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Overreacting To Classroom Discipline

When a ninth-grade science teacher in Florida placed a "cone of shame" on students who arrived late or misbehaved in class, she immediately put her job in jeopardy ("Florida teacher faces firing for placing 'cone of shame' on students," New York Daily News, May 10). The object in question is a plastic collar that veterinarians use to prevent animals from licking their wounds after surgery.

The story predictably set off a series of heated responses from readers who questioned the teacher's fitness for the classroom. But if the teacher, Laurie Bailey-Cutkomp, has otherwise demonstrated her effectiveness, I think the punishment demanded doesn't fit the crime. I say that because she is only guilty of poor judgment. Students were not physically injured in any way. The worst that happened was that they were embarrassed, which is precisely what Bailey-Cutkomp intended in order to prevent the same behaviors from occurring again.

When I was in elementary school, students who continued to misbehave after repeated warnings were told to sit on a stool facing the back corner of the classroom. Other times, students were held in detention at the end of the school day. If these methods did not work, a note was sent home to parents requesting a conference. I fail to see why placing a "cone of shame" on a student is substantially different. Aren't these strategies all better than suspension? Students don't miss out on instruction, and they don't interfere with their classmates' learning.

In an ideal world, of course, all students would come to school eager to learn and respectful of the rights of others. But in reality, that is rarely the case. When I was teaching English in the same high school for 28 years, I preferred talking to miscreant students after class to find out what was causing the problem. Sometimes this worked, but not always. It was then that I tried to speak to the parents. However, too often they were not available. At that point, what options are left to teachers? Their job is to teach their subject - not to be forced to act as parent or police. And yet that is exactly what is happening all too often.

So in the case of Bailey-Cutkomp, how about counseling her privately about better ways of handling miscreants? Firing her for what she did is excessive. Let's not forget that at one time, teachers were allowed to act in loco parentis.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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