Resubmit Teaching Personal Responsibility in the Public Schools

When I went to school, it was assumed I brought my pencil and paper to class with me. I did. So had all or almost all of my classmates. In fact, in my experience from the mid-60’s to the 70’s not a single class in a single grade from K-12 were any of my teachers expected to have pencils and paper for students. That was the students’ responsibility. If you didn’t have it, your resort was to borrow from a better prepared friend. This wasn’t something we thought about or made a big deal of. This was normal. I suspect this was normal for most of the readers of this column if you were in elementary or high school before the 1990’s.

Then, when I began teaching in this decade, I saw a different pattern.

Schools, or teachers using money out of their own pockets, purchasing pencils and paper for those students coming to school without them. There were pencils and paper in my classroom, purchased by the school. Kids, teens in my case, took more paper than they needed, used it for purposes other than work, broke one pencil after another, knowing the teacher would replace it.

I didn’t like the idea of this arrangement and asked why were they provided? I was told because expecting them to bring their own was a losing proposition, not worth the fight. The students weren’t going to do it and their parents weren’t going to be helpful. So, it was practical to move on, give them the supplies in the classroom, so they would have one less excuse for not completing assigned work. I understand the thinking. I just don’t agree with it. I will never agree with it.

There is an evil conditioning process at work. The students of whatever grade level repeatedly don’t come prepared, causing the teacher to extend himself or herself to provide the tools, often at the teacher’s expense. The student expects it, takes advantage of it, reinforcing a “gimme” attitude. If the teacher, acting alone and not as part of a system, does not provide the pencils and paper, the student does nothing, grades go down, and the teacher gets blamed. The student has no incentive to provide their own materials. The teacher will be condemned for not giving in. Thus, an attitude of entitlement is created among the young. A responsible ethic of providing for yourself becomes the province of dummies. Why buy your own when it’ll be given to you?

Is this making a mountain out of a molehill? I don’t think so.

A motivational icon I respect, the late W. Clement Stone said “little hinges move big doors”. Little behaviors can leverage big results. A little thing like expecting families to provide pencil and paper for their children to take to school every day builds on the ethic of being prepared for larger tasks later in life. Not expecting the boss to give you something. Not expecting society to give you what you can easily give yourself.

Pencils are cheap, but you’re less likely to break one after another just for fun when you have to go to mommy and ask for more. Paper is cheap, but if you go through a 100 page pack a week because you trashed half your stack, you’ll be asked at home “what are you doing with all that paper?” Of course, this assumes there are responsible adults at home. Something we cannot always take for granted.

At the beginning of the next school year I’d like to see a warning to students and parents that providing this most basic of supplies is their responsibility. That they should not expect the classroom teacher to spend money out of their own pockets at this level. The first month of school would be spent “breaking the kids in” to break a bad habit built over their school lives. After the thirty days of grace, if students ignored the rule, and couldn’t do any work requiring pencil and paper, give them a book to read quietly and treat them as absent in every class. They would be responsible for making up the work. At some point of coming to school without pencil and paper, a conference is called with the parents. The teacher expresses how vital it is for the school and the parents to be partners for the child’s place in education.

Another kind of conditioning is then set in motion, one that increases communication with parents and i! mpresses children with the necessity of personal preparation. It can make the difference between building a culture of entitlement and one of personal responsibility one child at a time.

Little hinges move big doors.