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"Nummy" Punishment

Q. A teacher I know uses something called the "Nummy Game" as her primary approach to student discipline and classroom management. It works like this: There is a "nummy" jar on her desk. Whenever a student misbehaves, is late, misses an assignment, leans back on his chair, or whatever..., the teacher places a piece of paper in the "nummy" jar with the student's name on it...

Some students (5th graders) get many "nummies" each week, while some get none or only rarely have their names put in the jar. On Fridays at the end of school every week it is time to play the "Nummy Game." Everyone that has a "nummy" gets to answer questions that the teacher makes up from the material she has covered with the students. If a student gets an answer wrong, he gets a special homework assignment to do over the weekend. If he gets all of his answers right, he gets no homework. The more "nummies" the more questions, and the more likely the "nummy" homework.

Also there is an increased embarassment in front of his peers for anyone who continues to get "nummies". I wonder what you think of this system of student discipline, and whether or not you agree with me. I believe that the teacher is essentially using a form of passive aggression to control the students. She doesn't show any emotion as she simply places a "nummy" in the jar, rather than deal directly with the student about the problem. The students with more self-control learn to satisfy as many behavioral requirements as they can. The students with less self-control "punish themselves" by earning the "much deserved" "nummies".

On Fridays the teacher enjoys her game and the more self-righteous students mostly gloat as their more active peers hang themselves by eventually missing one of the several questions they must answer. The worst of these students feel embarrassed, frustrated, and embittered by the hopelessness of the game they cannot win. The teacher is always in an aloof position. Is this a form of passive aggression or not? Do you share my concern, or am I just overreacting?

A. I do share your concern about this not-so-fun game. First, though--and speaking as a teacher myself--I do have some sympathy for teachers who must deal with over-sized classrooms filled with difficult and sometimes aggressive students. Very often, the teacher feels overwhelmed and unable to focus on the curriculum. Often, he or she may get very little support or training with respect to how best to manage problem kids.

That said, any game that leaves some students feeling humiliated and embittered is a loser in my book. While there must be clear and consistent consequences for misbehaving in class, it is a teacher's duty to work individually with problem students, so that the underlying causes of these problems can be dealt with.

For example, a child who is chronically late may be dealing with a difficult home situation. A student whose attention wanders may be too advanced for the level of the curriculum, or be suffering from an attention deficit disorder. The lesson this teacher seems to be conveying is that it is OK to humiliate a child in front of his or her peers--and that's both bad teaching and bad role-modeling.

I would try to discuss this matter privately with the teacher, expressing your concerns. If that doesn't produce serious change, I would suggest that you discuss this teacher's behavior with both the school guidance counselor or psychologist, and (if necessary) the principal.

June 2002

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