Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

25 February 2009

This time, it’s personal…

Clark @ 12:54 PM

So on the way to dinner, my son told me on Friday that he’d tied a guy’s shoes together (the kid fell down when he tried to get up at the end of class, and was late to the next).  I asked, and this was a) a friend, b) a prank (the latest volley in an ongoing series),  c) the boy wasn’t hurt,  but d) was amused.  Unacceptable, still.  It was potentially dangerous, interfered with school operations, and consequently inappropriate. I chided him to that effect, and thought no more about it.  Until my wife let me know Monday night what the school administration had done as a consequence.

Three teachers, together, had reported it, not one of them talking to my son directly.  So he was called into the office, and the Vice Principal who handled it decided on lunch-time detention for two days, at a special table in the cafeteria.  We weren’t involved until afterwards, when my wife heard about it, and then talked to the VP on the second day.  OK, what he did wasn’t the smartest thing to do, and we absolutely believe that consequences are an appropriate response.  As my wife said, 95% of the time she’ll side with the teachers (her dad was one). So it’s not that there was a response, it’s just what the response was.  Our issue is with the process used, and the punishment.

Let’s start that he’s a good kid, who gets good grades because it’s expected of him, despite the fact that the current school situation is such that the content is dull, and the homework staggering (he’s opting out of sports because he doesn’t feel he has the time).  He’s bored at school, as the work’s too easy for him, and the repetitive drill is mind numbing.  However, no argument, his action wasn’t acceptable. In his case, being called to the office at all was probably enough, as the only previous time he’d been was to recognize him for something good he did.  Having a talking to,  for a first infraction, likely would weigh on him enough.  Some time for reflection and even writing an apology to the friend or the teachers  or just a treatise on the folly of the act would be rehabilitative, useful, and understandable. Instead, we have a punitive action.  “You’re bad, and we need to punish you.”

My wife talked to the VP, trying to point out that while intervention was certainly called for, public humiliation wasn’t. The VP denied that it was public, saying that the table is off to the side.  Yes, in the same room, and obviously the location of the ‘bad kids’.  As my son told us, a number of his friends walked by and commented.  I’m not buying it; it’s public humiliation, and that doesn’t make sense as a first recourse (if ever), particularly in a case of behavior that was bad judgment, not malicious.

So either I’m over-reacting, or the process they applied (the teachers not talking to him about it), and the result it came up with (public humiliation for a first offense) is broken.  While I admit it’s hard to be objective, I’m inclined to believe the latter.  Shouldn’t we be using misbehavior as opportunities to show how to respond appropriately?  We may have societally moved away from rehabilitation in our penal system, but in our education system?  What’s his lesson here?  I mean, we don’t put people in the stocks anymore!  Though I’m tempted, with a certain VP.  Of course, showing up (albeit it unnamed) in a blog post may be the same, eh?


  1. This is just another example of how out-dated our school systems have become. I used to believe that we could evoke positive change here; but now I’m more inclined to believe that we need alternatives. I don’t necessarily mean charter schools, although some of them “get it.” But even these places still carry the baggage of old, expired traditions like standardized testing.

    I have one child still in the system and she’s in the same boat as your son – tons of homework that I don’t believe will have any lasting value, rules and procedures that get in the way of learning, etc.

    When the revolution starts, I’m there!

    Comment by Brett Bixler — 25 February 2009 @ 1:14 PM

  2. I have witnessed so many cases like this that I have pretty given up on schools. This type of organization is what Mark Federman calls BAH (bureaucratic, administrative, hierarchical). Control, not teaching and definitely not learning, is what schools are designed for. Public humiliation is a fairly easy and effective way for the school to maintain control. The teachable moment and the opportunity for learning have little relevance in the decision-making process of the school’s proxies.

    The lesson? Geary Rummler said it best – when you put a good person in a bad system, the system wins every time.

    Comment by Harold Jarche — 25 February 2009 @ 1:18 PM

  3. Thanks guys. Sad, isn’t it? And here’s my wife’s letter to those three teachers:

    An incident happened last Friday afternoon and came to my notice Monday after a call from Vice Principal [name deleted]. [Son] was sent to her without knowing why. A discussion was had and he was sentenced to two days of lunch detention because:

    “This has to be stopped.”


    What is “this”?! Are we talking about serial shoelace tying? Random acts of terrorism against the unsuspecting? We certainly need to understand “this”!

    What boggles my mind is that the three of you condemned him, yet not one of you talked to him. Not one of you thought there was any point in trying to understand him. Not one of you, his “family”, played any part in calling him out for unacceptable behavior beyond passing it on to the Vice Principal.

