Stories, Learning & Place

Friday, September 05, 2008

What about the next guy?
   A sense of belonging and school discipline

During third period today, the AP came on the intercom to announce that we’d had too many tardies after lunch as well as too much litter in the parking lot, and that if things didn’t improve, the campus would be closed. Today was the fourth day of school. I would have rather we waited till we could have face-to-face meetings with the kids where we focused on teaching more than on threatening.

The messiness of large numbers of teenagers has been on my mind. A couple days earlier, a student had started a small conversation with me at the end of seventh period, and I didn’t pay attention to students when the bell rang and they left. When I surveyed the room a few minutes later, I noticed that the class had left behind two empty water bottles and a few scraps of paper.

In class, we had been talking about the way people are shaped by the places they grow up. It’s a way of getting into American literature, much of which is the exploration of such questions as why did the world feel as it did to the Puritans and what led Thoreau to believe he could find answers to life’s basic questions by living by a pond in the woods?

So we’d been talking about such questions as, are kids growing up in a small Montana town likely to think and feel differently about some things than kids who are growing up in urban New Jersey? Are kids growing up in America likely to differ in some ways from kids growing up in Italy or China? We talked a little how rural and urban spaces affect us, and how religious beliefs and political realities shape us psychologically as well as socially.

So it seemed an easy step to put our little littering problem in the context of what sort of people we are. The next day, I talked for a couple minutes about what Japanese high schools were like. In Japan, when students come into the school, they stop at their lockers and change out of their street shoes into their indoor slippers. Before they go into a rest room, they change again into shoes that are only worn there.

I invited them to imagine a clean and orderly place that was kept that way not by threats of punishment so much as by habits of neatness and cleanliness.


Outside shoes locker at a Japanese high school.

The most vocal students expressed the opinion that Americans tended to be too laid back and in too much of a hurry for the Japanese shoe thing to work here, but they acknowledged that there was something nice about it.

I then moved on to suggest that the idea of cleaning up your own messes was quite American and quite common among us. When I was a little kid, my Dad took me to work with him. At the time he was driving truck on a highway construction project quite far away, so he stayed in a motel during the week and came home on weekends. I wasn’t in school yet, and it was my first time living briefly in a motel. For dinner, we had bar sandwiches. It was tiny town-- one bar that also served sandwiches, one motel, one gas station, and two churches. He took me into the bar’s restroom to wash up after the hard day’s work and before the pork chop sandwich. After I washed and dried my hands with paper towels, I started to leave. He stopped me and pointed to the water I’d splashed around the basin.

“What about the next guy?” he asked.

He told me that when he was in army during World War II, he learned quickly that when you were in places that a lot of people had to use, it was important to think about the next guy. In the army, real men didn’t leave messes for other people, though a few punks did. If people made messes and then just left them, pretty soon everyone had to live in a mess all the time. But if everyone just cleaned up his own mess, then the next guy always got to enjoy a clean spot at the lunch table or a clean sink in the rest room.

Chastened a little, I got a paper towel and wiped up my water splashes from around the sink.

Classrooms are a little like that, I pointed out to the class. If people trash them, then the next people who come in have to put up with other people’s messes. But if each class just makes sure they pick up around them before they leave, everyone can come into a place that’s neat and clean.

As I said, it’s only been a couple days, but the room has been neat at the end of each period. It won’t last, of course. But when someone gets careless or maybe a little rebellious, I’ll figure out who the individual is and then try more direct teaching to that person, maybe including punishment. After all, most of the kids aren’t creating messes.

But before I start chewing people out or threatening them or punishing them, I like to try simple teaching: we’re the sort of people who think about other people, and the sort of people who clean up our own messes.

Most successful groups control behavior less with rules and punishments than by having leaders explain the way we are and why we are that way. This is done simply but effectively with storytelling, as when the elder of a hunting tribe tells his story of tracking a wounded buck for miles through a swirling snow storm to finish the kill, making it clear even when it’s not explicitly stated that “we” are the sort of people who are bothered by an animal’s suffering, that “we” are a persistent and diligent sort of people, and that “we” do things the right way. Then when a youngster has to do something difficult--following a buck uphill in spite of fatigue and bad weather--he feels a bit of a glow inside and being a bit grown up and doing the right thing.

The more we create a community that means something the more kids and the more we make the meaning of that community central to our teaching, the more kids will want to join us and the less need we will find for punishment.

This doesn’t mean we can avoid punishment completely. It does, though, let us be clear that we punish as a way of defending a good community against bad practices that destroy community, which is a quite different than punishing to preserve our own control or because we don’t like people, which some kids think is what’s really going on. It helps keep punishment just and loving--part of our repertoire of teaching.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 09/05 at 08:17 PM
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©2008 Michael L. Umphrey
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