To everyone who sees that video of the cop flipping the student out of her desk and throwing her into the wall, and says, “see, the problem is that kids these days don’t respect authority,” I’d like to say one thing:
While unpacking the levels of wrong in the current discussion is a little like peeling the layers of an onion, this is something that absolutely must be discussed.
First, should the student in question have unfailingly obeyed her teacher’s authority? To accurately answer that question, there are several things that must be addressed. The first is if the teacher is an unquestionable authority in the child’s life. I can remember, when I was fourteen, getting into an argument with a teacher so heated I was sent to the principal’s office. There were many times I did so, in fact. From pointing out that penguins don’t only live on ice to Indians not being treated with respect to dinosaur bones not being planted by God to challenge men’s faith, my career of disrupting class to call my teachers idiots spanned a 7 year period, and was only ended by my being taken out of school to teach myself. Should I have simply respected my teachers authority, unquestioningly, when I felt I could prove that they were wrong?
You may, correctly, point out that there’s a difference between respecting a teacher as an authority on the class material and respecting their right to reinforce rules and expectations. Yes, please, let’s talk about rules and expectations. On the first day of my class on classroom management, we talked about how difficult it is to maintain discipline when 30 kids don’t want to learn what you’re teaching them. That class, like many classes, focused not on how to punish students but on how to convince them that they want to learn. Here’s a secret: You can’t make other human beings always do what you want. Other human beings can and will have different ideas of what they should do with their time, and a teacher who focuses on punishing bad behavior instead of teaching those willing to be taught fails both those who want to learn and those who don’t.
There aren’t enough hours in the day to punish the students who don’t want to learn, because increasingly schools are filled with reluctant students who don’t see the point of education. The problem with those students isn’t that they are disrespectful, it’s that they have so little hope. A good teacher won’t waste anyone’s time punishing their disrespect. A good teacher will address their lack of hope in order to win their cooperation.
So why are kids today hopeless? Well, there are many reasons. One is that the level of poverty in the country is growing. A high school diploma no longer guarantees you the ability to keep food on the table and provide yourself with a decent life. Another is growing inequality. Oh, isn’t that the same thing as poverty? No, it isn’t. Because what we see is that the lines between the rich and the poor are growing, but so are the lines between white people and minorities. So are the lines between native language speakers and language learners. In some areas we don’t just fail kids once, but we fail them three or four times, because every line of difference between them and the usually white middle class teacher is another barbed wire barrier they have to climb over with bare hands, unassisted by the system that is all too happy to punish their lack of adherence to expectations with a little unwarranted jail time.
Let’s talk about this. Lets talk about the kid who I saw fall asleep on his desk, because he works nights and takes care of his brother and sister when he gets home from school. “Let him sleep,” his teacher told me, “I’ll give him extra credit work.” I asked her if that wasn’t rewarding his lack of attention. She said, “I call it justice.” Let’s talk about the level 3 language learner being dragged out of classes for one on one teaching with someone unqualified to teach him because the school system couldn’t afford someone with the right credentials. Lets talk about the 3 or 4 positions at that school being filled full time by substitutes because no one wants to work at the school with “gang problems”, so students are deprived of even the ability to develop an ongoing relationship with their teacher. Lets talk about the kid who is on their phone during class because their cousin in Mexico had their house robbed that morning and is scared. Lets talk about the girl who is distracted in class because her uncle is sexually abusing her. Lets talk about the immigrant from some central american country who is scared every time the school resource cop walks by because in his country, cops are known to murder students and steal from them. Lets talk about the African American girl who has, since kindergarten, worn the label of “thug” because she had poorer language skills than her peers because her parents were hardly ever in the home, so she communicated mostly with pinches and grunts. And that label stuck with her to high school, until she believed that no amount of good behavior would ever shake the fact that teachers just hate her.
Lets talk about why kids don’t pay attention in class, and then lets talk about how absolutely senseless it is to punish a lack of attention as if it is a crime.
“But kids should respect their teachers,” people continue to say as if that is some sort of silver bullet against the woes of the world.
I’m going to say something very daring right now: students shouldn’t respect their teachers just because the teacher stands in the front of the classroom. If teachers want to be respected by their students, they need to understand and teach to the very real problems their students face. They need to respect the injustices and inequalities their students bring into the classroom, and they need to counteract them. They need to understand why their students suffer from a lack of sustained attention and design classroom instruction to work within that lack. They need to know why some students need to act out and they need to build action into their lesson plans so that it isn’t disruptive to everyone else. They need to understand that control of the classroom comes from a healthy sustained relationship between student and teacher, not hanging on the authority of a cop that they can call.
Because the second you call in the cops, you say, “I’m not in charge, this guy is.”
And more than that, teachers need to understand that blind adherence to authority isn’t healthy and shouldn’t be taught. Blind adherence to authority is what leads people to be willing to administer a lethal electric shock to someone innocent just because they are told to. This was studied because scientists wondered why seemingly decent German citizens would cooperate during the Holocaust. What they found was that fear of challenging authority can and will cause people to violate their own morals.
What in the world would possess any reasonable person to think that instilling an unfailing fear of challenging authority into our children would be okay? I don’t want my children to never question their teachers. If anything, I want them to question everything and everyone that asks them to behave in a way they see as unnecessary or harmful.
“Kids these days are just acting out all over the place.”
Open your eyes. Look at the world around you. See what we are handing to our children: lack of opportunity, a failing economy, an education that is barely good enough to wipe their butts and flush down the toilet. And you expect them to cooperate with that system?
So you take a girl who was just placed into foster care, who is traumatized and afraid, and when she is chatting with her friends as a way to cope instead of listening to the lesson, you demand her phone. You demand her safety. Then, when she refuses to comply, you call the cops in to slam her against the floor and wall, and you stand back with your arms crossed and say, “the problem is that kids these days need to comply.”
To everyone who agrees with that statement, I say this: the problem is that adults these days don’t give a damn about the well-being of children.