- Do not pursue with the terrible scourge him who deserves a slight whip.
- Horace, Satires. I. 3. 119.
The recent news regarding the death of a high school football player due to severe physical punishment for arriving late to practice is added to a long list of students who either died or were injured under insensitive coaches. What constitutes punishment for a student, any student, whether athlete or not, is a topic that has not been studied sufficiently by science. As a comparison, I watched the training of an elite military unit which pushes candidates to the limit of their resistance. Sergeants and instructors were very careful to tell each man to drop out if they felt so weak that they might lose consciousness. These soldiers were not being punished; they were trying to qualify for a few spots in a grueling try-out. There was no shame is giving up; not everybody is able to transcend their physical limits. It is a lesson that some coaches apparently haven’t learned. Some of the injured kids were too proud to admit defeat or to tell their instructor that they couldn’t continue.
The Importance of Numbers
Of course, among thousands of teachers and instructors, there will always be some sadists (the Army has a few too), who enjoy punishing teenagers. It could be a classroom teacher who doesn’t give the student another chance after a failed test, knowing full well that the parents will punish him or her severely. Yes, a failing grade is a punishment for some students, not for all. I know a few who simply don’t care and smile sardonically when faced with the report card; they are drop-out risks who urgently need some counseling. But as a general rule, all pupils want to pass because our society, and our educational system, have placed excessive importance on numbers (or letters). Punishing kids with failed grades when we know that they tried their best is simple cruelty and pursues no constructive purpose. What is the difference between a 69 and a 70 (the passing grade) is something no teacher has been able to answer yet. The same applies to 99 and 100, or 79 and 80. I have seen students cry and beg for one little point that would make all the difference between graduating with their generation or not. Technically, that boy or girl could have made a better effort to study; but in reality what we should consider as high school teachers is whether the kid deserve to pass or not. We should examine his or her parameters very carefully and reach a decision based on them, not on a mathematical formula.
The Emotional Damage
Gone are the days when an elementary teacher publicly humiliated me in front of my peers by slapping my juvenile face with a callous hand. Gone are the days of the paddle on the buttocks, at least in our country (England may be the exception among civilized countries). Physical violence should never be used by parents and/or teachers, although I am in favor of a light tap on the behind for recalcitrant kids. The damage caused by any punishment, whether physical of mental, will always cause resentment in the victim, even when it seems justified. Some students might give up, knowing that a zero at the beginning of the semester can never be compensated. Others will suffer emotionally from a blow to their self-esteem. That is not to say that we should reward laziness and irresponsibility by passing these kids anyway. We should however, from the very beginning, guide them toward success and self-satisfaction for a job well-done. Working closely with parents might just ensure that all students reach their goal … graduation.