Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On Discipline

FIRE THEM: How Is It That America Lost All Respect for Teachers?

I read an article recently that now more than ever it is PARENTS who control how schools are run, especially in the state of (wait for it) Texas. This is because teachers—those whores who slum it in classroom crack dens for 180 days a year all for the luxe time of summer OFF—all suck, and if some of them don’t suck, that’s just because they’re faking it better than the suck-wads who really suck.

In other words, some parents—who did not become teachers, but in fact chose or fell into other professions, and either chose or fell into the role of “parent,” for that matter—think that because they WENT to school, they know how to RUN one, and because they “had” a kid, automatically know how to teach this kid everything he or she will need to know for life. I mean, we all drive cars, and so, to extend this analogy, we may comfortably assume we can all BUILD the cars. And we stand outside of GM and Toyota plants, day in, day out, dictating to the auto manufacturers just what parts we want and don’t want in our cars.

To hammer home my outrage with another analogous bludgeoning: Suppose you hired Stacy and Clinton from TLC’s style makeover show What Not to Wear as your fashion consultants, and then ordered them to buy the clothes you already know and wear. “Screw Armani,” you explain, “I wear Old Navy sweat pants. Now, buy ’em for me.”

THIS is the state of American Education.

And I can hear people whispering, “Miss O’ is such a liberal douche. Duh, I’d get the makeover, but also DUH, teachers suck and I’d do it better if I had time.” I see your douche whisper and raise you a tool.

The Business Model of Education: The Beginning of the End

The only thing worse than what should be 21st century progressive educational practices that are forever bogged down in an Enlightenment curriculum poured into molds carried by an Industrial Revolution factory conveyor belt (so sayeth Sir Ken Robinson), is same wrapped in a Business Model plastic wrapper.

Can you feel me not breathing?

The year was 1987, coincidentally the year I began teaching. As usual, I blame myself: Schools are Businesses, so decreed the conservative state governors, and yet I stayed.

Before I continue, let me say I loves me some Thomas Jefferson. Loves me some Enlightenment. Not ashamed to say it. I know life is better for Renaissance learning, poetry, free exchange of ideas, all that shit. The point is, as the elegant Sir Ken explained, THAT WAS THEN. The Enlightenment was revolutionary in 1790.

It’s 2011, and iKnow, we know, it’s time to Think Different.

School as Business: Parents are Shareholders and Customers; Kids are Commodities; Teachers are Workers; Principals are Management. This view is sick for a number of reasons, and I could and will go into it in a big way sometime, have already in other posts, but here’s the crux of the argument for me:

If Schools were really Businesses, I should be able to buy stock. “I’d like 100 shares of Caitlin, please, because I know she’s going to Harvard and will make a shitload of money. When she does, Caitlin can pay me dividends and I can retire.” You might argue that the workers in a Capitalist society cannot own the means of production, ergo a Teacher can’t have a piece of that, as it were. And if she did, it would be Insider Trading.

KIDS are not commodities. Schools do not produce “products.” Schools are part of the social contract: We are all in this nation together, and as such, its citizens should have a basic, working knowledge of civics, math, language, science, art, music, culture, history, and the rest of it. But when Parents start telling Schools, “I only want my kids to be told that discoveries in history and science are 6,000 years old at the oldest” or “I don’t want slavery mentioned,” they become the customers who tell Ford, “No muffler for me.”

The business/school analogy is breaking down.

And the other problem with the whole “product” theory of education, is that when a business creates a shit product, or is given shit materials to develop a product, an actual business can use the ol’ dumpster and start over. Kids, though—in the case of schools turning out “products”—are the materials you are given, must work with, and cannot “dump” no matter how much you may want to.

The analogy falls apart still more.

In the Business world, when a product line fails because the whole managerial product idea was lousy, the materials suck, and no money was provided to do the work properly—the first people to pay for these mistakes are the workers.  This is the big attraction of the Business Model: Schools fail? Fire teachers. The public/ customer/ shareholder has the illusion that “things are happening” to “rectify” the “problem.” Whatever that was. (What is “education” again?)

The analogy is in shards at your feet.

Schools are not Businesses. And here to further drive the point home is Billy the Future Murderer of America, age 17, sitting in the third row, in the middle of that row, sans all materials except a retractable pen, a jean jacket, and will of iron.

