When Education Becomes Punishment

 

 

Shawn, the Dictator

Last week, I had to do the worse thing I think a teacher could do. I was subbing for one teacher, and marking during one of her Prep periods, when the school principal asked me to babysit, and I use the word literally, a Junior High class that had been misbehaving the previous period. (And no, I don’t know what they were doing.) So, I had to babysit them, and they had to read, something none of them wanted to do, particularly since they were being kept from gym.

Neither the students nor I were happy about the arrangement. They were distressed because they were missing gym and I was distressed because reading was their punishment. Most of them refused to read, which just made my job harder and more distasteful. Because of their reluctance and regular teacher and principal checks, I had to actively enforce the reading punishment order. (And the definition of dictator is … Mr. Urban?)

Really? Reading as punishment? My hands are gyrating in the air even as I type this. Punishment? What?

Some Disturbing Facts

 

 

Here, I should present some background information.

First, in Alberta, it is estimated that 40% of the adult population (16yr+) is functionally illiterate. This of course doesn’t mean that these adults cannot read and write. But it does mean that they have difficulty functionally comprehending and using what they are reading and its implications. That statistic is very sobering. And I know the problem is not due to the lack of quality teaching.

Second, I am relatively new at teaching, and have been out of a K-12 classroom for … well, let me use the word decades. I don’t remember whether students my age, when they were in K-12, hated reading. I suspect some did, but most, like me, enjoyed it. By their own admission most of the students I teach today do not like reading, ever, at all. And using reading as a punishment does not build eager readers.

Third, contrary to my students, I love reading, a lot. I have been reading for enjoyment for as long as I can remember. I started “seriously” reading when my grade six teacher read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my class. Of course, I read since I was a toddler and some of my favorite writing themes I can trace back to these early times. My careers, ecology and teaching, rely heavily on reading. So, reading is not just enjoyable, it is practical. (Interesting, how I am reduced to defending reading here.)

Consequences

 

 

So, I am left with contradictions. To me, reading is a life-growing activity. One can not lose by learning to read and to enjoy reading. Yet, my students dislike it. Worse yet, reading is used as a punishment for them. (Actually, it is probably just used as a filler while they are being punished, but it is still being forced on them and they associate it with their punishment.) Finally, I, someone who celebrates reading and desires to pass that celebration to my students, am required to ensure the punished students are reading while I babysit them.

I don’t think anyone wins in this situation. And I worry the loss could be life-long. I personally hate being the enforcer of this punishment, for it accomplishes exactly the opposite of what I hoped to give to my students. I worry that I stole something very precious from my students, something that they will never get back.

I wonder. Has anyone had to deal with a similar situation? If you have, what did you do? If you haven’t, what would you do?