Thursday, June 29, 2006

Excepting schools in the city of Jackson, corporal punishment is legal in the Mississippi public school system. Please take the time to re-read that last sentence. I was not made aware of this fact until about a week after arriving in Oxford, and upon hearing it I was (ignorantly?) shocked.

Perhaps more shocking to me is the implicit (albeit sometimes begrudging) acceptance corporal punishment enjoys from the leaders, alumni, and second-year members of the Mississippi Teacher Corps. Some second-years see it as an embarrassing joke, many seem to accept it because they must, others pragmatically support it because they think it works, and some of my peers seem to even take a smattering of joy in assigning “licks” to their students (from what I understand, punishment is most commonly administered by each school’s principal or assistant principal). I have asked my teachers and program leaders to engage in a classroom-wide discussion on this topic, and though they have always been welcoming to the idea, such a discussion has yet to happen. Whenever it comes up in class, the teachers’ eyes seem to roll and the usual answer is, “We’ll have that discussion sometime later.” The discussion/debate seems to carry a stigma because it has been both extended and heated in the past; I can imagine idealistic, virgin members of the Corps being pitted against the program’s hardened veterans and Mississippi natives.

As you, dear reader, can no doubt tell from my tone, I am completely against allowing corporal punishment to exist in public schools. Why such a pacifistic stance (and a blissfully ignorant one, my detractors will tell you)? The simple answer is that I am not sure; I just feel that the policy is repugnant. I cannot recall being spanked as a child beyond one occasion, when I tried to kill my younger sister by throwing her off a rock wall. I was probably 8 or 9 at the time, she 6 or 7, and for the fruitless attempt at sister-cide I was spanked handily by my father. Other than on that occasion, my punishments were always based on making me feel isolated and ashamed of my actions: go sit on the steps for a half hour, go to your room, etc. Though I am clearly an impartial observer of my childhood self, I’d say the punishments worked and I turned out to be a relatively well-behaved child, all things considered. I have friends (some in Teacher Corps) who were consistently spanked as punishment as children, and they seem fine.

So why my opposition to this form of public corporal punishment? First of all, despite any legal ramifications of in loco parentis or any other Latin/Greek phrase, teachers are not the parents of their students. To me, this is a very clear, very simple concept. Teachers have no right to abuse, physically challenge, or physically confront their students in any way (but for the purpose of putting a stop to a greater physical confrontation that is brewing, such as a fight). Nor do I think parents have this right, but for the purposes of this discussion I am primarily concerned with legality.

Given, you say, but won’t parents beat or physically punish their children regardless of what happens at school? Yes; one of my close friends in the program who is a teaching partner for summer school and a Mississippi resident, told me last night that probably 95% of our students are beaten at home. Unfortunately, I have no control over such parental decisions; I an only concern myself with what I can change: my own school and my own classroom.

In a greater sense, and within the framework of this program, teachers should be better than their students’ parents. Many of the students that will be in my classroom have been party to domestic violence their entire lives. There is no need for them to be party to a similar system when they come to school. For children who have been pushed around their entire young lives, school should serve as a safe haven from the concerns of home life. And, by extension, teachers must serve as role models for their students, examples of what gentlemen and ladies truly are, as well as examples of what authority figures should be. Violence should never be associated with authority, particularly in a time and place where my students are becoming figures of authority themselves (parents, guardians of younger siblings and cousins, etc).

I know my idealism may sometimes seem ignorant, particularly when confronted with the opinions of veteran Teacher Corps members on this issue. However, I am totally unapologetic about my opinions in this particular instnace: they will not change, they will not falter, and I will do all I can to see that my students never have to face corporal punishment. And, if given the opportunity, I will work with state officials to end that practice in this state; somebody has to. To steal the motto of the 2004 Red Sox and apply it to the 2006 Teacher Corps: why not us?


Blogger A. Monroe said...

I agree with you on this issue. I had every intention of discussing corporal punishment in class but did not have the time (also, Im getting old and I kept forgetting). We need to discuss this issue during the Fall class (EDSE 600). I have a wonderful powerpoint that articulates the finer points of my argument against any form of corporal punishment. You may be interested in The Center for Effective Discipline. They have a strictly "no corporal punishment" stance on behavior management.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Sinister Mr. A said...

Personally I feel pretty agnostic about corporal punishment. I guess I think attitudes about corporal punishment are largely cultural. When a practice is common across an entire population, who is to say that the entire culture is immoral? I feel conflicted about standing in judge of cultural differences. Perhaps sometimes it is necessary to intervene, but whenever possible, I think cultural norms should be left alone. Also, as Ben points out, it is extremely ineffective to attempt to change a culture from the outside. Numerous AIDS compaigns in Africa make this painfully clear.

Furthermore, I think the association of corporal punishment with antisocial violence is weak at best. Every punishment is negative in some way. What is so innately evil about physical discomfort, as opposed to social isolation or deprivation of physical freedom? And do we teach children to be kidnappers and hostage takers by sending them to sit in their rooms alone? Our society is rightly concerned with physical violence as a social problem, but I rather suspect we often wrongly associate the appearance of violence with its cause. Listening to aggressive music--the kind of music associated with "head-banging" and "moshing--for most of my life, for instance, has not made me an aggressive person, and people who get to know me are often (wrongly in my opinion) surprised by the music I like.

In Namibia, corporal punishment was made illegal in schools upon independence in 1990 but is still widely practiced. It was very hard to take the high road in a chaotic school environment where most teachers either had no discipline at all or relied exclusively on corporal punishment and some rather scattered, ineffective attempts at public humiliation. I truly believe that most of the time teachers used a quick "beating" with a flexible branch or twig on the wrist or buttocks because it is the simplest and easiest form of punishment they could think of. And of course everyone was used to it. I remember some volunteers saying their students asked why the volunteer didn't love them. Why? Becuase you don't beat us!

But despite all that, I did manage to learn something from one of my administrators in Namibia, who used corporal punishment routinely. After one of my more serious mistakes as a teacher, she pointed out to me that my true mistake was to deal with a student in anger. I took that to heart. I think the mode of your discipline is not really the message. Your firm disapproval, backed up by your reasons, your calm demeanor, your balanced but consistent justice--these are the most important things.

That said, I do think there is some value to having some delay between the child's knowledge of a punishment and the actual perfection of the punishment. I particularly like time-outs and detentions because this time delay is actually part of the punishment itself: Time to think about it.

Well that's my take on it. While I do not condone corporal punishment myself, I also do not judge those who use it--and would have no problem sending my kids to a principal who did it--as long as they follow the rules and do it with a calm sense of just authority, rather than in rage or malice. By the way, I think corporal punishment is also banned by Cleveland School Dist.

8:49 PM  
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5:29 PM  

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