Thursday, April 30, 2009

An Assault on My Conscience

There's something I've been needing to get off my chest.

Last week, I went out to dinner after class with three of my very dearest friends; we were catching up after not having seen each other for a while, and celebrating the return of one of them from a 14-month tour in Iraq. All in all we had a great time, but there was one part of our conversation that bothered me, so much so that it had me feeling ill the next day.

I was talking to my friends (none of whom are teachers) about some of the issues I've written about on this blog, particularly the difficulties of teaching students who behave abominably on an everyday basis. At one point I related an incident from a few years ago in which a particular student had exhibited borderline-psychotic behavior on several occasions, and when I had made a poor choice of words in describing this child's behavior to a family member on Open School Night, the mother misinterpreted my meaning and complained to my supervisor. The result, and the point of my bringing it up, was that the issue became my unfortunate word choice and not the need for this child to correct his behavior and/or receive professional help, thus eliminating any possibility of actually helping this kid.

At this point one of my friends proceeded to tell me, after prefacing with a set of boilerplate "I know you have a tough job, but..." platitudes, an unbelievably depressing story about an acquaintance of his who, at the age of about 17, had his parents go through the most contentious and ugly divorce imaginable, with one parent becoming a crack addict and the other a violent criminal, or somesuch embellishments to that effect, and others, which I cannot remember with any specificity because I found it all so upsetting. This story was so over-the-top horrific that it dwarfed anything I've ever actually heard about any student I've ever taught in 12 years in this profession. The point, apparently, was to criticize me for, I guess, "failing" to take this ghastly scenario into consideration.

I remember feeling ill all the way home on the train, and coming to school the next day in the most depressed state of mind I've experienced in years. What was my friend, whom I have known for almost 20 years and love like a brother, trying to tell me? That I should go easier on my students and be more tolerant of their despicable behavior because there might be a story like that behind it? That I am wrong to discipline kids when they misbehave, for the same reason? Was he accusing me of injuring this unfortunate kid myself, by proxy, because of the way I uphold standards and discipline kids in school? Or was he accusing me of injuring every kid I've ever disciplined in all my years as a teacher, because they all may have had a story like that to tell? That I should now have to re-think and mitigate every disciplinary referral I've ever written up, every punishment I've ever meted out, every standard I've ever upheld, every consequence I've ever imposed, nigh every comment I've ever made, to a misbehaving student?

I've written on this blog before about the dilemma all teachers face between being sensitive to students' out-of-school "issues" on the one hand, and maintaining order and consistent academic and disciplinary standards on the other. When I started teaching, I would have leaned toward the former; twelve years later, I lean hard toward the latter. I do so not only because I've just become so thoroughly disgusted with the way kids behave in school, a fact for which I refuse to apologize, but because I think it's more important that we not feel sorry for kids and thus teach them not to feel sorry for themselves. One cannot help but feel sorry for a kid in the predicament my friend described, but he is the exception rather than the rule; of course his story has to be taken into account, but not every kid is that kid. Is it worth it to undermine discipline across the board just to protect the one-in-10,000 who are in that kid's shoes? If we treat every kid like that kid, or like he may be that kid, then school will become one giant, chaotic pity party. Where is the social benefit in that?

No one can define precisely where the line must be drawn between the kind of "sensitivity" my friend seemed to be advocating, and the need to maintain consistent, universal standards of conduct for all students. No one can explain the difference between a brutal tragedy like that for which we should feel sorry and might mitigate discipline, and any other unfortunate circumstance in a student's life for which we should not and would not. As with so many other issues, the tension is between what is good for the individual and what is good for society (i.e., the school) as a whole. The only way to deal with it intelligently is to treat everyone equally and fairly, and be very careful about when, how and why we make exceptions.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: We do students no favors by teaching them that nothing is ever their fault. There is a reason why there is essentially no "excuse" defense (as opposed to justification) in criminal law. I have always been an advocate of clear, consistent, universal standards of performance and conduct in school. I have always believed that students have a duty to know, and follow, reasonable school and classroom rules, and if they choose not to do so they act (or forbear) at their own risk. I've never believed that a student's out-of-school "issues" should be a blanket excuse or justification for antisocial behavior in the classroom. I've always believed that we need to teach kids to persevere, not self-pity or self-indulge, and that we serve them better in the long run that way. Of course much depends on how we go about it. But I just have a hard time reconciling these principles with that story my friend told me.

I honestly don't know what I would do if I had that kid in my class and he was acting out in a substantially disruptive, or destructive, way. As far as I know, I've never had a student with such an extreme backstory. Obviously the school has resources to deal with that kind of situation, but that's not the point. My inclination is always to hold students accountable for their actions no matter what motivates them. Is that wrong? What happens to principles in the face of a tragic situation like that?

I don't think my friend would disagree with most of what I've written here. Yet this felt like an assault on my conscience. My friend basically used an anecdote I had told, to make a different point, as an impetus to attack me relentlessly for something I didn't even do, to someone I've never even met -- and I can't figure out why he did it. This is going to weigh on me for a while.