This is Heavy

Some people “confuse freedom with the maintenance of the status quo; so that if conscientização1 threatens to place that status quo in question, it thereby seems to constitute a threat to freedom itself.” -Paulo Freire

*Rev up the Delorean and punch in the dial for September 23, 1980*

1980

I remember being a young student in the fourth grade. I was the quiet kid who sat in the back of the room and pretty much kept to myself (Introverts FTW!). Every year I received the “good citizenship” award, which basically meant I didn’t cause problems for the teacher and I did my best to get through the day without any issues.

One day, a couple of students in the class threw a wadded up piece of paper across the room. The teacher saw the paper as it hit another student in the back of the head. I didn’t see who threw it and I’m sure a few students did know who threw the paper projectile but the teacher was livid. She stopped her lecture cold and demanded that the perpetrators of the act come clean. In such incidents (especially with children who are still developing socially and emotionally) the instinct that is built into every human being for self-preservation kicked in; they did not offer themselves up for the punishment that was sure to arrive.

It was then that the teacher turned to the class and demanded that those in the class who knew who did it give up the names of the culprits of the great paper-meteorite disruption. However, no student gave up their classmate. This largely had to do with the fact that the two kids who launched this papyrus projectile were also two of the meanest classroom bullies. Telling the teacher who it was would certainly spell certain doom for those who divulged the information.

At that moment the teacher did something that I am sure many of us have experienced. She said, “Alright if no one is going to tell me who did it then the entire class will miss recess.” Now, I’m a quiet kid who genuinely did not know who threw the projectile until much later in the day. I know that I was not the only student in this situation. I was doing what I was supposed to do. I was paying attention, minding my own business, and focused on learning. Yet… I was going to be punished for the actions of other students. I was also being punished because I wasn’t “coming forward” with information that I didn’t have. This is inherently unfair. Relying on peer pressure is a coward’s way out and demonstrates (in many instances – not all) a lack of effective classroom management, respect for students, and a connection with the class culture.

First, the teacher relied on the individual guilt of the perpetrators to resolve the situation. However, if the students felt no guilt about it then the method is useless. Also, do we really want to be instilling in students feelings of guilt or would we rather use this as a teaching moment and class discussion to learn why the actions were not the best ones taken?

Second, when relying on the guilt of students who are developmentally not ready to feel that emotion for the action taken failed… she went to the coercion of the group as a whole to try to pry forth the information she wanted.

When that didn’t work, she went Shock-And-Awe and just dropped an oppressive A-bomb on the entire class population. she punished the entire class for the actions of a few. This is wildly unfair, unjust, and (unfortunately) a common practice among many teachers. What I learned as a student in that class was that following the rules and doing what I was supposed to do didn’t matter because I’d still be punished for things in which I didn’t have any involvement.

*Load up Mr. Fusion  and hit the accelerator pedal to reach 88mph*

2015

It was my final year as a principal for a Catholic school.  As such, there were pretty strict rules (written and unwritten) about students and their behaviors in classrooms and on campus.  One of these is that students should not be romantically involved on campus (I’m a realist and remember what it was like to be a middle school student, so I am under no delusion that students at this age, like 8th grade, are beginning to date one another; we only asked that, even if they are, that the school be a place for learning and academics and not romantic involvement).  

Apparently, the 8th grade teacher that year had two students who were dating outside of school.  They made a decision to try to sneak away during class to spend some time alone and kiss.  They were caught by our administrators who patrol the hallays and returned to their classroom to face the consequences of breaking this rule. 

However, what happened transported me all the way back to being a 4th grader.   I learned that their teacher  (who had worked for decades in Catholic education as a middle school teacher) grilled the entire class. She said that it was the students’ responsibility to let her know that these two were seeing each other (Just to be clear… it is NOT their responsibility to do so).   Because she felt that the students in her class didn’t tell her and she believed that she was entitled to the information.  So she did the unthinkable.  She punished the entire class by attempting to cancel one of the 8th grade dances that year. 

Luckily, 4th grade maligned child Wick grew up to be adult Principal Wick and I reversed the decision. The thing is it should have never come to that. When a teacher carpet bombs the entire class for the actions of a few it demonstrates a lack of classroom management, destroyes rapport with students, and is illustrative of a fear of losing control.  This has to change. 

* Fly the train on 1.21 gigawatts*

The Present

After four years working for a Neuro-EdTech startup company as their director of education, I returned to teaching last year.  I found myself back where I truly belong.  In a school environment.  While I am not an administrator (at the moment) I am blessed to have returned to the classroom.  One thing that I learned from my experiences as a child and as an administrator is that we must seek to model the type of behavior and norms that we expect from our students.   There were incidents that happened last year where I could have easily punished the entire class… but I didn’t. Instead, I sought a culture of mutual respect from my students.  

Attempting to respect my students, to understand their lives, and to validate what their experiences are helped to strengthen the classroom bond we all had for one another.  I didn’t always find out who threw a paper meteorite.  But I did develop a classroom based on trust that eventually led to students coming to me in private to help solve issues that took place in class. Their information, I always treated with confidentiality. The key is to create classroom environments that are built upon trust and respect for one another as members of the human species. 

In difficult situations I try to model ways for students to resolve their issues.  Sometimes it requires a one-on-one meeting to get to the root of the issue.  Sometimes the whole class can workshop what happened, why it happened, and what could have been done better so that it doesn’t happen again. If we want to provide our students with an environment that shows we truly respect them as people we have to be willing to allow them the freedom to make choices and to hold only those who are accountable for negative actions to the consequences. The fourth grade version of me is asking you to take a moment and think about what your actions are doing and the message it sends to the entire class. 

What are some of the methods you use when things get a little out of control in your classroom? How can we make sure we do not punish the innocent? I’d love to hear your thoughts or read about your experiences and stories. Please leave a comment below. 


  1. The term conscientização refers to learning to perceive social, political and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppresive elements of reality.

Image under CC _JMH8342 (1) by US Department of Education on 2009-04-08 10:52:30

3 thoughts on “This is Heavy

    • Thank you! I really appreciate your words and hope that this was useful. It’s important that we all examine how we do things in our classrooms. Building a fair and just classroom is important.
      -JW

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