Updated: Sep 25, 2022
I remember the first time I attended a meeting with a public school superintendent, almost three decades ago. I was a first-year Language Arts teacher at Chillicothe High School. He stood at a podium to share some thoughts I’m sure he thought would be motivational as we began the school year. They weren’t. And then he gathered himself and made a pledge to the room.
“As long as I’m superintendent of this district, we will have corporal punishment.”
“Who is this moron?” I thought to myself.
“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” - Samuel Clemens
To be fair, in my first year of teaching, I dealt with a number of pretty stupid administrators, including my assistant principal, my principal, and one of the assistant superintendents. So maybe it was a cult or something. And despite some of the unenlightened decisions I saw them make, I never actually heard of a student being corporally punished during my two years in that district.
Also to be fair, superintendents are hired by school boards, about which Samuel Clemens famously opined:
“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”
Ohio has since banned corporal punishment in schools, along with thirty other states. The basic consensus is that, while parents have the right to use these types of practices at home, applying them in schools is a really bad idea. Now a school board in Missouri has re-instituted the practice of corporal punishment after banning it nearly twenty years ago. They claim that some parents in their district have concerns about discipline and have requested that spankings or swats be used as a way to address this problem. Of course, for liability reasons, parental consent and witnesses are required, as well as proper documentation.
Calls for a return to corporal punishment . . . are basically nostalgia masquerading as a simple solution to complex modern problems.
I can’t tell you how many social media comments I’ve seen that echo sentiments in favor of such a policy.
“If teachers would just open up a can of whup-ass on these unruly kids, they’d learn how to behave.”
I could probably go on for pages about this, so I’ll attempt to summarize. Corporal punishment is a short term solution to acute discipline problems and will not help with more lasting behavioral improvement and moral development. Under most circumstances, almost all living things will avoid pain when possible, so hitting a child may stop them from doing something for a short period of time. But it doesn’t show children how their actions are dangerous, or unkind, or unhelpful, which would reduce the likelihood that they’ll continue to do them. Of course, schools could teach this to kids that AND spank them, but if those other methods are effective, why would you need to spank them too? Moreover, spanking has been connected with higher levels of aggression and anti-social behavior, so in the long run the practice could be creating more severe problems than it solves.
That’s why schools and teachers today focus more on maintaining an orderly classroom environment with interesting content and activities, all of which reduces discipline problems. They focus on creating a sense of community, establishing a culture of respect and accepted procedures rather than just punishing students for “breaking the rules.” As children develop, moral reasoning, and self-regulation are fostered to both the class as a whole and individual children who more commonly exhibit undesirable behaviors. Spanking children would undoubtedly damage the sense of community that schools try to nurture and be counterproductive for helping students develop the personal responsibility that virtually everyone agrees is an important educational goal.
The relationships between students and schools need to be repaired, and hitting students who are acting out, even with parental approval, is not a vehicle for doing so.
Calls for a return to corporal punishment, and others like “we need to go back to teaching math the old-fashioned way,” are basically nostalgia masquerading as a simple solution to complex modern problems. To state the obvious, the world has changed considerably since today’s parents and grandparents were in school, and a little thought about this demonstrates how counterproductive corporal punishment would be today . . . especially today.
We’ve just gone through a period when schools, teachers, and educational services have been only partially available to students, many of whom rely on them for stability and support. In addition to the transience and upheaval caused by the opioid epidemic, especially in places like Ohio, our social fabric has been fractured by the pandemic and our current economic woes. The relationships between students and schools need to be repaired, and hitting students who are acting out, even with parental approval, is not a vehicle for doing so.
Neither is ignoring their needs. Recently, the school board in my district, Big Walnut, decided not to administer the Panorama survey. This survey, which the district has used before and is paid for by a grant, is used to gather data on, among other things, school culture, student-teacher relationships, sense of belonging, and school safety. This data would seemingly be valuable at this particular time in educational history, given my explanation above.
But three geniuses on Big Walnut's board, constituting a majority, voted to discontinue the survey, despite the fact that parents can opt out of their children's participation and only about two percent do. The board members’ excuses ranged from concerns about how the data would be used to paranoia that some questions dealt with race or ethnicity, all rolled up in condescending paternalism and claims that they know better than their students' families.
My, the Good Lord has been busy lately.