Sunday, April 3, 2011

consumed by the cuckoo’s nest

One of the best lessons you learn in teaching is to choose your battles (well, you learn it in grad school, but applying it can take much longer). Parents, of course, already know how to do this, but even parent educators struggle with applying that to headstrong teenagers that don’t belong to them.

A frustration of administrators and teachers who are gung-ho about consistently maintaining policies is that there are some faculty that simply choose not to battle in cases of extreme disrespect by students. Up until recently, teachers who opted for inaction in the face of behavioral issues angered me: how dare they be so blasé when we have young adults to shape? It’s exactly that kind of disengagement that unruly kids probably suffer at home, which is why they’re acting this way in the first place!

But when agreed-upon policies aren’t supported by administrators, when sound discipline can lead to threats of lawsuits, when no number of committees or extra hours worked actually effects change where it’s needed most, and when (quite simply) they outnumber us so drastically, I understand—and even begrudgingly join—those who throw up their hands.

Our school gives students the opportunity to attend assemblies or not; those who choose not to attend may go to the cafeteria to hang out. (I don’t understand the concept of choice in this particular case, nor do I understand the point of many of our pep assemblies, but that’s for another post.) Students head to their destination—gym or cafeteria—and stay there for the duration of the assembly.

Unless they don’t want to, apparently. After having one kid slip through a cluster of teachers to “take a call” outside of the gym on Friday, I saw another grab his backpack and skateboard and dismount the bleachers as well. Making a joke to a colleague about this sudden exodus, I followed and stopped him, explaining that he actually needed to stay until the show’s over. He muttered something, turned away, and kept walking. I followed, slightly annoyed but still calm, and called out “Sir.” (What do you call a 15-year-old you don’t know?) He turned and began muttering again. I repeated my initial message, to which he informed me that was “too bad,” for he had chosen to go to the cafeteria.

Again, he walked away. This is when I wished for a lariat … before remembering that even if I had such convenient means, I couldn’t expect to lasso the kid and avoid a pink slip. Dang it. That’s when I wondered if this battle was one I should bother with. Unwisely, I opted to keep going, especially since I was fairly certain that I could convince him to just stay, because after all, while I was putting a crimp in his plans, I was also being level-headed and reasonable.

“You’re being unreasonable,” he said to me when I stopped him a third time in a stairwell. “Actually, I’m not,” I began, going on to explain how he had now made things worse by walking away from a staff member and ignoring my initial request. Inches from my face, he claimed that he wanted to go downstairs to listen to the band. Now my heart rate quickened, which is what happens when my irritation swells, which is what happens when students lie to me and aren’t even good at it.

I kicked it up a notch, calling him out for changing his story and saying to come with me, knowing all along, of course, that he wouldn’t. And what could I do? He wasn’t wearing student ID (which is something many teachers would like based in part on situations just like these, but again, admin doesn’t want to try to enforce it), so I wouldn’t find out his name and therefore could not follow up with him later or call his guardian. And he knew this, so he walked away again.

At the bottom of the stairs, I had my first irrational moment of the episode (unless, Dear Reader, you want to argue that my having followed him three or four times was irrational, in which case I couldn’t rebut), and I did what I abhor: I got a male colleague involved. I got him involved because he’s a male (sometimes the extra height, weight, and, I suppose, the presumption of similar genitalia gets young boys to cooperate). But I wasn’t strategic about it. I forgot that since I chose this battle, my movements must be calculated and well-timed. Fool that I am, I hastily chose a male who likely fits into the category of the dispirited educators I mentioned above—and, to be fair, one who was oblivious to the situation prior to my tapping his shoulder. Sure, he assisted by approaching the culprit, but he then gave the culprit four options, and not one of them involved following my original instructions.

The kid nodded to the teacher, and on his way to the cafeteria, gave me a long, cold, prideful glare.

It was finally Friday, my head ached, and I knew with feeble surrender that the last three minutes were my fault—if I had ignored the kid’s departure (ignored the rules), the result would have been the same, only both of us would be less agitated. In a decisive moment that I wouldn’t have had in years past, I chose not to dwell on the incident any further. I made an exception in penning this post not because it’s particularly compelling—an anecdote like this is as ordinary to educators as is the tale of the tip-less table to a restaurant server—but because it’s a perfect example of what goes on in schools today, and those outside our walls don’t get it.