YOU CAN’T FIRE KIDS: Why Classroom Discipline is a Real Trick, Not a Business Problem

Billy the Future Murderer of America was in a bunch of different classes throughout the 13 or 14 years he attended public schools. And now he’s gone and done what everyone saw coming—Murdered a Lot of People—and naturally hindsight is 20/20, but uncorrected myopia is forever, and there it is.

How is it Billy the FMOA never “got treated” or evaluated, even, for the mental problems he probably had all his life? The game of today’s Business-Model School starts with the Rules: 1) The Principal wants the perception of a school that runs. 2) Teachers want to teach. 3) Parents have all the control. 4) Kids do what their Parents deem acceptable. (Some Kids are past all Parent control.) But how to explain to anyone—a doctor, a school superintendent, anyone—why this Billy the Future Murderer of America is really, really scary? Because it’s harder to explain than you might think.

Billy the Future Murderer of America is in your class.  Here is what he does.

SCENE: Your Classroom on a Typical Day, mid-year (Miss O’ will field it)
CHARACTERS: Billy the FMOA; MISS O’, the Teacher; assorted Other Students.

MISS O’: Hi, everyone. Over here on the board is the Thought for the Day: Mr. Jefferson, “One man with courage makes a majority.” Do you think that’s true? Turn to a partner to discuss it while I take roll.

BILLY: [coughs; deliberately?]

MISS O’: [using seating chart and computer roster to grab roll] I’d like to see everyone talking—if you don’t have a partner, join a pair nearby.

BILLY: [coughs, coughs, coughs; holds fingers to throat, gasps] Miss, can I get some water?

[This requires a hall pass. MISS O’ writes one as she finishes roll. BILLY, no longer coughing, takes pass, grins, winks at TOMMY, leaves the room. Did BILLY “grin”? He pulled back his lips in what looked like what one might call a “grin.” Did he wink? It looked like a wink, in that one eyelid shut while in the direction of another student. And TOMMY is laughing, at least MISS O’ would call the pulled back expression and accompanying noise a “laugh,” but this is all her own perception, according to state law.]

MISS O’: So what do you think? First of all, what does the quote mean? Clementine.

CLEMENTINE: I think it’s true.  Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in when no one else does. And your view is the right one, so you are a kind of majority.

ALAN: A majority of ONE?


MISS O’: Give me an example, someone, of when you believe Mr. Jefferson’s statement is true. Then we’ll look at one example of the other side. The question is: What makes your view more important? When is, or is, one person a “majority”?

[BILLY the FMOA has returned. He trips on a backpack in the aisle. Or did he “trip”? It looks faked, but was it? BILLY turns to ALAN.]

BILLY: Hey, douche, move your bag.

MISS O’: Billy, language. Are you okay? [BILLY grins (?) at no one, takes his seat in front of ALAN.] So, who wants to give me an example?

BILLY: What are we talking about, Miss? I had to get water for my throat.

MISS O’: [not wanting to waste precious time in this little intro exercise before talking about the story of the day] The Thought for the Day. Now, Clementine…

BILLY: I can’t help it if I had to leave the room. I deserve an education, too.

MISS O’: [ignores him; sees a hand] Yes, Alicia.

ALICIA: So, like, if I’m black, and I am, and I want to go to a certain store, and only white people go to that store, if I have the courage to go into that store—and I should have that right—then I become the majority. I mean, I would be right.

[BILLY the FMOA has begun clicking his pen during the previous speech. He clicks rhythmically, continuously, staring into MISS O’s face.]

MISS O’: Okay, great, that is one example of that view. Let’s hear an opposing view.  [Walking over to BILLY’s desk, quietly] Billy, please stop clicking the pen.

BILLY: [a bit loudly] Oh, sorry, Miss. Sorry, everyone. Sorry I was clicking the pen.

MISS O’: So anyone else? [BILLY the FMOA farts.]

BILLY: I am so sorry. [grins (?); the class laughs, some girls say, “Ew,” ALAN moves to the back of the room]

MISS O’: So, does anyone have the other side? [Silence; students are shuffling papers, talking about the fart, the word “nasty” is heard; is about to try again.]

BILLY [resumes the pen clicking, “catches himself”] Oh, sorry.

[The CLASS is more or less in BILLY’s control now.]

