A Middle School Letter

By William A. Funkhouser
Winship Middle School – Eureka, California

Dr. Marvin Marshall
PO Box 2227
Los Alamitos, CA 90720

Dr. Marshall:

Last year I was in the last months of my 13th year of teaching middle school math when I saw you at the California League of Middle Schools Conference in San Jose, CA. I was my county’s Teacher of the Year and yet I was contemplating finding a different occupation.

My frustration with teaching stemmed directly from the discipline system being used at my school. We were using a traditional carrot and stick approach in which punishment consisted largely of detentions, suspensions and harsh words. The rewards included prizes, raffle tickets, and reward days throughout the year in which the same group of students were always in attendance. The usual reaction teachers had to a student who was not responding to these techniques was to try to think of harsher punishments or bigger prizes. These techniques were causing me frustration because I was not only creating antagonistic relationships with students but the energy I was expending didn’t seem to be helping students. While my classroom appeared to be “well run” and “highly on task,” I was assigning about one detention each day as part of my discipline plan.

When I returned from your presentation in San Jose, I was confident I could continue as a teacher. I stopped assigning detentions altogether and taught my students the behavior hierarchy. As I implemented the system, some misbehaviors I had been experiencing stopped the instant students reflected on their actions. Some good students rose to even higher levels of maturity when they were aware of what the highest levels of behavior would look like. Students told me they felt more relaxed and less in conflict with me as their teacher after I adjusted my own thinking about my role as their mentor. I am now less stressed in the classroom and feel I am helping students make permanent changes in the choices they make rather than temporary behavior modifications.

There are now a significant number of teachers at my school who use the Raise Responsibility System and we will be implementing the system school wide. We will all be making some mistakes and learning as we go but I don’t think we will return to the carrot and stick approach which almost drove me from the profession that I love.


William A. Funkhouser
2003-2004 Humboldt County Teacher of the Year
Johns Hopkins Educational Fellow

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September 26, 2004


This year is a surprise for me. I thought I had my revelation last spring when I discovered the system. This year I have implemented the system from the beginning and the painful revelation this year is just how wrong I have been over the last 13 years. It is almost painful to reflect on who I used to be. I was so caught up in getting students to obey that I lost sight of the humanity of this profession. I was overpowering them rather than being flexible, understanding, and compassionate.

Here is an example: I have a student who doesn’t do his homework and who struggles in class. Last year He would have had several detentions from me and a failing grade. I would have forced him to come in to do his homework and we would have been in a power struggle. This year I purchased several school supplies for him and have always had a kind word for him. I recently found out he is actually homeless and that he and his dad are living in a cheap motel. Recently he has started spending his break time in my class, by his own choosing, doing his math homework. He also drew me some pictures on binder paper that he wanted me to have. It breaks my heart to think of all the opportunities I have missed for this type of relationship with students.