We lack influence and authority over students, and many of them know that and exploit it. They can do what they want because what’s the worst that could happen? Lunch detention? We have, as one of my colleagues puts it, a situation where the inmates are running the asylum. But in asylums, the inmates wear straightjackets; here, the teachers do.

3 comments:

Doug Stuivenga said...

I have had the same experience. I once stood and blocked a student from leaving the building during an assembly with my body, and got no assistance from anyone. The administrators implied that I had escalated the situation. Remembering still makes my blood pressure rise. I don't understand assemblies very well either, which is why I request hall supervision. I also don't understand why students don't just see it as a welcome break from the routine...but then sometimes I feel much the same way about attending faculty meetings. Go figure!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post.

It sounds like a lot of the same BS is happening all over. Kids are free Teachers walk on eggs.
Kids are free free free to express their narcissism and pettiness at any moment.

I've long stopped taking it personally.

But I am most definitely one of those teachers you describe who often take no action to modify behaviors as I used to do routinely in my 1st 20 years of teaching.

In the last 10 years (as I near retirement), I will not try to use power (over kids) that I no longer have. That just leads to increased feelings of powerlessness and severely-lowered self-worth (for me) in the face of teenage mood and whim, which are allowed to flourish.

I hate what our culture has allowed education to become;And I resent the culture that allows it to be attacked so relentlessly, just to induge the Privatizers' LOVE OF MONEY.



--nikto

Brennen Hankins said...

Well, howdy howdy! How's it going?

Several years ago, I read a book by John Stossel, known as "Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity". It had a bunch of misconceptions that many people have over various things that are believed to be true, and it went through each one and explained why it wasn't so, and what was actually true. In one of the chapters, it touched up on the subject on student discipline.

The myth in the book read: "Modern day teachers do not care to properly discipline children; it is not in their job description."

The truth under it read: "Teachers do care, but are hesitant to react in a manner that might cause a lawsuit."

It's a sad truth, but a real one. In recent times, you got so many people with a hero complex out there that are always there to defend the "innocent", no matter what. Normally, this would be a good thing, but when the "innocent" begin to realize people believe them no matter what, they begin to exploit it. Take little Johnny. Say he's been misbehaving and hitting another student in class. You pull them apart from each other. Johnny goes home from school that day and tells his parents you touched him. A few months, a pink slip, a sentence of five to ten in the county pen and an ongoing multi-million dollar lawsuit against the school district later, little Johnny's still hitting that student in class, just because he knows he can get away with it. And that's crap. All they have to do is say something vague, and the next thing you know you're in court and everyone wants to know just exactly went down between you and little Johnny.

It's not just little kids that get away with it. Plenty of young women with grudges to hold get away with it too. That's why my uncle got sent to prison last year: my cousin said something, and despite all of the testimony from other family members who were there on the incidents in question (myself included), the jury sticks with the "poor defenseless young woman".

And where does this leave us? Educators, unable to enforce any real disciplinary power other than suspension and expulsion (which are only used in extreme cases) have to let the kids run wild. Sure, you can assign detention, but detention was nearly unenforceable when I went to McNary. Most people I knew skipped out on it, and they didn't face any repercussions whatsoever. This sets a dangerous precedent that only has and will continue to cause harm to this country. And don't even think about spending time alone with a member of the opposite sex, your age or not. It may come back to haunt you in the worst way. What does that tell you?

So who's to blame? The Supreme Court? No. The laws of this great country? No, although certain loopholes in the lawbooks are part of it. Greedy lawyers? Close, but a little off center.

So who is it? The exploiters. The people who wouldn't think twice about screwing you over for a quick buck, the greedy lawyers who want to make a lot of money by winning the frivolous lawsuit cases these people bring to them, the loopholes in the laws that allow them to exploit this they way they are, and last but not least, the crusaders who will condemn anybody just because an innocent-looking person says so. It affects every aspect of American culture, and it is pure crap that they are able to get away with it.

In closing, good article, I agree one hundred percent.

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