I would like to take a moment and question the obvious: why is 8:01 the hour of crime? Why is it that what is acceptable at 7:59 becomes the cause of all kinds of punishments and consequences a mere two minutes later?
This is a fact as true for teachers as it is for students, a rare moment when both teachers and students are subject to the same glares and finger-waving from the administration. Teachers receive repeated reprimands about lateness – in the school where I conducted research for three years, one teacher who had been teaching for 28 years and regularly came to work at 7:15 used to fume at what she called the “collective reprimand” implied in repeated notes to staff about early attendance. My feeling is, the teachers shouldn’t have been reprimanded at all, but she should have been personally commended for her diligence and hard work. I remember one place where the entire staff was walking down the hall with coffee in hand at 9AM for a meeting, but the director, angry that we were walking too slowly and not sitting yet, instructed the lecturer to davka begin his talk even though had he waited another 30 seconds, we would have all been in our seats, happily rather than told off.
Sometimes, mornings are legitimately difficult. I remember during the height of the intifada, when my husband was called up for his tzav 8 [emergency call-up] and was getting close to his 50th day of miluim [reserve duty] that year, when roads were often closed and traffic along Derech Beit Lechem street in Jerusalem was backed up by regular roadblocks. I was looking after my three children and also in early stages of pregnancy, and it was a constant struggle to get to work in Jerusalem on time. Reprimands were plenty, and one morning when I was on the point of collapse from the stress, I found a quiet room to collect myself for a few moments. That was when my boss came in and gave me a private reprimand. “You’re not the only one dealing with the Intifada!” was how he told me off. He eventually left the room, and I sat there and cried. A few weeks later I miscarried twins. And that’s when I decided I would never again let a workplace bring me to tears.
I’ve experienced this 8:01 anger as a researcher, as a teacher, and also as a parent. In my son’s school, the “policy” is that students who arrive late, whether at 8:02 or 8:42, have to spend the first hour in the principal’s office. I only learned about this on the day I drove my son to school late, what I thought was basically on time – we pulled up as the clock read 8:01. My son panicked and refused to get out of the car. He said that last time he had been late, the teacher made him sit in the principal’s office for that whole first hour and the principal used that time to tell him off. So I said, here, I’ll write you a note, explain that there was a bit extra traffic this morning. After school he came home and told me that the principal did not accept the note and said instead, “Tell your father to leave earlier in the morning.” (The fact that I do the entire morning routine because of my husband's work schedule didn’t figure into his thinking. Maybe this is all about gender...)
I had a long discussion today with the school executive director about the principal’s attitude vis a vis parents, as well as students. I said that I don’t think shaming is an acceptable educational tool and that there are many ways to get messages across without embarassing students. Moreover, what really bothered me was the way he used my son to reprimand his parents. It’s like a divorced couple using their children to send evil messages back and forth. He completely manipulated my son. “Why?” the director asked. “I like it that my daughter forces me to get out of the house earlier.” Maybe he likes it, for whatever sadistic or guilt-relieving reasons that Freud would be happy to decipher. But I believe that for a school to take the position of reprimanding parents, especially through the students, is not only distasteful but disrespectful of parents. Educators should be trying to know their students and parents, not trying to change them.
Indeed, often there are good reasons for kids to arrive at 8:02. Maybe, there are single parent families or situations where the entire morning onus is on one parent, as with me, or families with babies, and the mother has to nurse the baby while trying to get the kids dressed and fed – been there done that as well. Maybe parents work as nurses or guards on odd shifts and kids don’t have as much coddling in the morning as others do. Maybe, some people are just not morning people and genuinely find it difficult to get out of the house on time. Or maybe, some kids have a hard time getting organized themselves and just don’t respond well to all that morning pressure of getting out of the house. And incidentally, Israel is one of the earliest-starting educational cultures I have encountered. Where I have lived, in New York, public schools start at 9:00 and private schools at 8:20, and in Australia, Jewish schools start anywhere from 8:20 to 8:55. And in fact, research consistently points to the importance of getting a full night's sleep, especially for teens. Schools that change their policies to start later consistently show benefits for students' performance and health -- and even reductions in teen drinking.
Sometimes, as was the case with a sixteen-year-old girl named Lital at the school where I conducted my research, there are a lot of things that happen in a person’s life before they walk into school in the morning. Lital’s mother was sick with emphysema, her father was unemployed, and she was effectively left to look after her 4 younger siblings every day. She missed studying for a matkonet [an important test] when her 2 year old sister had a gan event she had to go to. She took a few kids to school and gan nearly every day. If anyone had a good reason for coming late to school, Lital did. But understanding that requires someone to actually pay attention to Lital’s life and not treat her as a prisoner of the “policy”. It requires personal attention and not a cowardly stance behind the cold, harsh and impersonal “policy.”