MISS O’: Open your books to page 193. [Waits for another BILLY interruption. But BILLY will be quiet for maybe a full 10 minutes. Then just when it’s quiet, he will fart again. And apologize sincerely. And then click his pen. And apologize.]



The problem for teachers: Billy the Future Murderer of America has done nothing wrong. He has coughed and needed water; he has tripped and fallen; he has asked to be educated; he has engaged in a little “tic” behavior; he has expelled gas, as is only human, and had the courtesy to apologize. He has, in the process, destroyed the entire lesson, derailed what might have been a provocative discussion, and in fact has proven the day’s quote: He is one man with courage, and he IS the majority. But he has done absolutely nothing that can be “written up.”

What should Miss O’ do? What would you have done?

Here is the dilemma: Talking to him quietly, as we have seen, does no good. Talking to even a guidance counselor may be of no real use—you have a “bad feeling” about him?  Any principal would smile indulgently and say you are “maybe a little uptight.” There is nothing you can tell a parent. “Your son is disruptive.” You don’t KNOW that anything he did was deliberate. You do know, but you have no evidence.  (I used to call home, leave messages, and the kids would erase them. But I couldn’t prove that, either.) Even if he returns to the room with cocaine in his nostrils, all you can say in a conference (as explained to me and my fellow teachers in an in-service with law enforcement) is that Billy often has “a whitish-looking substance around his nose, and is that normal for him?”

And this is why discipline is hard, why teachers feel stuck, and one day will just throw a desk.

Society may say: Billy the Future Murderer of America is better off here than on the streets.

Miss O’ says: Billy the FMOA does not have more rights than the majority of kids in my room, and yet he does, doesn’t he, because he’s allowed to destroy the learning of all the kids in every class he takes and always has been. If a teacher does not want a kid in her room, she doesn’t have the right to say, “Get him out.” That would be prejudicial, because racist or homophobic teachers could do the same thing. Only if the student has been verbally abusive, physically threatening, with witnesses up the wazoo, can a student be removed, and even THEN there is a hearing. And the paperwork is unreal. And what then? “Alternative School”?

This is another conversation this country has to have.  Billy needs SOMEthing. It ain’t school. Not the way it’s done in the above scenario, a scenario that works for a lot of kids, but not for a lot of others. Billy needs to keep his hands busy, he needs near life-and-death STAKES: If he doesn’t dismantle the bomb, he’ll blow up. Those kinds of stakes. It’s the only way to keep him focused, though he should clearly never be allowed around explosives (but he will be, won’t he, when he is accepted into the Army). But couldn’t he be put on a farm and made to grow all his own food or starve? Why not?

PARENTS: The Biggest Reason Seasoned Pros Quit Education as a Profession

I have a hundred scenarios I could share about Parent-Teacher Conferences. Some were really productive. Several began with parents saying, 1) “My child doesn’t lie”; 2) “You have an attitude problem, Miss O’”; 3) “You are a bitch”; 4) “Why didn’t you tell me my kid was failing? I don’t know when report cards come out”; 5) “You are a racist”; 6) “Hunting accidents happen”. And those are just six examples. What had Miss O’ done to deserve these threats? Clearly she must deserve them, as it happened not once but many times over the 15 years she taught in two school systems. Allow me to share a few of the circumstances.

1)     I had collected the first essays from my Humanities 10 class one year. When I returned them the following week, a girl I’ll call Kay said, “I didn’t get mine back,” and I told her, quietly, “I don’t have one for you, and I wanted to talk to you about it.” She very sweetly explained that she had turned it in, and that no, she couldn’t reproduce it, as she’d included the draft and thrown out the notes (these were pre-computer days).  Could I have lost it? I could confidently say, “No way.” When I collected papers, I put a rubber band around the whole bundle, labeled the assignment on a Post-It, and put the labeled bundle in my tote bag. The one irresponsible thing I did do, though, for the sake of time, was ask students to pass the essays forward. “Could someone have taken my essay and changed the name?” Kay wondered. Too late to check now. I had to give her the benefit of the doubt, so I said, “How about I give you two choices: Write me another essay for full credit, or take a 65.” She took the 65, since she just didn’t have time to write another one. I felt awful.

