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by Judy Henrichs, Head of School

My friend’s son Sandy is 6 years old, a first grader at a local parochial school.

Sandy’s parents were excited to tell me about the great new disciplinary system Sandy’s school uses.  Outside each classroom door, from preschool through elementary, are three cups: one red, one yellow, and one green.  Popsicle sticks marked with each child’s name are placed in one of the 3 cups at the end of each day depending on how the teacher felt the child’s day went.  If Sandy had a “good” day (defined as: didn’t talk in class or be disruptive in any way, and completed all his worksheets with a grade of 80% or higher), the teacher placed his popsicle stick in the green cup.  If he had a mediocre day, his stick would be placed in the yellow cup.  But if he was “bad” today, he landed in the dreaded red cup.  As parents and teachers and other children walk by each classroom, they rush to see whose sticks are where (guess which cups they look in).  As they described this system to me, Sandy’s parents laughingly quipped, “A little public humiliation is good for them.”

After choking back the tears and the words I really want to blurt out, I have given much thought to what Sandy is learning.  What are the lessons this little child is learning from the 3 cups?

  • The quality of my day and my work are determined by the person who has more power than I have.
  • To succeed in school I must be silent in class, sit still at my desk and not be disruptive, complete all my worksheets when told, and not make mistakes.
  • What is important in life is how everyone else sees me.  My reason for wanting to succeed in school is so that the other children don’t make fun of me for being in the wrong cup and so my parents don’t get mad at me.
  • Learning means doing well on worksheets.  And if I don’t “learn”, my parents will make me sit alone at home tonight redoing the worksheets that I didn’t understand to begin with.
  • It is fun to be in the green cup so I can now make fun of the “bad” children who are in the yellow cup and the red cup.
  • Etc., etc., etc….

Where are the dozens of other lessons about self worth and curiosity and self discipline and kindness and sharing and the joy of learning and exploring and the ecstasy of discovering the solutions from the mistakes I’ve made and…?

Sandy’s parents are good people.  They think that by teaching their son to work hard and be a “good” boy in school they are giving him the best possible tools for his life.  And Sandy will probably grow up just fine, just like they did.  But what potential is being smashed out of him?  What joy is being squelched?  What greatness is being carefully molded into conformity?  And, frighteningly, I’ve now gotten reports of very similar programs in the local public schools.  How many children will we humiliate before we shout, “Stop!”

As I write this, I am listening to the delighted chatter of our 6 and 7 year olds who have just completed their research on the best placement in the classroom for the new guinea pig cage they built yesterday (after researching how to measure and build and outfit a guinea pig cage, figuring the budget for the materials, shopping for and assembling the cage, and filling it with Timothy hay because it is the best for guinea pigs).

I promise you that you will never, ever find red, yellow and green cups with popsicle sticks outside any of our classroom doors!  And I beg you not to have them at home, either.

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