Lending pens

image by rayriepl (flickr)

When I started on my current teaching placement, I decided that I would have a firm policy on lending pens. The policy was as follows: I would not lend pens.

Exercising personal stationery policies is perhaps the mildest and most train-spottery form of sadistic pleasure. Child asks for pen; teacher replies, “Sorry – you need to bring the correct equipment to school”. Implicit: those are my expectations. I expect you to live up to them. That is why they are called expectations. (When I started spending my days in schools I realised how much teachers talk about “expectations” – more about this in a future post).

The student would then have to trail the room looking to borrow a pen off someone else. Usually, they found one and the problem was resolved.

This went on for a while, and I began to think about it. Not lending pens didn’t seem to change anything. Every lesson, at least one student would arrive without a pen. What’s more, the good students with more than one pen were now being punished – if they lent that second pen, there was every chance that they wouldn’t get it back. Ballpoint pens are like that. They belong to a category of things which society says you can borrow and keep if the lender forgets to ask for it back (see: lighters).

I struggled with this for a while. There didn’t seem to be an easy solution. I talked it over with my wife. My wife got me a bag of ballpoint pens for my birthday*.

The next week at school, I started lending pens. It felt good. Sure, a few students nicked them – but it made the whole process of teaching go a bit more smoothly. I even felt like I was increasing my popularity (warning bells should sound whenever a teacher experiences this sensation – “they like me” can soon turn into “they think I’m a mug”, which in turn becomes “they don’t like me”).

A little later, the school backed me up on my idea. They introduced a school-wide policy of teachers lending equipment to students where necessary. Every classroom was stocked with a collection of clear plastic pencil cases containing a ruler, a pencil and a ballpoint pen.

Now, the arguments against lending pens are fairly plain: you reinforce bad habits and you encourage dependency. The school’s attitude (which I happen to agree with) was: “Not lending pens creates teacher-student conflict and hinders learning”. We need to find a compromise. Students can borrow a pen from the teacher, providing:

a)      They give it back

b)      Borrowing a pen is not a regular occurrence

We can enforce the first clause by writing names on the board (though this is an irritating waste of board space). Enforcing the second is the real challenge. We could refuse to lend more than three times a term (though what happens when we refuse? Back to square one?) We could praise the reliable and shame the forgetful (letters home, wall of fame, wall of shame, spreadsheet on the board).

I think I’ve made a realisation: when students forgot their pen, I lent them one with a quick, half-bored chiding remark, something like “Try to remember next time”. Not only did I never follow up on this (I don’t yet keep records which cover this kind of information), but I was falling foul of the cardinal rule of behaviour management – accentuate the positive.

Solutions, then.

  1. Lend pens
  2. Write down in a visible place the names of students who borrow pens
  3. Praise the students with pens – get everyone to hold their pens up in the air to some successful music, say you’re aiming for 100% pen ownership

Epilogue

The pencil cases provided by the school proved popular:

ALL pencil cases now contain a ruler

MOST pencil cases contain a ruler and a pencil

SOME pencil cases contain a ruler, a pencil and a ballpoint pen.

If we want people to stop stealing the ballpoint pen, we need to figure something out.

*The bag of pens was one of many presents. Lest it seem that my wife is stingy, I should point out that her presents consistently blow mine out of the water (e.g. the year I bought her a toy accordion, she got me a motorcycle)

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