In my last post dealing with some of the problems in education today, I focused on the lack of respect afforded to teachers in an overall sense. I noted how that lack of respect translates into power being given to students and their parents, and into lack of teacher support from those same people and administration. I'd like to discuss those aspects in a bit more detail now.
As I've noted before, school feels like big business these days. The customer is always right--and, in this case, the customers are the parents and the students. What's worse than the fact that this is the case, though, is the fact that they know they are in charge and are calling the shots. As parents (and students, appallingly enough) never seem to tire of saying, "We pay your salary!"
Over the course of the past few weeks, many of the people who disagree with me have said that 'kids will be kids.' Apparently, according to some folks, kids have always been rebellious. It's in their nature, they want to push the envelope, they are experimenting and coming into their own, etc. We've all had our moments as kids, they say.
Nobody is contending that all kids are terrible; nor is anyone arguing that teenagers are still developing and learning how to be contributing members of society.
However, once upon a time, rebelliousness had ramifications and consequences. Once upon a time, if a kid got in trouble in school, he may feel shame at school for getting into trouble in the first place and that alone might help him learn from the experience. He may feel an ounce of fear at what his parents would say. When he got home, his parents might discipline him for the action and it may correct the behavior.
I remember a situation from my own childhood, an incident that occurred back in 2nd grade. It was filmstrip day and the three 2nd grade classes were gathered in one of the classrooms. (Filmstrips are outdated technology, for those of you asking yourselves, "What the hell is a filmstrip?" Filmstrips are strips of film that have images on them that were shown on a type of projector. Pretty much a movie, though classically, filmstrips dealt with educational subjects and videos were more 'fun' to watch because they were usually major motion pictures. But I digress...) While the filmstrip was being set up, I was chatting with the two boys on either side of me. The teachers said for everyone to quiet down so they could begin the film. We didn't stop talking. We were sent into the hallway. The teacher who escorted us to the hall told us that we were welcome to come back in when we were ready to listen. I remember not only being completely mortified for getting yelled at, but also completely paranoid that my mom was going to come around the corner and see me in the hall and punish me on the spot. (For the record, there was no reason my mom would have been at the school--I was just paranoid that she would be that day as I was sitting guiltily in the hall.) Soon after, the teacher came back into the hall and asked if we were ready to cooperate. We all said that we were, apologized profusely, and were allowed to rejoin the activity. That night when I went home, I confessed everything to my parents and we discussed the importance of following directions and how the punishment was fair, and that was that. I'd learned a lesson.
But that scene does not play out the same way today. (Again, this is not true of all students and all parents, but it is the increasing trend.) Today it would be more likely that when the teacher told the student to go in the hall in the first place, she would get some lip about it. "Why? I wasn't doing anything! I was just talking!" Then, the teacher might get a call from the parents wanting to know why the teacher had embarrassed their child in front of her peers. Then, the teacher might get called to the principal's office (because the parent also called there to complain), and might have to explain the entire scenario to the principal as well, by way of justifying the situation as it played out. The next day, the students might even come to class and brag to one another that they'd gotten the teacher in trouble.
Many parents don't punish their kids today. Instead of disciplining them, they want to be their friends (or are afraid of them). After a teacher contacts a parent as a result of a student misbehaving in class, students can come into class the next day and say, "Yeah, you called my mom last night and she told me I wasn't going out because you called. But I was like, 'Whatever, Mom. You know you aren't going to punish me. I'm going out whether you want me to or not. So you might as well give me $10. And she did. So there!'" Students seem to enjoy approaching teachers after a contact has been made to tell the teacher that their parents either didn't care, or didn't punish them, or thought what they did was funny, or something of the sort.
Teachers are required to make these parent contacts when any behavior issue comes up, or if grades start slipping, or if anything else of concern occurs. But what the parents choose to do with this information is not always helpful or heartening. As a teacher, you can call home and a few things could happen:
1. The parent will say all the right things, but nothing will change. "Oh, absolutely. I can't believe he said/did that. We'll definitely talk to him. Keep us informed." But the behavior doesn't change. So either the conversation did not take place, or there was not an appropriate consequence for it, or the student will lie to get out of a punishment, or something else.
