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Corporal Punishment vs. Mutual Respect

In the old days, corporal punishment was one of the primary means used to control the classroom. The trend for most developed countries now, however, is to forbid the use of corporal punishment. (See note about the USA and the "Teacher Protection Act")

I strongly support this ban on hitting children as a step in the right direction. A serious problem though, is that nothing has been offered to the teachers to replace corporal punishment. The teachers have simply been left stranded without adequate training or preparation for this change. In the absence of the threat of physical pain, many teachers have found it nearly impossible to teach.

Though the best teachers rarely seem to find it necessary to punish or even threaten to punish their students, the change in policy on corporal punishment has contributed to what could be called chaos in many classrooms and schools. Another contributing factor is the decline in respect for authority in general. I suspect this decline is due to the following three factors.

First, there is less fear of school authority, and fear is often equated with respect --though I believe they are quite separate concepts and feelings -- see discussion of fear vs respect on Respect page

Second, it may be that adults, through their own behavior, are simply not earning the respect of children. To the extent that adults are perceived by children and teenagers as insincere, hypocritical, uncaring, dishonest, manipulative, controlling, etc. the level of respect which they receive declines accordingly.

Finally, the belief that someone is owed respect simply because they are older or are in a position of power seems to have largely become outdated.

For whatever reasons, teachers have consistently told me they spend so much time trying to control the class that there is little or no time left for teaching. In England, I was recently told, teachers can not even expel a child from the school, since it is believed that a child or teen who is not in school becomes even more of a liability to society. When I asked if there were other places seriously disruptive students could be sent, this former teacher (who left teaching precisely because of the problem of control) told me that there used to be alternatives, but the funding for them was cut.

So what are teachers to do?

I don't have the all the answers, but I do believe the starting point in all relationships is mutual respect. Where there is an imbalance of power, such as between teacher and student, I believe it is most helpful if the one with the most power, the teacher, first tries to meet the needs of the students.

This requires knowing what those needs are. For example, if a child were to come to school hungry, it would be helpful to all if the teacher were aware of this and did something about it. The teacher who knows his or her students will know who is coming to school hungry, just as he or she will know who is coming to school with severe unmet emotional needs, i.e. emotionally starving. Ideally, this teacher then acknowledges the need, accepts it, and does not judge the child for having the need. Instead, the teacher simply tries to help the child meet the need. In this way a teacher earns the respect and cooperation of the children. Erich Fromm wrote in fact, "To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge."

Teachers are ill-equipped, though, to get to know a student at the level of identifying his or her unique emotional needs. They are also ill-equipped to meet those needs. These deficits are partly due to the lack of training and partly due to the lack of priority by the educational system itself. Another problem is that many teachers, themselves are so preoccupied with their own emotional needs that it is nearly impossible for them to be in touch with the emotional needs of their students. Moreover, even if the teacher is aware of the child's emotional needs, the schools are not designed to support the teacher in helping the child in this area.

Still there are things the teacher can do. Fromm's statement supports the importance of the teacher getting to know each student on an individual basis.

Elsewhere on this site I talk about resect, how it is earned, how it is measured, etc. I also document an example of a teacher who used a discussion of respect very effectively to help her manage the classroom. My suggestion to teachers is that take a look at these sections then give my ideas a try.


See also

- Article about caring and cooperation

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Teacher Protection Act in USA

When George W. Bush was Govenor of Texas his administration wrote a new law called the "Teacher Protection Act." To paraphrase the words of Jordan Riak, Director of NoSpank.net, the law basically says,: "If a teacher doesn't send a student to the hospital, it isn't abuse. "

In other words the legislation was written to make it easier for teachers to hit children and not be sued by the parents.