Give the Kid a Pencil

We all make mistakes. How teachers respond has everything to do with whether or not their students feel valued as human beings.
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Illustration by Melinda Beck

Editor's note: This blog was originally published on May 12, 2014.

I recently taught a university course in Seattle for graduate students seeking master’s degrees in teaching. In one lesson, our focus was on creating a psychologically safe learning environment for students. It was an issue of managing students and supplies. I posed a question:

If a student shows up to class without a pencil, how should the teacher respond?

Small groups collaborated for a few minutes. Ultimately, they came up with plans involving taking something (a shoe?) from the student as collateral to remind the student about the importance of having supplies, notifying parents and even assigning classroom cleanup duty or lunch detention. 

“What about you, Prof?” they asked.

“I would give the kid a pencil,” I said.

“You mean the first time?” someone asked.

“Every time,” I said.

This evidently had not occurred to them. There must be some punishment, subtle humiliation or a response that makes the kid pay for the error, right? They were concerned that my action would reinforce and reward poor behavior, possibly even help develop bad habits.

What they failed to see is that the teacher is not the cause of the problem. Likely, the student has been doing this for years. The teacher can respond by criticizing the child in front of the class, reminding him that pencils are required at school, making her give up something as collateral or inflicting some punishment as a power move.  

Or the instructor can simply provide the pencil and say, “There will always be a pencil here for you. Don’t ever worry about asking me for a pencil. I have hundreds of them.”

By eliminating the anxiety that comes when students worry about being called out or humiliated in front of their peers, teachers reduce the chance that students will skip class, give up, become defiant or develop mysterious “illnesses” that cause them to stay home.

Obviously, these students struggle with remembering supplies. This is likely the result of many factors in their lives, none of which has anything to do with the teacher. Perhaps it is ADHD or a medication side effect, stress or simple forgetfulness or immaturity. (They are, after all, just kids, right?) What good does it do to rub it in their faces every day? And years later, what are they likely to remember about the class or the teacher?

“But what about the student who takes advantage of you?” one of the graduate students asked. “How do you know they aren’t doing it on purpose?”

Of course there is the chance I will be taken advantage of. I welcome this chance. I resolve to remain a patient advocate for the child even if he is testing me. When I hand him the 50th pencil and remind him there is always one here, what will be his likely impression? Has humiliation worked so far in his educational experience? Has the status quo resolved the issue? Imagine the impact of endless advocacy. We should all be extended such grace.

Also, students who are constantly badgered for forgetting pencils start stealing pencils to avoid being singled out and embarrassed. One could argue that shaming leads to the stealing. A child will go to great lengths to avoid humiliation.

“How do you get all those pencils?” my students asked.

I am a college graduate and a professional. I have no trouble accessing the power structure of our community. How can I complain about finding pencils? In light of what so many others struggle with daily, this problem is minor. Find a way. Pay for them, borrow them, ask companies to donate them, hit up family members for pencils as holiday gifts. Have a pencil drive. Do a car wash for pencils. I don’t know, but figure it out. Life is a cycle of problem solving. You can find the pencils. 

Students learn best in a psychologically safe, mistake-friendly environment. We all make mistakes. How teachers respond has everything to do with whether or not their students feel valued as human beings. We are responsible for creating a psychologically safe classroom. In all possible situations, we should seek to uphold the dignity of the student. Even when disciplinary action is necessary, it should be handled in a dignified way.

“Mr. D, can I have a pencil?"

“Of course, anytime."

Donohue is a middle school English and social studies teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches college courses in English, public speaking and education.

Add to an Existing Learning Plan


    I always keep a jar of pencils and a stack of notebook paper that my students know they can help themselves to when needed. I tell them at the beginning of the year that they never need to ask, just help themselves. I trust them to take only what they need. I always have a few kids who still ask and I just remind them where to get what they need. I have students ask me if they can take some paper for their next class or for the rest of the day and my answer is always yes. I know as teachers we spend a lot of money out of our own pockets, but when your school population is on 100% free lunches, you do all you can to make sure your students have what they need to succeed.
    Our school has the best custodian, we will call him "Mr. Too Tall". Early in the school year, one evening after school Mr. Too Tall came into my classroom holding a large five galloon bucket of pencils. He asked if I had any use for them. Of course I had a use for them! When I asked him where he got all of the pencils he went on to explain that he had collected them over the last couple weeks of last school year and throughout the summer cleaning out the lockers. Our kids never went without a pencil. As the school year continued on he would drop off pencils that he had found about once every week. Any kid that came to my room always had a pencil thanks to Mr. Too Tall!
    I keep a small jar of pencils and a stack of notebook paper also. But with "free" pencils, was going through 20 or 30 a day, and was finding broken new pencils all over the room. The exact opposite of what a safe and respectful classroom should look like. So, I noted with the class that we have 10 pencils in the jar. At the end of the class, the pencils need to go back in the jar for the next class. No more trade-ins, collateral, stopping what I'm doing to "issue a pencil." And strangely, after I asked that they all go back at the end of the hour, they patrol themselves and get the pencils back in the jar. Every once in a while a student asks to take one for the day, and my answer is always, "yes."
    Group of adults listening to one person speaking.

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