We're All Bozos Here

A former teacher's contrarian view of the reforms that have to precede "education reform.

Yet politicians and education professionals have tacitly agreed to make it a nonissue. The broad assumption is that if the juvenile inmates are running the asylum it is because adults aren't using properly up-to-date methodology for "managing children." The implication is that with enough cultural sensitivity, enough of a "caring environment," and the proper teaching and management techniques, all children can be made to behave without ever having to invoke real sanctions. If they can't, there is something wrong with the system. We recognize the absurdity of this proposition in every other area of the civic compact: We don't expect the police to keep the highways safe without the power to write tickets. But in the schools we are dealing with children. Surely we can fool them into playing by the rules without actually having to enforce them.

In their way, they've been trying to tell us otherwise for the better part of half a century. In last fall's Pioneer Press survey of students, many of them complained about all the harping on discipline schools were doing at the beginning of the year. The timing of the survey made it a reflection of what has become an annual rite of autumn in districts across the country. As a hollow sop to public outrage, class rules are gone over in detail by each teacher, and the entire student body is convened in the auditorium to hear the message from the principal: "This year, we really mean it."


Students in the survey knew perfectly well that when all the preaching was done it would be business as usual. In all likelihood, what they actually resented wasn't the prospect of a stricter atmosphere but the waste of their time. We insult their intelligence with our posturing.

It is a failing among some American teachers to want to be "friends" with students, but most teachers don't run unruly classrooms by choice. They are gradually worn down by the amount of energy needed to maintain basic order. Keep sending kids to the office, and your classroom will quiet down, but you are creating problems for your boss, and you can bet they will come back on your head. For the principal or vice-principal, there are parents to be called, the same old lecture to be given over and over again, paperwork to be done, maybe ethnic quotas to be fudged, and--as children are well aware--intricate due process to be observed. Even at the best suburban high schools, disciplinary actions are regarded as an embarrassing public relations problem. Trying to maintain a level of order above the school norm can get you a reputation as a teacher who "can't manage kids."

The educational theory is that a good teacher can control, motivate and teach all of her students without support from either the administration or parents. For about 1 percent of the most charismatic teachers, the theory almost holds. But most teachers fall somewhere on the scale between good or competent, and they can't control every kid without help from those who have real authority over the child. Rather than face the principal with another discipline problem, however, many teachers will write the troublemaker a pass to almost anywhere--just to get the disruptive element out of class so that the rest of the students can learn something. The kid gets out from under adult supervision, the teacher gets peace in the classroom, the principal doesn't aggravate his ulcer. Everybody's happy. In high schools where I've taught and observed, the library often becomes a kind of de facto detention center.

We do indeed mismanage children. When we're not ignoring them or shunting them into the care of someone else, we romanticize and sentimentalize and generally think of them as something other than real people. (Usually, we conceptualize them as objects to be manipulated by the latest fashion in child development or management theory.) We mismanage them by failing to enforce reasonable rules rigorously. The results are no different from what you would expect in any other area of society. The scofflaws remain a relatively small fraction of the population, but they set the tone out of all proportion to their numbers, divert enormous amounts of energy from more important tasks, and cause a broad erosion of respect for the institution.

No one wants to go back to the days of the paddle and the hickory stick, and cracking the whip over children isn't the solution to the dilemma of the public schools. Adult control of the halls and the classrooms is merely the necessary precondition for doing the real job. No degree of methodological sophistication and no amount of caring and sensitivity on the part of a teacher will cause a kid to learn if he's swinging from the light fixtures.

Where discipline is a problem it is preemptive. But in the majority of American schools, even high schools, children learn less than they could and should not because they are out of control, but because learning isn't the primary focus of the institution. The message that comes through is that it's good if you learn this, but it's okay if you don't. Since it isn't really necessary, children reasonably conclude that it isn't important. And they have an iron-clad rule about that. They love to waste time just as much as adults, but they won't let you waste it for them. If their day is going to be spent on stuff that doesn't really matter, they'll take over and do their own pointless stuff. And that's just what they do in many American high schools.

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