The next essay: I collected everyone’s BY HAND.  When I got to Kay’s desk, she said she would use her “gift”—this allowed her to turn in her essay one day late without penalty, as I only allowed one late assignment per quarter. Kay never turned it in for a gift. I had no record of it. When I returned the second set of essays and once again she didn’t have one, she maintained, very nicely, that she’d given it to me, with “GIFT” written on the top, while I was taking roll the class period after. I must have lost it, she said. This smelled all wrong.

I had a “Gift” folder—and at the moment a kid gave me such an assignment, I recorded a “G” under the corresponding assignment square in my grade book—and would have certainly done it while taking roll—and then placed the assignment in my Gift Folder. But Kay was so sure. I had no idea what to do about this.

The next day, I had a note from Ms. Blake, Kay’s guidance counselor, to say we were having a parent-teacher conference during my planning period.

I walked into the reception room to see Kay and her mother waiting. Her mother did not look at me. In Ms. Blake’s office, Kay’s very well-dressed mother said, distinctly and firmly, “Miss O’Hara, I have taken off work today, which I cannot afford to do, to be here. I don’t know how you ever got to be a teacher. You have lost not one but two of my daughter’s essays, essays she worked hard on. MY daughter does not LIE, Miss O’Hara, and as a single mother I make sure MY child achieves. I will HAVE YOUR JOB, Miss O’Hara, I WILL SEE TO IT that you are FIRED before this day is out, having it in for my child. MY CHILD does not LIE.”

And at that moment, my career passing before my eyes, Kay said in a trembling but clear voice, tears in her eyes, “I lied.”

Ms. Blake mouthed, “GO” to me and shooed me out. Kay never returned to my class or to the school. I later learned that her mom had had her transferred. That Kay chose me over her own ass that morning has never failed to move me—she was not really an academic child, her mom pushed her hard, I could see it all then. What to say? I hope they are okay—but if Kay had stuck to her story, and as convincingly as she’d played it for me, my career would have been over.

2)   In the midst of introducing my class expectations on the first day of school to an English 10 class (I had one prep that year, the only time I ever did), a large young man sat at a table on the side of my room (as the desks were too small for him). He began rocking as I spoke, and at one point said, “Oh, I see how it’s gonna be, I see how it’s gonna BE,” and he had a nasty sort of smile on his face, sighed, tried to get the class to see his view. I looked on my seating chart. “Paul,” I said, “let me finish, please, and I’ll open it up for comments,” or something equally stupid. After two days of this sort of commentary, I called home. I explained his behavior. “Miss O’Hara, Paul has already said you have an attitude problem, and I can hear it now. You are the problem. My son is a good son and he does not like you.”

By the middle of the year, I had figured out the “problem,” but never really recovered that class, or any of those classes: The previous year, most of my kids had had a very poor first-year 9th grade English teacher. She was urban, hip, gorgeous, charming, and utterly unprepared. She was also not terribly bright and really should not have been in a classroom, but again, I point to Colleges of Education and wonder what goes on.  She had failed her teacher’s exam, and so was probationary (given the benefit of the doubt on the strength of recommendations, she never passed the exam—a flawed test, to be sure, but still—and two years later had to leave; by then she was only a teacher’s assistant in Special Ed). But the kids loved her! She was sassy and funny and gave well-meant A’s. And then the next year they got Miss O’Hara, BITCH WHORE FROM HELL, who was also sassy and funny, but in a Simpsons way that they didn’t get, and was a demanding teacher. The kids suddenly had to read, write, talk, present, keep up. I was a very kind person, by my expectations were seen as really unfair. Eventually I could see their point, but as I say, it took me almost a full semester to figure out where their anger was coming from.

An Egyptian kid from the ESL program (English as a Second Language, now called ELL, English Language Learners) explained it to me.  We’d had a rough time, too, I and this kid, and one day it dawned on him that he was really learning stuff. “Ms. Liming, you know, she was really nice, but you know, she really, uh, doesn’t know that much, not like you do,” he said. “I think it’s been really hard for me because I didn’t think high school English could be this, uh, hard.” (Paul had had Ms. Liming, too. Most of them had.) If I had known that, I might have been less direct in my delivery, started them off more gently. I really would have. (Paul got over it, by the end of the year, but it was an ugly year. And, well, I quit, but that was planned.)