    If you had talked to him, you’d have better understood what “this” was, and that stopping him would not have been that difficult. I believe that the reaction from four adults was not only out of proportion to the crime committed, but failed to even understand the real problem.

    I took the time to talk with him. Here’s what I found out:

    M: What’s going on?
    S: My friends and I play pranks on one another.
    M: Like what?
    S: Like knocking one another’s pencils off their desks.

    Ahh, so here’s the reason for his actions that day. He and his friends are eleven year old boys, thrown into a school system that they aren’t really emotionally or organizationally prepared for. We, as the adults, know that. They have difficulty saying focused, and behaving appropriately.

    I know that [Son] has been struggling with these issues all year. What I have stressed with him is that it is not acceptable to be a disturbance in class, that it is disrespectful to the teacher. He knows that. He can’t always remember it, though.

    [Son] and I went further with our conversation:

    M: Tell me about the shoelaces. Where’d you get that idea?
    S: Calvin and Hobbes.
    M: What happens in Calvin and Hobbes?
    S: He hops around, then they chase one another.

    The important thing about “this” is intent. [Son] certainly never meant to hurt his friend. It was meant as a harmless prank. In my opinion, this is still just that first issue, that pranks of any kind are inappropriate classroom behavior. [Son] didn’t think about the potential for injury. From our adult perspective, we understand that he should have. He has got to get better at thinking before acting, and there are days that I despair he will ever get there. But, and you must know this more than I do from your experience with other kids his age, when I compare him to those other kids, he does not stand out as being the only one at times seemingly incapable of rational thought.

    By this, I am not excusing his behavior, but am trying to keep it in perspective.

    [Son] and I did continue our conversation and discussed that his friend was lucky not to have been hurt. I made sure he understood that we do hold him responsible for his actions, and that he has got to learn to take the time to think through his actions.

    He tries, but obviously doesn’t get it right all the time. Do you know of any eleven year old boy (or adult for that matter) that does?

    “This” happens.

    “This” resulted in two days of lunch detention. No reflection on behavior. Two days of being sat at a table for all to see, labeled “bad” and being made the brunt of comments. I am aware that there is disagreement with this assessment of that table in the lunchroom (just a place away from friends), but this is certainly not the perception of the kids. Judging from the comments made to him that he told me about, [Son] is not the only one who believes that the table is for BAD KIDS. Not kids with bad actions, BAD KIDS.

    You labeled him; he accepted it.

    That’s tragic, really.

    [Son]’s a smart kid and school is failing him. He is bored with school. He sees no relevance to the things he cares about in his life. He performs, gets that 3.95 grade point average because he wants to please the adults he looks up to, his parents and his teachers. Yes, you, who are failing him.

    He has lost most of his internal drive for anything school related. His passions lie outside of school and he sees no connection between those things and what he is learning in school. I try to help him make those connections, but I cannot do it on my own.

    He has already given up his outlet for all that energy you are now seeing in class. He says it is too stressful to go to soccer practices knowing that he has all that homework hanging over him. So now he is expected to sit in a chair at school all day long, then to sit in a chair at home all afternoon long doing homework. We should not now be surprised that the energetic behavior is coming out at inappropriate times and places.

    On Wednesdays, he races through his homework so he can make the time for a true passion of his. He plays strategy games against older kids and adults. I thought it was a little scary at first, that maybe these grown-ups should get lives, or possibly girlfriends. But I have come to see what [Son] gets from these games: like-minded, smart people. I ask him what skills he is using and he fires back without hesitation, “Reading, math, and logical thinking”.

    Too bad that school is just something he has to endure before he can get to where he cares about challenging himself.

    “This” doesn’t happen during those games.

    Comment by Clark — 25 February 2009 @ 1:46 PM

  4. Clark,

    Nice Post. Nice Wife. Nice Response to the School.

    We’ve heard of similar silly responses from the school in our daughter’s kindergarten class.

    I wonder what it is about the school culture that causes this kind of over-reaction.

    With all the half-day teacher trainings we have to endure, you’d think this is the kind of situation they could be trained to deal with more appropriately.

    So sorry for your troubles.

    Comment by Will Thalheimer — 25 February 2009 @ 5:09 PM

  5. Great response from you wife, Clark. I would have used a baseball bat; she is much better than I would have been.

    Comment by Harold Jarche — 25 February 2009 @ 5:51 PM

  6. Clark-
    Your wife’s letter was to the point and eloquent! Teaching in a public school, I do not feel that the consequence fits the crime. I don’t know the whole story but what I got from the letter was that this was a first offense. Why put the lad on “Death Row” so quickly? Why so reactive? A consequence-yes, but not throw the book at him. I don’t know why they did not discuss the matter with the lad first and foremost! That is my first line of defense. Even when my special ed (SH) students do something that they shouldn’t, I talk with them (whether they comprehend the situation or not, it is still a courtesy I bestow on them) and explain what was not a good idea and a suggestion of what they should do instead. I’m sorry for the grief that this has caused your family. Once again, public education at it’s best! UGH!!
    *I was quite the prankster in my youth and am still.

