The Hills On Which We Choose To Die

Have you ever thought about not giving students a pencil, when they’ve neglected to bring one to class? What about textbooks? Or a 1:1 device? After all, they should be responsible enough to bring their own every day, right?

And if students forget their “pencils”, isn’t it a teacher’s role to teach responsibility? Accountability? To make them experience and feel the very real consequences of being unprepared for work? Or to a job interview?


Recently, a colleague approached me for my thoughts on an article distributed during a PLC meeting. She is a veteran middle school teacher and the article, a short blog post by Chad Donohue, was entitled “Give the Kid a Pencil”.

As I rapidly skimmed the printout, the author appeared to suggest educators should focus more on creating a “psychologically safe learning environment for students” than to withhold an allegorical “pencil”.

The cynical, middle school teacher expressed her inability to “buy into” the proposition. She firmly held onto a belief system of teaching responsibility through punishment and denounced the practice of teachers and districts purchasing pencils based on the cost.


So I asked the question: “What do you do if a student comes to class without a pencil?”

“Well,” she began proudly, “I deduct 5 points from their grade for being unprepared.”

“And if this student doesn’t care about a grade? What do you do then?” I asked.

“Well then,” she continued — now slightly frazzled, “I would find something the student cares about and take that away.”

I pressed on, “And if this student doesn’t care about anything or, better yet, never needed to communicate what he or she cared about with you? What would you do then?”

She was stumped. And silent.

We sat in that silence for what felt like hours, but was probably only a few seconds. She looked at me, confused and bewildered at how quickly I had turned the tables on this all-too-common power struggle.

Completely out of ideas and past practices, the teacher asked, “What would you do?”

I slowly and clearly replied, “I would not allow a pencil to become the hill I die on.”


We spoke for several minutes longer, discussing student motivation and basic human needs. I quoted the works of Abraham Maslow, John Medina, and Dan Pink, among others.

Ultimately, we agreed teaching responsibility can and should be part of what educators do; however, there are far more meaningful and empowering ways to accomplish this goal.

We expanded upon our hypothetical situation and developed ideas such as putting students in charge of pencil inventories and helping them to plan a fundraiser or pencil-drives if supplies run low.

I also walked away from this discussion thinking of the many hills on which educators choose to die. The ultimate effect being not the literal death of a teacher, but rather the complete and total destruction of a student’s motivation and passion for learning. In our world, I’m not sure which is worse.

I’d love to hear your thoughts regarding the hills on which educators choose to die. Please post your comments and keep this conversation going.

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