Police State

Children in a waldenkingergarten in germany

Children in a waldenkingergarten in germany

Today at staff meeting, our principal notified us that a parent had written a very eloquent note requesting that we cease the use of recess tickets because it resembled a police state. She asked us what we thought and no one spoke up. Everyone seemed to be liking them. We were all getting two or more a day, but there were less incidents, we had a clear escalation strategy for rogue behavior, and we had a way to document repeat offenders. One teacher stated that it was good to have "a little of the police state" to keep kids in line.

Now these tickets are pieces of paper carried around by staff that has a list of things the student could have done wrong out at recess or walking through the halls. You get three of them, you go to detention. After two detentions, you are suspended. Clear expectations, clear escalation, clear consequences. Good, on the spot feedback. Just like tickets for adults when they break a law. 

I spent a few weeks in Denmark observing the teachers and students of a small rural school. There were surprisingly few rules. Or the students just weren't breaking them--I couldn't tell. But no one spoke of rules. One morning, the second grade teacher told the class, "Were going to go stack firewood by the forest village to help our community. If you don't want to, you can stay in the class and write a nice card to someone." About half the students geared up for the cold and ran into the forest behind the school. The rest stayed in their seats and started writing cards. And I sat there, with the second grade teacher as she put on her coat.

"They're okay, just running out like that?" I asked dumbfounded.

"Yes, they're okay. I trust them." she replied. 

We left half the class working in the room to go see what the forest children were doing. We walked a bit into the forest and found a few tenements with a fire-pit in the middle. The students were, believe it or not, stacking wood. They seemed to be experienced with this independence.

Recess was equally foreign. The students ran out into a fresh layer of snow that had fallen that morning. There was one teacher I saw outside for maybe, 200 students. I saw kids throwing snowballs, tackling each other to the ground, and sliding down a fairly steep hill like penguins. I kept waiting for the teacher to step in and stop something. Surely sliding down the hill, I thought. But he didn't step in at all. This seemed to be normal. I watched a fifth grade boy aggressively pelt a group of girls with snowballs. The teacher's response--he pelted the boy with snowballs. 

The bell rang and everyone walked in side out of breath and smiling. No tears, hurt feelings, or broken bones. Just tired, happy, faces.

It reminded me of what Richard Louv gets at in his book Last Child in the Woods. Its a study of how kids are missing out on development because they aren't getting as much free play in nature as they used to. One of his big points is that nature affords freedom that allows children to learn what they are capable of. It also facilitates the development of their creativity and problem solving. This freedom, he argues, is essential if they are to become capable, responsible, and innovative members of society.

One of the biggest differences between the two educational systems (Danish and American), is the difference in how much freedom we give students, how much we trust them. I can't help but wonder if there is a correlation between how much independence a system gives to it's students and how much responsibility and self-governance they develop. It seemed that in Denmark, they trusted their students a lot. And in return, it seemed like they got students that knew how to handle freedom. The fifth grade girl using a drill press to bore a hole through a piece of wood didn't need a teacher breathing down her neck reminding her to be careful. She had room, space, trust, to develop competency and responsibility.

So I'm sitting in the staff meeting listening to the tacit teacher approval of our elementary police state and cant help but wonder if the kids run up against our rules so much because the box we have placed them in is too small. What if we didn't try to govern their behavior as closely as we have been? It kind of feels like we are afraid of what would happen if we let out the leash a bit. Environment and rules communicate what is expected. They send a subconscious message of what we think students are capable of. If a student is given one of these tickets for running to the lunch line, the ticket becomes the controlling power responsible for managing behavior instead of the student controlling themselves.

I've noticed the same thing when walking through the halls. Straight, sharp, quiet lines are prized here. When I am giving constant feedback to the students as they are walking, reminding them to walk quiet, stay behind the person in front of them, get back into line, the thing is a mess. They are all waiting for me to control them. If on the other hand, I tell them, "I'm going to trust you guys to walk in a straight line quietly out to recess by yourselves." and walk with some distance between myself and them, they walk in a perfect line.

A colleague told me these tickets were a female over-reaction to kids acting like kids--rough housing, jumping off things, kicking balls too high. I agree that it is an over-reaction, but rather than a uniquely female one, it seems like it's a societal problem derived from our beliefs about justice and order.