Rob arrived to meet the principal before I did. He was just about to the front door when I caught up with him. I was both pink-faced from having just left a 90-degree room with no effective way to mask the scent of perspiration from yoga. When I arranged the meeting with the principal the evening before, I informed him that my temperament would be in a good place but that he might not want to sit too close when we spoke.
Over the course of the next fifty minutes, my son’s principal did several things I respect. He took notes that he referred to during the discussion. He actively listened, a skill few have. He confirmed he understood what our concerns were. He didn’t once look over his shoulder at the clock. He smiled.
Also, he told us he agreed with the principle that when an authority figure forces an apology, it will likely be ineffective. He confirmed his conclusion that it was ineffective in our son’s case. Without our asking, he stated he would follow up with the teachers involved to share his take on how the situation could have been handled differently from the start. He did say that he is not the sort of administrator who “micro manages” his staff as “teaching is an art” and the dynamics in each individual and unique classroom are fluid and best understood by the teacher. He promoted the training and professional skills of the teachers and reminded Rob and me that many have decades of experience.
Agreed. I conceded the point and added that it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time. I deferred to the fact that my two years teaching overseas in a former Soviet-bloc country cannot fairly be likened to what the staff at a suburban elementary school do every day, i.e., I am in no position to “judge.”
However, I did not step away from what I see as the largest issue here: How telling a child “you must do X” (here, write a meaningless apology note) before “I permit you to do Y” (get away from the authority figure making demands and outside to play with friends during recess).
Even when I made the point again, the principal restated his intent not to “micro manage” unless it was “a safety issue.” And I get that.
And I also don’t get that.
If the conventional wisdom endorses the notion that this sort of punishment is vastly ineffective (read: meaningless) for children this age, then why do it? If the principal sees it as generally not helpful–as it is a “forcing” of an apology, why not tell the staff they’ll need to come up with something else?
The reluctance to prohibit it likely stems from several factors. A) It may work for a slim minority. B) It sends a message, though I’d argue not the one that is offered to explain the purpose behind the task. C) There isn’t time.
In the midst of a 30-minute lesson, the teacher might not have the luxury of taking the time to open up a discussion about what she might see as behavior that is “disruptive to the learning environment” or “disrespectful.” Moreover, if my son’s math teacher had taken the time to, right there in class in front of the other students, “explore” with my son the intention behind his comment, she might be putting herself into a place of vulnerability by giving him the chance to “explain himself.”
When an authority asks “why did you say that,” the child is given a chance to speak his mind. When any authority looks to the person in a “weaker” position, those in a position of observation could conclude weakness in that authority.
And we can’t have that.
Or could we?
Of course, there is always the go-to explanation to gloss over making any substantial changes: They have to learn that life’s not fair and things don’t always go their way.
What a terrible lesson to teach our children: Take your lumps, put a smile on your face, and move on.
And yet, that’s essentially what I think my son learned from this. Despite his parents’ efforts to shine a light on an ineffective way to “internalize” perceived wrong-doing, the practice will very likely continue. Not with our son, but with others’ children.
Or maybe, just maybe, the next time will be different and perceived “disrespectful” behavior will be explored and not just given a quick, prescriptive fix. For while it’s easy to take a pill to remedy an illness, it’s better not to get to the point of sickness by practicing thoughtful and preventative medicine.