My remedial students had a project due today, which for the first time ever, I told them couldn’t be turned in late (with the exception of late projects because of IEP or 504 accommodations). You see, the marking period is about to end in a couple days, and I 1.) need time to grade the work, and 2.) don’t have time to stretch the presentations out over several weeks as students complete work whenever they feel like it. That, plus the fact that these kids are seniors, meaning they’re not really kids at all. It’s time I held them to a higher standard, for that’s what their employers and the world will expect of them.
Most students adhered to the due date, presenting wonderfully thoughtful and well-researched work. A few did not, coming to speak to me in private about their issues, which I greatly appreciated and admired. And some felt the need to make a public classroom display of their displeasure at not being able to turn the project in late despite having known about the due date for close to a week.
One thing I try to impress upon my student teacher is the importance of not reacting emotionally to students’ outbursts and not calling them out in front of their peers, causing them to go on the defense and escalating a situation further.
Today I broke both those tenets of teaching.
Fed up with students arguing about turning the work in late and blatantly being rude and uncooperative, I very sternly (and with voice elevated) told the last disrespectful student of the day that we do not discuss personal issues or the circumstances of fellow students publicly across a classroom — it’s not professional, it’s not adult-like, and it’s not productive. I ended by “inviting” him into the hallway to have a private conversation with me.
I’m not proud of the way I handled that last student of the day. I should not have raised my voice, nor should I have put him on display in front of his peers even though he had been badgering and arguing with me in front of his peers for several minutes before I cracked. The thing I am least proud of, however, is that a senior in high school seemingly thought it was acceptable to behave in such a manner.
As I spoke with the student in the hallway, I asked him how he might have handled the situation differently; how he might have problem-solved better, telling him he will most certainly encounter a similar situation in the future and will most certainly want to handle it another way. On my drive home, I thought about all the things I’ve had to counsel students about over the years — things that should be obvious to a teenager about to enter adulthood. And then I came to the following conclusion:
We are doing school all wrong. We should not be teaching them more standardized curriculum and rote memorization. We should be teaching them more about interpersonal skills and how to positively contribute to and succeed in the world in which we live.
The “problem” with American education is not that students are behind their peers in other countries (that comparison is tired and incongruous; other countries measure the elite only, while we measure everyone.) The problem is that teachers are being forced to sacrifice basic instruction about life in favor of Corporate America’s standardized, for-profit curriculum.
When the politicians cease to let us teach students about the world, students cease to learn how to live in it productively.
Instead of teaching to the test, we educators should be given time to teach students…
…that how they treat others largely determines how others will treat them. You can’t barge into a room with all your coworkers, start belligerently arguing with your boss about getting an extension on an assignment you were given, and expect her to cater to your whims, for example. A polite, private conversation is the way to solve both classroom and workplace issues. After all, you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
…to be self advocates. Mommy might be there to bully school personnel into allowing late work or relaxing a punishment, but she won’t be there to bully the IRS into forgetting about those neglected taxes down the road (and if she is, it won’t matter). Successful adults are those who can problem solve on their own and speak on their own behalf.
…to value hard work and a positive attitude. Not everybody gets a trophy for showing up to job interviews or work on time. In fact, nobody gets a trophy for those things at all. The trophy is called continued employment and a paycheck, two things you can’t maintain without diligence.
…the importance of treating others with respect. The same teacher a student badmouthed and disrespected one day may be the very same one she needs something from the next. The same holds true in the larger world. Showing others respect is a way to earn it back, not to mention critical to being a humane, productive member of society.
…that they are not the only people on the planet and, as such, must be cognizant of their fellow man’s feelings and needs. You can’t start throwing objects around the room, chatting with your buds, or listening to your headphones on volume deafening once you’re finished with a test, even if your parents call up and complain about the detention you received for disrupting your classmates’ abilities to take the test peacefully, the same way you can’t scream “FIRE!” in a crowded building when there is none just because you feel like it. Nobody’s parent can make the punishment for reckless endangerment go away, no matter how nasty or threatening they are.
…that there is more to life than one’s number. One’s GPA or standardized test score does not define one’s impact on and contributions to the world, unfortunately. No one will remember (or care) late in life that you made honor roll or scored top in the “college readiness” category all four years of high school without having actually learned anything, but they will remember if you took the time to help those in need, to offer a friendly smile when it’s needed most, and to really listen to what others were trying to teach or say in life.
…that sincere interpersonal communication is important. Keeping your headphones in your ears, burying your head in your smart phone and your texting, and playing online games while interacting with someone else or while someone else is trying to interact with you is impolite, impersonal, and distracting. And it’s not OK. Ever.
…that they CAN. Can’t is becoming an increasingly prominent word in teenagers’ vocabularies. Is it any wonder given the oftentimes impossible standardized learning objectives they’re supposed to be able to master despite their varying interests, intellectual makeup, learning abilities, and first languages? A generation of can’t-kids will only turn out to be can’t-adults. And the truth is, those benchmarks and tests are as accurate about these students’ worth as a tabloid magazine is about foreign affairs.
The best part about these lessons? Teachers don’t need to do anything different than they were before greedy politicians and capitalist scumbags got their hands in public education. These lessons are inherent in the craft and pedagogy of educators who are allowed to employ their expertise in their subject matter and the psychology of learning in the classroom, not in the standardized pedantry a corrupt government in bed with Big Business is trying to push on our youth.
And if we don’t get back to allowing the experts to do their jobs, then we’ll see a real problem in American education — not this pseudo-crisis the talking heads would have the public believe is upon us now.
That, my friends, is the sad reality.