Friday, February 26, 2010

Never wake a sleeping student!

This commentary was first published in

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What Do You Do With A Sleeping Student? by Tom King

Written on February 24, 2010 – 7:49 pm | by Shelly Terrell

Part of the series: Global Issues in Education

A tweet flew by this morning about what a teacher should do with a sleeping student. I sent a response to Shelly Terrell about my experience years ago as a young math teacher who tapped the shoulder of a sleeping kid in my algebra class, and with all the empathy of the rookie I was, asked him how in the name of the quadratic formula, could he be sleeping in my class.

He opened his sleepy eyes and said, “Sorry Prof King. I couldn’t get any sleep last night. My dad came home drunk and was beating my mother and me.” That was the last time I ever woke a sleeping student.

When I was in high school, corporal punishment was still meted out to any errant students, usually a slap, or the infamous paddle. But there were some sadists who somehow got to be teachers and literally punched kids into submission. Although the bruises healed, my guess is that the inner scars are still there. How do I know that? Some of those kids, now men and fellow alumni, were still talking about at our 50th reunion. They weren’t laughing, either.

Positive reinforcement works. I’ve seen it light the eyes of a learner many times. Negative reinforcement never works. Physical punishment not only doesn’t work on students (or anyone for that matter), but it may keep them from ever becoming a real learner. It turns an incident meant to be a positive learning experience into a painful memory of punishment. The only thing a student learns from the experience is that it’s OK to strike someone when rules are broken, or someone else just makes you angry. The punishment is perpetuated.

I grew up in an era where spankings were occasionally administered. I’m not going to say that the couple of times I got one didn’t get my attention focused on my poor behavior. But, as I grew older, I was more concerned about letting my parents down, or worse, having done something I knew was wrong. Most parents today eschew spankings for the same good reasons. Regardless, it never belongs in the classroom or in a school. Ever. Anywhere. Anytime.

Psychologists tell us that painful memories are often hard to eradicate. The really bad ones can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Corporal punishment may not occur in a battlefield, but that doesn’t mean emotional scars won’t be lasting. Negative reinforcement obliterates the desired learning and replaces it with pain or shame. The negative is what has been learned. There are no positives.


Tom King is a retired math teacher, the founder of the Saturn School of Tomorrow, adjunct professor for 35 years +, husband, father, grampa, friend, tennis and golf partner, coffee buddy, reader, photographer, poet, and a marveling lifelong learner. He blogs at Tom King’s Blog of De-Fogand tweets by the handle, @profTK. Read his previous contribution to Teacher Reboot Camp, Oh, the Lessons I’ve Learned.

How do you feel educators should manage classroom behavior problems?


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  1. 10 Responses to “What Do You Do With A Sleeping Student? by Tom King”

  2. By ktenkely on Feb 24, 2010 | Reply

    It is so important for teachers to get to the root of the problem. As in this situation, the student wasn’t being disrespectful with his sleeping through class. He was naturally responding to events in his life outside of school. I have found that many times students who are acting out in the classroom aren’t doing so just to be naughty. There is generally a “good” reason for the acting out. The pressures of home are stressful, the student is being bullied or teased mercilessly by another student, they are tired, they are hungry, they are insecure, they think they are stupid, they are being put in adult situations at a young age. The best way to manage behavior in the classroom is to understand what else is happening in the lives of your students.


    Tom King Reply:

    @ktenkely, There’s some fine advice! Thanks, Kelly! The issue was more about me not being a compelling teacher at the moment, than the needs of my students. A lesson learned!


  3. By ultimateteacher on Feb 24, 2010 | Reply

    It’s so easy for teachers to be reactive in situations like this. They hear students yell and they discipline hard. They see students acting out, and they send them to the office. I applaud teachers who can hold back their first instinct of attack, and instead go for inquiry. Love and Logic is great option that teachers can also use as well. Great post.


    Tom King Reply:


    Fine point! We have much to learn as young teachers, and often our students will teach us.


  4. By surprisesaplenty on Feb 24, 2010 | Reply

    I teach ESL at a university in Korea. The way the university entrance exam works is that many students do most of their studying outside of class. At university, these habits remain and students often sleep in class. As my class is more of a seminar than a lecture, sleep is a no-no. I go for the humorous approach and take a picture of the sleeping student from an angle that obscures the face, then post it on a class blog. If the student is a repeat offender, I offer them money and the chance to go to the coffee machine. Few students take me up on it and even the ones that do try harder to stay awake afterward.


    Tom King Reply:


    All cultures are different.

    But I’ve found that anything we do to embarrass a student works against our effectiveness as teachers in the long run. Even when we mean well.


  5. By JW on Feb 24, 2010 | Reply

    I was a sleeping student and had reason. That’s always in the back of my mind. You never know, unless you take the time to ask and care. Nice post.


    Tom King Reply:

    @JW, Yes! And ask the student in a respectful way…not in front of the entire class.


  6. By Todd Wandio on Feb 25, 2010 | Reply

    I don’t wake sleeping students. I figure they showed up with the intent of participating in learning, but their body had other ideas. Students today have horrible sleep patterns, and our strict school schedule doesn’t exactly match up with the circadian rhythm of the average teen. I let them sleep. Sometimes I have a little fun with it, but mostly I just ask the class to not disturb the student, and leave him/her be. Incidentally, I have had VERY few girls sleep in class. Any thoughts as to why?


    Tom King Reply:

    @Todd Wandio,

    I like the concept of just letting them be and talking with them afterwards.

    As for girls not sleeping in class, I found that true too. It must explain why they often do so much better than the boys! :)


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