A lot of harsh behavior on the part of teachers and administrators is done in the name of teaching students to be responsible.  Overly punitive responses to infractions like tardiness or not turning in homework on time are rationalized as helpful in training students in the value of making deadlines.  Unfortunately, what they are often really learning is that they will be punished if they don’t do as they are told.

There is another way.  Assuming we truly want our students to become responsible for their own behavior, they must internalize the desire to do the right thing, and that requires our treating them with respect and trust.

If a student misses a deadline, for example, instead of giving her no credit for the assignment, it would be more productive to help her see the cost of her actions, such as not being prepared to have a conversation with her study group, and therefore letting her group mates down as well as losing an opportunity for genuine learning.  If this is handled non-judgmentally, the student might actually begin the process of critiquing her own behavior.  Perhaps she procrastinates, or she is working a side job for too many hours each week.  Giving her a zero is unlikely to cause her to challenge those problems nearly as effectively as a compassionate conversation about how she might deal with them.  Allowing her a choice in how to get the work done, and setting a realistic deadline helps her learn to take charge of her actions.  This is how she will learn to be truly responsible.

One further and all-too-frequent excuse for punitive behavioris that it prepares students for “the real world”.  This assumes that what we are doing in school is somehow not real, and it projects a bleak image of the world outside of school.  Surely, if a person has an abusive boss later in life, there are more responsible ways to deal with it — working to change the situation, or, in the worst case, finding another job — than simply submitting to oppressive conditions.

Our job is not to train our students to comply with the worst aspects of “the real world”.  If education works well, they will deal with that world responsibly, and perhaps even work to make it better.