Ross Rosenfeld of Lynbrook is a former New York City English teacher and the founder of Ross Tutoring.
From revamping teacher evaluation systems to Tiger-Mom parenting, there are a lot of ideas lately about how to improve education. As a former New York City schoolteacher and a current private tutor, I believe many people are missing an important point: Our teachers lack effective ways to discipline schoolchildren.
One reason has been the misunderstanding and vilification of "corporal punishment" -- a term that has misleadingly and unfortunately become synonymous with teachers hitting children. I would never condone striking a child in any way, for any reason. According to the New York State Education Department, however, "corporal punishment" is "any act of physical force upon a pupil for the purpose of punishing that pupil."
In both city and Long Island schools, this has been interpreted to mean any act of discipline that involves a physical element for the student, such as standing a student in the corner, having a child repeatedly write a phrase, and numerous other behavior-altering methods that in no way endanger the student.
Districts vary in their policies, of course. But the trend is away from meaningful discipline. One friend who is a public elementary schoolteacher in Nassau County reports that she is only permitted to use rewards to motivate students.
In her experience, this means kids never truly learn to strive, since they have no actual sense of the possibility of disappointment: All of them are complimented, no matter how they perform. She's not even permitted to use the word "no" in the social contract she presents the kids with at the beginning of each year, because it has a negative connotation. Instead of saying that there is "no hitting," she has to find a way that doesn't sound like a rule, like "I recognize that I should treat others as I wish to be treated."
Teachers are often unable to tap into their students' potential because their classrooms lack structure. In most schools, even raising your voice to a child is a no-no. There are too many parents who think that a teacher should never lecture, embarrass or, frankly, reprimand their child at all. Some of the parents of kids I tutor tell me, "It's my job to discipline my child!" Their children inevitably do worse in school than those who permit me to discipline by, say, having their child write sentences repeatedly. When you remove an educator's ability to discipline, you're taking away the structure necessary to educate.
If a child isn't behaving well -- or even if a student is simply not doing what's being asked of him or her -- there must be consequences. As Joe Clark, the principal in the film "Lean on Me," says: "Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm."
Neither is criticism. Yet many teachers refuse to criticize nowadays. Children show me notebooks or assignments filled with errors that say, in the teacher's exuberant handwriting, "Great Job!" or "Terrific!" Teachers are afraid to say things such as, "This work is horrible. You should be ashamed of yourself for even handing it in." There's a notion that such comments will destroy a child. That's ludicrous. Children need both criticism and support.
Of course, criticisms and reprimands should be used with temperance, so as not to make a child completely unreceptive. And there should always be encouragement. The idea isn't to punish, but to give our children a strong, structured learning environment.
But that's hard to do when teachers are terrified -- and many are, indeed, terrified. As a teacher, I knew of numerous colleagues who avoided disciplining for fear of losing their jobs. The entire U.S. educational system has become too political, requiring a lot from those dedicated professionals who are willing to take on the burden, but chastising them when they actually try to be effective. As a teacher, I was told not to do more than was asked of me, even though I knew doing so was not enough.
If we truly wish to reform education, we have to get children to understand that we won't accept anything less than their best behavior and effort. We can start by trusting teachers to do what's necessary to get the job done. Yes, 95 percent of what a teacher does and says should be positive, but that 5 percent left over -- the time that must be dedicated to criticism and discipline -- teachers need that back. And so do the children.