On Ms. Liming and The Bad Teacher (and I met relatively few truly bad ones in my 15 years): No parents in my experience notice a poor teacher when their kids are getting A’s. Parents instinctively seem to think, “Wow, what an inspiring teacher,” or “My kid is great.” But when Miss O’ records on the first interim report, “D” and “requests a conference,” that Miss O’ teacher must be a bitch. (A parent once complained to me about her A-student son’s grade of C, blaming my poor teaching. I offered to give him an A instead. She was confused, “Well, that’s not what I mean,” she said. Really? Then how about we talk about how he might improve.)

3)   Sarah was always absent. She would come once every 28 days, because after 28 days the truant officers come. She was probably a genius. Sarah was the oldest of 8 children and her single-parent mom needed her at home to help with those kids and to babysit the ones her mom took in for a “daycare” business. Her mom petitioned for homebound instruction, on the grounds of “asthma,” but as there was no doctor’s note, she couldn’t get that. (Curiously, Sarah worked at the mall and could be seen there, healthy and working, every evening.) Her mom balked at sending her kids to school at all, and was pissed that she had to. So every month, all of Sarah’s teachers would have to give Sarah the full month’s make-up work, and Guidance told us we had to let her make it all up, including the quizzes and tests and presentations. After school, on our time. So Sarah would hang around for maybe a week, and being a genius, would finish all the work, and disappear again.

As the year’s end approached, Sarah had been missing for nearly 2 months. I was in the midst of preparing for finals, finishing drama club stuff, doing a massive Multicultural Festival with my Humanities classes, the Theater Production Prompt Book project, and figuring out how my English 9 kids were ever going to pass. One morning, in walks Sarah, carrying the usual note from Guidance, into yet a different section of my Humanities 10 (she had a schedule change!), saying I have to give her all of her make up work, let her do the project, etc., and I said, “No, ma’am.”

The upshot is, her mom called me, and I could hear Sarah in the background, “That bitch, that total bitch won’t help me,” and Sarah’s mom saying, “You bitch, I am calling the superintendent,” and I said, “I think that’s a really good idea, let’s have that conference, but I am not listening to abuse and am hanging up now.”

I was told by my assistant principal, in no uncertain terms, that I was insubordinate. I could have lost my job for defying a school order to give Sarah her make-up work, and for forcing a confrontation with this parent, because (I later realized) it could have been perceived that my school had been negligent (when really they thought they were helping the student).

The school covered my ass, and Sarah failed English 10 for the year, and had to repeat it (though she took regular English and not Humanities).

Coda: A very Christian teacher colleague (who called me out as a heathen more than once) said to me the next year, “Wow, I don’t know what you did to Sarah X. but she calls you a bitch all the time.”

“And you allow her to do that?” I asked.

“If the shoe fits,” the colleague said. (This relationship took a sour turn years before when this Christian teacher single-handedly ended the tradition of teachers and students wearing costumes to school on Halloween, defending her move by saying to the English department, “Halloween is Satanic,” and I’d said, acidly, “That is garbage.” “That’s what I believe,” she countered, and I said, “What you believe is garbage. It’s the Druid New Year that was appropriated by Christians and made into All Hallows Eve before All Saints Day.” I love history. I closed, “People like you ruin all the fun in life.” I’d never been afraid to make everyone uncomfortable, and she’d been trying to get me fired ever since.) (P.S. One person with "courage" made a majority, didn't she? There's your negative example.)

“That’s extremely unprofessional,” I said, and she shrugged, “but tell me this, does Sarah come to school? Every day?”

“Every day. Why?”

“That’s all I need to know,” I explained.

I think there should have been an alternative scenario for Sarah, too, though forced child labor seems wrong to me. In any event, I ran into Sarah several times, years later, at a gym, and she didn’t even recognize me, or if she did, she deserves a Tony. Fascinating. And, yes, she graduated.

4)   through 6): Create your own scenarios. I’d love to hear what you do with Number 6.

In sum: It’s in the specifics that we learn how complicated it is to teach school, and so I hope these examples help fill in another part of the Big Picture: When parents are in control of schools, schools can start to suck. The corollary—and I will address this in a future post—has to do with the marvelous parents, because unless parents are involved in schools, schools will definitely suck. Finding that balance is the trick, and it’s exhausting, and what I hope is that someone brilliant will shine the light and solve the case.  To begin with, assuming teachers are professional and deserving of respect—giving the adult teacher the benefit of the doubt—would be a terrific start.

Until next time!

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