“But coming on time is very important,” the director insisted. “In today’s Israel, where a word is not a word and a minute isn’t a minute, I think it’s great that the message to kids is that 8:00 is immutable.” My question is, what does coming in at 8:01 have to do with adults in Israel not keeping their word? Not only do I not see the connection, but I think the message is exactly the opposite.
Indeed, the message from the 8:01 “you’re in violation” is that there is no compassion, no understanding, no caring about a person’s actual lives. Where kids in school come on time it is not because they think there is something important happening at 8:01 but because they are scared of being shamed. They learn that shaming is acceptable practice, that to get someone to do what you want use force, and that my own life is completely irrelevant in the face of the group’s timetable. I don’t count as a human being. The clock is the ultimate determinant. If the point of this 8;01 punishment is to teach people to honor one another, as the director suggested, then the value of honoring human beings has to be present throughout the school culture. Where students walk around terrified of being shamed, there is no honor for anyone. The message of mutual respect is completely lost.
I spoke to my son’s teacher about this as well, and asked her not to send my son to the principal’s office if he walks in at 8:02 because it’s shaming and he hasn’t hurt anyone. Her response was first “it’s policy” – codeword for, I don’t want to have to look a person in the eye, it’s much easier for me to hide behind a cold rule. And then she said, “it’s disruptive. If all the kids come in late, I can’t conduct my lesson.” So finally, a real reason. Kids have to learn that they can’t simply walk in in the middle and disrupt. My question is, how disruptive is it really? Moreover, as much as kids have to learn not to disrupt, don’t we also have to learn not to get thrown by the slightest bit of unpredictability? Are we all so sterile in what we’re doing that two minutes after the start of the day we can’t cope with the noise of a ten year old walking into the room and setting up his books? If what we’re doing is so easily disrupted, perhaps what we are doing is exceedingly boring. But mostly, I find the presumption that a student’s disruption by arriving at 8:01 is worthy of shaming to be the most uneducational message of all. We are teaching bureacratic, factory-like inhumanity rather than the multi-layered fabric of life. We are teaching them to be machines, not human beings.
Indeed, notions of bells in school, according to sociologist Michel Foucault, originate from Jeremy Bentham’s prison systems which initiated the use of strictly parceled segments of time separated by bells in order to induce “discipline.” The adaption of these systems of discipline and punishment in the school system represents a particular hierarchy and vision of education which sees schools as places for molding strict modes of behavior and obedience, and the roles of the administrators to enforce that behavior through the most effective means. While we would not like to admit that our current school practices are rooted in prison structures, the fact is that such an approach is deeply entrenched in our system. We are basically running a school system which values obedience and discipline over compassion and care. If, as the director asserts, in today’s Israel, a word is not a word and people don’t care about one another, I would say it is davka because of our insistence that 8:01 arrival is a crime worthy of shaming and not because some kids have trouble arriving by 8:00.
I would like to suggest something radical: maybe we shouldn’t care so much about students’ presence at 8:01, or even 8:20. Maybe the first thing kids should hear when they arrive is not, “Why are you late?” but rather “How are you doing today?” Maybe, the first activity in the morning can be something other than one which requires absolute silence and stillness on the part of the students, such that the slightest motion such as the swinging of a door ruins everything.
Moreover, maybe we can rearrange our first activity in the morning so that it is not something that students fear being late to, but rather something that they love being present for. Maybe that first half hour can be spent in small groups working on puzzles, games, building, and other educational activities, where kids brains slowly warm up while they socialize with their friends. Maybe the first half hour can be spent in group sharing, going around the room and finding out what’s happening in people’s lives and whether they can use support and friendship. Maybe the first half hour can be spent on stretching, exercise, or yoga, activities that are considered a quite healthy way to start a day and where late arrivals can blend in. Or maybe it can be a reading and homework time, where kids can get some extra help if they need it, or find some space to enjoy a good book before the rush of school starts.
Most importantly, this way, coming on time has extra benefits, positive reinforcement, rather than negative reinforcement and shaming for being late. After countless studies have reproduced the finding that negative reinforcement doesn’t work but positive reinforcement does, we should really be thinking about how we spend those first few minutes of the day to make it a time of goodness and care rather than of force and control.
Imagine what different messages kids might get if their schooldays were welcomed with care and warmth rather than with the constant threat of punishment. I think that the educational attitude towards 8:01 needs to be reconsidered, for the sake of our kids’ – and the teachers’ – health and wellbeing.
[UPDATE: Here is a link to a 2014 CNN article on why high schools should start later, and the importance of sleep for adolescents -- http://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/28/opinion/snider-school-later-start-times/]