. Infuriating work. Which is why her temper and frustration routinely overwhelmed her and grew too big for her to manage.
Unfortunately, she’d made herself a target by being so easily provoked into a tizzy; some students found it downright funny to get her. Some even found glee in being punished with silent lunch; after all, it opened up a whole new game: If they giggled or snorted while her back was turned, and then wiped their faces clean while she whirled around, it was pretty much impossible to ever get caught. She’d get madder and madder, watching her beloved silent lunch being chipped away, one too-loud sneeze at a time, until finally everyone would be (literally) saved by the bell and, with the loudest whoops, flee the cafeteria on their way back to class.
But while a handful of students were playing cat-and-mouse with the teacher, there were of several hundred students who were trying to lie low and do everything right. They’d come into the room and done precisely what they were told to do. Get lunch. Sit. Eat. Talk quietly. Throw trash away. Wait for the bell.
It just wasn’t fair.
At the time, I couldn’t do anything about it; I was in no position to intervene or offer solutions. I couldn’t have done anything anyway; I wouldn’t have any clue how to do it differently or better. After all, at the time, I was still trying to develop my own articulated beliefs about why the whole thing felt so wrong.
Now, though, I can; I try to reinforce how deeply unfair it is to punish whole groups of students for the behaviors of one. I explain how we lose respect from students when we can’t delineate between problem and non-problem behaviors. I suggest how much easier it is to find the root of the problem and deal with that, specifically, rather than a whole mass of students at once.
Here’s the thing. If one kid throws a tater tot across the room, that’s the kid who should have some consequences. If one kid mouths back, it is that mouth we should deal with. If three kids start an inappropriate and nasty chant, it is those three kids who should be pulled and dealt with. Focusing on the kids who did the deed—and letting the others proceed with a peaceful day—will garner far more respect from the larger group that if we spit and snarl our way to all-group discipline.