    Comment by Yolanda — 25 February 2009 @ 6:50 PM

  7. Seems like the teaching staff is bored too. The Melrose Place dynamic is propogated by poor leadership and it’s pretty sad when teachers band together to ‘us vs. them’ with their students. This is what has appeared to have happened here. Otherwise a single teacher would have had the courage to:

    1) pull the kiddo aside for a moment in the hall and have a short conversation.
    2) understand that kids aren’t perfect, they need work or they wouldn’t be living at home and going to school
    3) produced some wise words that go MUCH farther than treating kids like bad robots

    This was an opportunity for a string of people to step up. No surprises… Sadly, the majority of the education system has become an unsavory factory. We aren’t teaching character, or leading by example. We let the greatest opportunities to make real changes slip through our fingers.

    Comment by sflowers — 25 February 2009 @ 9:06 PM

  8. Nice post- I agree that the school’s response was archaic at best. Discipline must be instilled but public humiliation for a first offense is totally unnecessary. I don’t think that there will ever be true reform in schools until the mindset changes and that becomes a spiral from each generation of teachers. Good luck in the coming months. How is your child dealing with this? His response and perhaps what would he have given as “punishment”?

    Comment by Mary N — 26 February 2009 @ 5:18 AM

  9. Clark–your wife’s letter was excellent.

    I particularly enjoy her point when she states that “…on Wednesdays, he races through his homework so he can make the time for a true passion of his. He plays strategy games against older kids and adults. I thought it was a little scary at first, that maybe these grown-ups should get lives, or possibly girlfriends. But I have come to see what [Son] gets from these games: like-minded, smart people. I ask him what skills he is using and he fires back without hesitation, “Reading, math, and logical thinking”.”

    As a child, I was the same as your son. I rushed through my work, got a 4.0 to please adults, and ran to play games with folks much older than myself (who, incidentally, were mostly male). My mother didn’t understand at first, and was a little bit weary, but I am glad that she came to her senses. I am a better person for it.

    I am 23 years old, and I honestly feel like strategy games–card games, board games, video games–have provided me with more life skills than K-12 education. Sure, most have a mythical twist that seems scary, but once you get over that…they are all problem-solving and logic puzzles. Just think if these types of puzzles were *gasp* included in the classroom!

    What’s funny, though, is that I went to college to be a teacher, taught for one year, and left. I didn’t care for the ‘us vs. them’ culture that sflower mentions, or the lack of leadership. As a young teacher, I was unsupported and misunderstood when I had the courage to react appropriately or try new things. My theory is that they always felt threatened…but I could be wrong. Consequently, I left the profession.

    Comment by Elyse — 26 February 2009 @ 6:51 AM

  10. I want to sincerely thank you all for the kind and thoughtful words. It’s sad to find so much resonance around the theme that schools are broken.

    BTW, Son actually was asked what he thought was appropriate punishment; problem is that this was after he was told that he wasn’t being punished (by person summoning him) so he wasn’t prepared, and also being first year in middle school & first time in trouble, he had no idea what was usual.

    I can happily report that his ‘core’ teacher (one of the three) made a special effort to reach out to my wife today when she was helping organize the school book fair, so that’s a good outcome.

    Comment by Clark — 26 February 2009 @ 2:31 PM

  11. Ok, today my grandson, age 6 and in first grade got off the bus and began bawling…a kid sitting behind him on the bus had crawled under the seat and tied his shoe laces together causing him great anguish in walking to my house with his 8 yr old brother. The knots were tied tight to where the boy had to hop home. My first thought is this:
    1. I am reporting this to the bus driver because…
    **My grandson could have tripped (because of the shoe laces being tied and FELL DOWN ONTO THE STAIRS OF THE BUS RESULTING IN HIS DEATH!
    2. I just haven’t decided what I want to do to the other kid-a public apology to me and grandson, time off from the bus(this would make the parents tell the boy how detrimental his prank was-or just plain tell the parents or the the school we will sue them.
    3. A third option is to tie the kids shoe laces like he did my grandson’s so the parents or teachers have to take a nut pick to get it undone…
    4. Or should I ignore the fact thank the prank could have killed my grandson?

    Comment by Susan — 30 September 2009 @ 3:08 PM

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