Fri | Jun 5, 2020

Kristen Gyles | Toothless punitive systems in schools

Published:Wednesday | February 26, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Today’s concept of appropriate classroom control sees the teacher begging the students to cooperate.
Kristen Gyles

With students not only frequently engaging in fights, but hurling stools at each other in the process, leaving school grounds to get backup, and punching authority figures who try to calm them down, we can all see that the classroom has become a war zone. Student deportment and behaviour has become disgraceful and the situation seems to be worsening as time progresses.

I will offer an explanation as to why things now seem to be spiralling out of control.

The success of the education system has found itself dependent upon students and their willingness to model good behaviour. As a society, we decided that it was bad for students to act (or not act) out of fear of punishment, and we have now adopted an approach where we simply hope that our students will choose to cooperate with the ethical standards outlined by the school. Our hopes, when not met, simply turn to shame and we lament the bad behaviour of our students.

Some students show up to school ready to learn, work and advance their studies. Not all students have this desire. So while many students don’t need to be forced to engage in productive activities, others do.

We can’t keep expecting our students to act with moral responsibility, and simply prod them along in the right direction and think that will be enough. For a student who wants to steal, if there is nothing to stop them from stealing, they will. If there is nothing to stop them from punching their teacher in the face, they will. If there is nothing to stop them from throwing a chair across the room, they will.

What prevails within the status quo? A widespread dishing out of useless detentions and demerits. And this is what is expected to keep students in line. After a student has accumulated a string of detentions then they are finally given a demerit, an even more useless and imaginary designation of reproof. If these are the only stops being put up by schools, it is no wonder student misbehaviour has spiralled out of control.


If all a student has to face in response to their starting a fight at school, or defacing a school wall with graffiti is a one-hour detention, the problem we are seeing now will only worsen. One hour spent sitting doing nothing is not punishment – but at least it is more painful than getting a ‘demerit’, whatever that is.

Furthermore, why are students who have been placed on suspension being allowed to participate and compete in school sports and co-curricular activities during their punishment? These days, it is great being on suspension in some schools, anyway. Which bad-behaving student wouldn’t want time off from school to roam the streets of Half-Way Tree with even more space to make mischief?

We are observing the results of two major phenomena: Student rights have now outweighed student responsibility and simultaneously, schools have lost all ability to exercise any form of actual discipline.

Today’s concept of appropriate classroom control sees the teacher begging the students to cooperate. I will never forget as a lower schooler in high school, hearing a number of my grade mates exulting over the fact that their class was able to send a particular teacher out of the class crying.

Students will do what they are allowed to do. If teachers are not allowed to appropriately punish students for misbehaviour and instead have to fear for their jobs every time they reprimand a student, the problem will only worsen and teachers will get so annoyed with being stuck between a rock and a hard place that they’ll eventually respect themselves enough to leave their jobs.

In years gone by, no matter how mad the puss was whose pee the student drank during lunch break, they could never have been brazen enough as to actually start a fight right under the teacher’s nose in the classroom.

Teachers are no longer respected because disrespect to a teacher now simply warrants a detention or some other non-impactful form of punishment. Until students have a reason not to misbehave, the misbehaviour will continue.

Kristen Gyles is a mathematics educator and an actuarial science graduate. Email feedback to and