Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lord of the Flies (Or Adults Behaving Badly, Again)

In the U.S., we have a plethora of philosophies and methods for educating and raising children, but when things go wrong, particularly for teenagers, we tend to blame them. By the time they have reached puberty, we assume they know the difference between right and wrong. This lets the adults off far too easy. What we teach and enforce at an early age helps set the tone for a lifetime. We do this by clearly explaining rules and expectations and consistently following through with consequences.

While this may seem simple, it is surprising how often it is absent. When I was student teaching, my master teacher allowed her students to walk all over her, yet she still gave them sweets at the end of each period. The class was chaotic, with students talking, listening to music, or wandering around the room while she talked. She was terrified of conflict and refused to set boundaries with them. If they weren’t listening, she would just talk louder. She desperately wanted to be liked and tried to buy her students’ respect with treats.

One of my students at that school, Catarina, was failing miserably. She only showed up two to three times a week and never turned in homework. Her average in the class was 16%. I arranged for a conference with her mother. During the meeting, her mother told me how out-of-control Catarina was at home, that she was hanging out with the wrong crowd, and that she didn’t know what to do. Catarina got angry and told her mother to f-off. The mother did nothing. She just continued talking to me as if nothing had happened.

While it was difficult at first, and certainly not in my nature, I quickly learned how to maintain a safe and respectful learning environment. Rule of thumb: Don’t become a student door mat. I also quickly learned that my success sometimes depended on how much support I got from deans and administrators. I taught at one school where the entire administrative team and dean behaved like my master teacher. As a result, much of the campus was out of control. Students wandered the campus during class time. Fights were common. Harassment of special education students was routine. The bathrooms were filled with racist graffiti, including sketches of students being lynched. One student came to school drunk and was back the next day with a only verbal warning.

The most egregious lapse of authority, however, occurred during lunch, when a group of students started to taunt two lesbian students, first verbally, and then by throwing bottles and cans. By the time campus security arrived, it was verging on a melee involving dozens of students. That afternoon, the principal sent out a global email to the staff, asking us to encourage our students to come to a voluntary debriefing on the incident to be facilitated by student government. The only other consequences were two-day suspensions for two of the attackers and, shockingly, for the two lesbian students, despite the fact that dozens of students were involved. The situation could have very easily resulted in hospitalizations or lawsuits. Tensions remained high on campus for weeks after the incident. Yet the administration chose to pass responsibility for reestablishing a safe and supportive campus to students.

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