Pen (n) an instrument for writing or drawing with ink, typically consisting of a metal nib or ball, or a nylon tip, fitted into a metal or plastic holder.
Who knew so many tweets could be generated by such an inoffensive item?
It all began with my disagreement with this tweet:
140 characters were certainly not enough to explain my stance. So here are 4000 more.
High standards, high support
Have you noticed how no one uses the phrase “false dichotomy” anymore? Edu-twitter debate tropes have moved on since 2013.
Nonetheless, I’ve been breaking out the well-worn phrase a lot over the past couple of days. Retro.
Some common responses were:
“A conversation is better than a detention”
“Supporting the pupil with their organisation is better than a detention”
“Giving the pupil a pen is better than a detention”
“School-wide systems to provide equipment are better than detentions”
You can give detentions and still do all of the above. I know that – because that’s what we do at Michaela.
We have sincere conversations explaining our standards, upfront at the beginning of year 7 and constantly reiterated. Staff devote hours and hours to improving motivation and changing mindsets through one-on-one chats.
Struggling pupils have daily check-ins and check-outs from a City Year mentor to get them into good habits regarding attendance, punctuality, homework and equipment.
If a pupil turns up a lesson without a pen, we give them a damn pen and get on with learning.
Our school shop is open every morning before registration for pupils to restock on equipment they need.
We have high standards, but we also have high support.
Fine, but can’t you just have the support without the detentions?
A detention is a slightly unpleasant half-hour experience. It’s enough to give pupils that nudge to check their equipment the night before. Pupils aren’t especially bad or lazy, but they are human. As a human being, we don’t enjoy unnecessary effort. A detention tips the balance in favour of sorting your pencil case out.
Detentions also signal that we say what we mean, and mean what we say. Our words (that it’s important to be prepared) are backed up with something that shows we really do prioritise it. Unless you have a completely consequence-free discipline system, what you sanction matters. It tells pupils what you really care about. It speaks far more loudly than words could.
The whys and wherefores
Still, why do we care about them bringing pens?
A school has to make a choice about what they provide and what the kids sort out. Calculators in maths are a classic example. In some schools, there are class sets. In others, the pupils bring their own. It would be absurd to sanction a pupil for not bringing a calculator in a system where they are provided. So sure, at Michaela we could all provide pens and avoid the whole detentions-for-equipment thing altogether.
Why don’t we?
Firstly, just doing what’s always done, I suppose. I’ve never known a secondary school where pens are provided for pupils. When we were setting up, it’s not something that was ever questioned.
Secondly, minimising faff. When pupils are moving about from classroom to classroom, making sure pens don’t go walkies, replacing them when they’re broken, and so on is more hassle than it’s worth.
Thirdly, pupils are more likely to look after and value something they own than something that’s a public good. Again, not because they’re bad, but because they’re human: the tragedy of the commons is not the preserve of inner city teens.
Fourthly, it sends a message about personal responsibility. We won’t sort everything out for them all the time.
Fifthly, it’s a gentle introduction to good habits of organisation that will prove most useful in life.
Care is a doing word
We show we care about our pupils through our actions. I’m giving a detention for a pen because I care. Maybe that’s a different choice from yours – but it’s still driven by wanting the very, very best for those I teach.
I give a detention because it doesn’t stop me from providing support. I give a detention because it encourages pupils to make the right choice. I give a detention because I think having a pen is important. I give a detention because I care.