An Argument Worth Having?

01Apr14
A student doesn’t have a pen. You loan them a pen. Next lesson, the same student doesn’t have a pen. Now what?

Let’s assume – because I’m a professional teacher and, if you’re reading this, probably so are you – that we’re not talking about a student who (a) has specific needs making pen recall a problem or (b) a student whose family/carers can’t supply a pen. In each case of course it’s our job, as a school, to sort them out. Let’s ignore the students who usually manage it but, like everyone including me, sometimes forgets. No, this is a student who habitually fails to bring a pen to school.

This is a choice.

This student has learned that not having a pen somehow offers a benefit. Perhaps it means they can demand attention, trying to pick a fight at the start of a lesson. They can start conversations with classmates about borrowing a pen, reinforcing friendships or subtly exerting dominance. It means they can waste time and disrupt the starter. Maybe they’re doing this to avoid writing. It’s hard to know.

Of course their motivation is important, but in this case we also have a choice.

  1. Refuse and see them waste more time, complain that we “don’t value their learning,” and perhaps refuse to write.
  2. Give them a pen, without consequences.
  3. Give them a pen, with consequences.
All of these take time. Enforcing consequences takes more time, either within the lesson eg recording names or afterwards for short detentions (or both). This time is increased if we actually expect to get the pen back (in which case our colleagues will face the same dilemma).  Because this is not an ‘and’ situation. Like so many other examples in teaching, this is an ‘or’ situation. Doing this means less time to do something else. There is always a price to be paid, something the government forgets whenever they have a new initiative to promote.
This is learning time. Wasting learning time is not okay.
If a student says they care about their grades, but actually spends every evening on their XBox, then we can reasonably suggest they don’t care that much about their grades. If we say we care about learning, we have an obligation to spend time helping our students learn. Whether you favour group work or teaching from the front, ‘progressive’ or ‘didactic’ methods, inquiry-based or core knowledge, I think we can agree that learning takes time. Less time means less learning. This is not rocket science. (Rocket science is more fun.)Teaching is not just about our subject knowledge. Students come to school to learn about life. To be, for want of a better word, civilised. The same as we’re not born knowing how to use a knife or fork, we’re not born organised. If students learn that they will be provided with equipment that they could reasonably bring themselves, they are learning dependence. We are teaching them to be needy. We are effectively preventing them from becoming self-reliant. We are giving them an incentive not to be responsible for their own pens and, by extension, their own learning.

Of course having a pen doesn’t automatically make a student a good learner. But not having a pen definitely makes it more difficult. Compare this with the things we so often pick up on, such as uniform. Now, I’m not starting the argument about whether having a uniform at all, or a blazer, or whatever, makes a difference. But I think most teachers, asked whether they would prefer students to have a pen or a tie, wouldn’t see this as a difficult choice. So why do we make a lot more fuss about uniform than equipment?
Of course I address this within my classroom. Of course many students learn to bring basic equipment most of the time. There are many lines in the sand we could draw, but this has the benefit of being one most adults wouldn’t really argue with. Even most teenagers find it hard to justify once they’re away from an audience. But like so many other things in school, it needs a united front. I don’t really care about my colleagues’ policies on group work, homework schedules or underlining titles. But if they’re loaning pens out freely when I make a point about the problem, they’re making my life more difficult.

When I rule the world, schools will check equipment instead of uniform at the start of the day. In fact, imagine a school where uniform rules only apply to those kids who have gained three or more debits the previous week. If they want to wear their own clothes, they have to behave. Imagine what that would be like…

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6 Responses to “An Argument Worth Having?”

  1. 1 Helen Rogerson

    Sorry, I just gave out pens. It took too much of my energy and they ended up taking the pens of the nice kids in the class, chewing them and/or not giving them back and as ‘there’s no problem for me’ was the response of the SLT members who teach year 11 and sixth form I gave up.

    Now I don’t have an issue with no equipment, I work in a school with an expectation that all students will have a pencil case. A calculator and 30cm ruler as less common. I have actually used pens until they have run out this year, rather than given them out and lost them.

    I feel your pain, and I have met many colleagues who agree a morning equipment check would be a very useful step forward. Why should teaching be the only profession where we take stationary into work? (as they say).

    • 2 IanH

      I completely understand why just handing over a pen saves time and effort – it’s the fastest way to solve the problem. The issue is when you have to follow up those persistent offenders, and the hassle this causes. Like chewing gum and school shoes, this becomes a time-wasting exercise that distracts us from what matters: learning. It’s a minor irritation that takes up disproportionate amount of energy if not addressed centrally.

  2. 3 90maz

    I had to check, every morning, that everyone in my tutor group had their planner and a pen. They all did, yet by the time they got to Science two hours later, in the same room!!, some had evaporated. I (we) kept a supply of short (half length) pencils in the labs, I NEVER lent out a pen and let students sort themselves out with pencils, on the understanding that no one went to break/lunch until all were returned. That was the policy across school.

    • 4 IanH

      I like the idea of a morning check – and supplying those who need them from a central store (obviously discreetly in some cases). The problem when teaching is the wasted time and effort, especially when some students discover how effective it can be to derail a lesson.

  3. Like 90maz, I check my tutor groups stationary situation every morning. As I usually don’t have to teach many of them this isn’t the problem. The problem are the groups who don’t have their stationary checked on a regular basis.
    The way I deal with this is that I have a ‘teachers toolkit’ where I keep rulers, rubbers, sharpners, pens, pencils and even calculators. Every student requiring something has to give me something in return I.e. their lunch pass, oyster card, phone, headphones etc. This ensures that I get my equipment back, that the student has the necessary equipment, but doesn’t ensure that they’ll have the equipment the following lesson. It does cut down on the arguing though. :-/ I’d rather they have the equipment and we get on with the lesson ASAP.


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