Teachers take mixed approaches to student discipline


Photo by Amit Hanadari-Levy.

Math teacher Terri Bullock talks to Evelyn Hoon, one of her students. Many teachers try to build relationships with their students in order to prevent problems from occurring within the classroom.

Many of us have heard stories of students in the past having to endure harsh or humiliating punishments when they misbehave, even for minor infractions. In fact, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH) Social Policy Report, corporal punishment in schools, referring to the physical punishment of students, is still legal in 19 U.S. states.

Despite this shocking statistic, there is no doubt that the school atmosphere has changed over the years in reference to student discipline. Throughout most of the U.S., these harsher punishments are no longer socially acceptable, causing teachers to turn to other methods to discipline their students.

A common first step that many teachers take in response to students misbehaving, whether it is cell phone use or acting disruptively, is to talk quietly to the student to figure out what’s going on. According to many teachers, disruptive or disrespectful behavior from the students often stems from outside factors in the student’s life, rather than the class or teacher.

“Usually it’s not about me, something that I’ve specifically done, but rather something that’s going on in their life that’s putting them in a bad mood or setting them off,” math teacher Terri Bullock said.

If the problem persists, many teachers choose to send the student outside the classroom, either to let the student take a break and relax or to have a more serious talk with the student about what is going on.

“If a student is very disruptive, sometimes they just need to cool off and go outside, and that’s what I usually ask them to do,” social studies teacher Liliana Monk said.

In more extreme cases of students misbehaving, some teachers turn to detention in order to avoid repeated behaviors from students in the future. However, many teachers at WJ doubt the effectiveness of this approach as a form of discipline and choose to avoid it.

“Generally I find that if I assign a detention, a lot of students wouldn’t come and I don’t know if it’s necessarily an effective thing, but I have asked students to come back and debrief with me about what happened in the class that day,” Bullock said.

The changes in discipline practices from when the current teachers were students are largely resultant in the changing climate of today’s schools. One aspect of this is the addition of cell phones, which are relatively new to the school environment. This has introduced a new issue in classes, one to which teachers now have to find a way to respond.

“When I was in high school, there were no cell phones, so behavior issues were more kids not paying attention and disrupting the class,” Monk said.

Another aspect resulting in changes in discipline practices is the decrease in rules that serve little to no benefit to the students’ education. For example, students are now able to eat and drink in many of their classes, which a couple years ago would have been unheard of in most schools. With the removal of these unnecessary rules and restrictions, students are able to focus more on learning rather than on rule following. At Walter Johnson in particular, students are offered a lot more freedom, with the ability to leave the school for lunch and eat within many of the classrooms, which was not as acceptable in the past.

“There’s a lot of things that students are more free to do in this school, which I think is a good part of the culture,” social studies teacher Steve Miller said.

This greater freedom provides many upsides to the Walter Johnson community, however in order to preserve this freedom, teachers and other staff members count on students to be responsible.

“While it’s nice to have the freedom to be able to choose what you wear and where

you want to go, I think that most students forget about boundaries,” senior Mary Kate Cuff said.