2. The parent will turn the situation around on the teacher. "Oh really. Well, I'm sure if he said that, he must've had a good reason. He's on the honor roll, you know, and he feels like you don't like him." In this case, too, the behavior doesn't change because there are no conversations taking place with the student because now the teacher is put on the defensive and there's an insinuation that the behavior is justified.
3. The parent will say the right things, and the behavior will change. "I'm so sorry. We'll speak with him tonight. That is unacceptable and he knows better." The behavior changes, the situation is rectified, and class runs a lot more smoothly for everyone involved, AND teachers and parents can feel comfortable knowing that they are a team committed to making a positive learning environment for student learning.
Sadly, this third outcome is happening less and less often as the years go by.
There is also this parental push--which I feel is a terrible disservice to students (and society as a whole) if one considers the long-term ramifications of it--to protect their kids from every punishment, large or small.
I know that a big part of parenting is about protecting one's children. It's right and natural to want to protect them. But parents need to be less afraid of letting their kids learn life lessons.
We all make mistakes in life. It's PART of life, part of growing up. Nobody doesn't make mistakes along the way. It's how we learn. But if every mistake we make is excused, ignored, defended, or hidden, how are we going to have a proper gauge of right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate? How will we know what not to do in the future (when, perhaps, it matters even more and bears more significant consequences)? We won't. And students today DON'T.
Take cheating and plagiarism, for instance.
Most schools have a specific set of rules and procedures outlined up front for students as consequences for cheating. However, when cheating inevitably takes place (and the sickening pervasiveness and blase attitude toward the practice is a blog topic of its own), there's this huge push from parents--and even administrators--to modify these consequences.
When the parent contact is made, parents will say things like, "Well, this was a really large portion of Junior's marking period grade. Can't he do a retest? I mean, the zero seems extreme because now he won't be able to pass the marking period."
Um, he CHEATED. He knew the consequence before he did the act. This is one of those cases where facing the consequence which, yes, may be really problematic for him since it may well be a large hit on the 'ole GPA, may actually daunt him from engaging in this behavior again in the future. A lesson could actually be learned.
If teachers attempt to uphold the consequence, there is a good chance that the teacher will be called to task by administration (since, again, the parents like to go over teachers' heads whenever they can), who may ask whether this was a first offense, or may say that, wow, this was a big points item, and perhaps it would be good to just let the kid take a retest. Suddenly, it becomes the teacher's fault that the student cheated ('Were you walking around the room while they tested?' 'What kind of test was it?' 'Are you SURE they cheated?')
Teacher authority is constantly being undermined in this fashion.
Students and their parents know that they wield the power. All they have to do is make a call to administration and--boom!--the teacher will be called to task about every issue.
Administrators--rather than taking the side of the teacher, and saying to a parent or student, "Well, that is the school rule so that will be the consequence" or "I appreciate your concern, but have you discussed the situation with the teacher first? That must always be your first stop"-- coddle them and put their own staff on the defensive. (Wouldn't want to upset the customer, after all.)
Teachers, then, are forced to play rules roulette, and are left wondering which of the outlined rules and procedures are actually going to be upheld and which of them will be modified for the squeaky wheel. When they're modified--when a negotiation takes place behind closed doors (without teacher input) which allows a lesser number of detention hours or when the consequence is excused altogether or when students return to class enjoying a lollipop given to them in their 'disciplinary' meetings--it makes teachers trying to enforce the rules look like weak, ineffectual boobs.
I'm not sure if administrators realize what this does to teacher authority or even the general authority of schools as a whole. If, as an institution, we show that weakness, we're inviting people to expect that rules are meant to be broken, that showing disrespect is ok, and that, no matter what, the customer is always right--even when they're wrong.