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The Pencil Paradox

Updated: Jul 4

Welcome to the second post in our EduDebate series, "The Pencil Paradox!" In our first article for the series, our debaters took on the topic of staff members wearing jeans to school. Today we are jumping in to a hot argument that periodically sweeps through social media feeds, instigating a surprising amount of heated discussion -- what to do when a student doesn't have a pencil. Technically, let's call it a "writing utensil" as the problem resurfaced this week when a man from London threw down the gauntlet with this Tweet:

tweet from @adamboxer1 stating we shouldn't just give kids pens because it means we've lowered expectations

We had already been working on this post before the above thread started making the rounds because, well, this argument has probably been around since the chalk and slate days. Like before, we'll give you our two sides, and you can vote on your favorite and/or comment below. Unlike our last EduDebate, there will be no doubt as to who voiced each side: John, the fearless former elementary school principal and co-owner of JL Hinds Consulting, or Terri, the former teacher of 29 years in various roles from K-12 and owner of Engage Their Minds. Though we have different takes on the matter, there seems to be one thing on which we both agree; students shouldn't be punished when they don't have supplies.

Read our opinions and give us your take in the comments!



I freakin’ hate this topic, and I’ve hated it for years! It has been the same ole argument – year after year and I think it is one of those topics that goes back to how we were raised. Some, like me, were raised to help out another person whenever possible. It was ingrained in me from birth and was the ethos of my family, starting with my grandmother who owned a restaurant in my small west Texas town.

If someone came into the restaurant needing something, usually a hand to work in the oilfield in some capacity or a yard mowed, she would say: “Sure, I’ve got four grandsons who could help you out.” And that was that. Our phone would ring and one of us would be helping that person out. No arguing. No negotiating. Help this person out! End of story.

Fast forward to being in a school with teachers who have all been raised in different manners, with different values. Some were raised like me. And, when a student needs a pencil, they get a pencil. End of story.

The argument I always hear, and have always heard, is that the student will not learn how to be responsible if we just keep giving them a pencil. Really? A pencil is the only way a student is going to learn how to be responsible? Damn! This world is in trouble if that is the ONLY way a student is going to learn how to be responsible.

How about this: Teach the student to respectfully ask for another pencil. If they MUST learn through this situation, teach them to speak respectfully? This helps the student and builds the relationship with the teacher.


You could say no to a replacement pencil, kill the relationship, and the student doesn’t have a pencil to do the work expected.

To me, just give them a pencil!

I used to be the person who advocated for giving students a pencil whenever they needed one. I regularly purchased my own pencils to keep in a bucket in the classroom for anyone to use, as well as another bucket to put ones that needed sharpening. With a student assigned to sharpen them each morning, the system worked well for me. 

Then I changed schools. Now I was teaching grades 4-12 instead of grades K-5. In my new position, I had several different classes each day, and pencils disappeared quickly. With over 200 students coming in and out of the room each day, and the greater needs of many of them, keeping track of who borrowed and who returned pencils was impossible. Every week I would buy a new pack, and our supply would be gone by the middle of the week. 

What was worse was the destruction. Students would deliberately break the new pencils and leave them behind on the floor. When I would collect the ones that were damaged but still usable and put them in the supply bucket, students would complain about the quality and vengefully reduce the remainders to tiny stubs. 

I remained resolved to provide pencils to all, knowing that some of the students really didn’t have the means to purchase supplies of their own, even though others were clearly looking for ways to sabotage the system to try to get out of doing any kind of writing. Then there was the subset who would forget and take their pencils with them to another class, only to have lost them by the time they returned to my class again. 

I tried different methods to at least help students to remember to return them. Duct taping little flags on the pencils to remind them to put them back in the supply container worked for a bit, but then some students got angry that the flags got in the way of using the erasers and snapped those pencils in half to protest. The same happened when I bought special neon green colored carpenter’s pencils to help remind the students to not remove them from the classroom or at the very least to make them easier to find in their backpacks.  

NOT giving the students pencils was never an option because there were some who genuinely needed them, and I also didn’t want others to use it as an excuse for not doing work. But keeping up with the demand was frustrating and it was difficult to watch my money being wasted each week.

Way back when I first started teaching decades ago, one of my colleagues used to require “collateral” from students (usually a shoe) when they borrowed a supply to ensure its return. Although I liked this idea, I didn’t want to embarrass anyone. It also took up valuable time. However, collateral would be my solution if I was back in the classroom now and students were abusing the system. With older students, I think a phone or a backpack would be a fair trade and might help to remind them to return the pencil undamaged, but I’d certainly be willing to negotiate for something else valuable enough to them that they wouldn’t forget it. 

I think it’s our duty to guide students toward more responsibility and accountability. We don’t need to embarrass or shame them, or even penalize them for not having supplies. Yes, we all forget things sometimes. But it’s also our duty to teach students how to learn from their mistakes and improve. By ignoring or rewarding irresponsible or even destructive behavior, we are not doing them any favors.

Who Do You Agree With?

  • John - Just give the kid a pencil!

  • Terri - Give them a pencil, but have some accountability.

  • Neither one!

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