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.


Anonymous said...

Jay I'm deeply sorry about what you heard. It is tough to deal with this, but your principles are what you make them and whatever you want them to be. I hope you feel better about this.

Your friend,
Adam Schutzman

Anonymous said...

I think you are on the mark with the principle you espouse here. There will always be tension between what is good for the individual and what is good for society. You are right to be careful about how you make an exception. When it comes to rules, the whole is more important than the parts, otherwiese the whole cannot hold--things fall apart. You are a teacher. When you make the exception (in the event of a tragic situation), impart to the individual the reason for him/her being an exception and reaffirm the rule so that he/she can strive to do better next time. The rules may be learned in more than one way. Don't let your conscience bother you. The bleeding heart liberal extablishment is one giant "pity party." Look at what that is doing to our country. I'm no strict conservative, but I can see more harm being done through excusing everybody than for upholding a standard, and by standard I also mean the one you carry on the field.

Anonymous said...

Don't we learn in Lord of the Flies what happens to a society when the rules (the conch-science of society) are not followed?


Jay Braiman said...

To the extent that this has anything to do with 'liberal' or 'conservative' characterization, it is firmly in the realm of small-'l', small 'c', having nothing whatever to do with our two wonderful political parties and their sundry enablers in the media.

I've always believed, as one of my better essays espoused, that public education as it is today is the Great Failure of modern liberalism, and that what the schools could use is a good strong dose of conservative thinking, at least in terms of how we deal with kids on the high school level. When you examine conservative thought about personal responsibility and incentivizing behavior, it makes a lot of sense if we think of academic achievement (in the form of grades) as analogous to economic gain. In other words, it is up to the student to know, and do, what he has to do to maximize profit (earn grade-points and credits) and minimize losses; he has an incentive to work, to seek out information, and to avoid inefficiencies and deal with externalities appropriately. It is up to the student to make the proper choices, and to understand that wherever he ends up is the direct result of those choices.

The problem with this that the liberal educational establishment rightly recognizes, and that conservatives tend to ignore in just about every context, is that economic gain/academic achievement is not the only thing that motivates human behavior. Our jobs would be far easier if every student actively pursued an "A" on an everyday basis, and if the possibility/threat of failure was enough to motivate kids to learn.

Nevertheless, I believe it is better in the long run to take the conservative approach and not enable the kind of dependence and feigned helplessness that so many parents and teachers enable these days. The liberal approach is better for the children's short-term self-esteem, at the expense of their long-term intellectual and character development. The liberal approach is also better for the school's "numbers."

A lot of students who failed by English class never failed another one again. Most kids who fail my class and then have me again the next year, pass. A lot of alumni have told me they gained a work ethic from being in my class. It does work, but it takes time. A lot of educators don't have the patience.

Anonymous said...

In your last paragraph of Comment dated Dec. 21, you resolved your problem of conscience. You taught students not to fail again. You taught students a work ethic. There's your answer--"It does work." Yes it takes time. But a good teacher knows that; he/she knows the fruits of his/her labor are often deferred. Now, if we could only find the key to making the pursuit of an A the only thing that motivates the behavior of children.... I'm kidding. But wouldn't it make for a scary dystopian story? Would Mr. Evil think it a good idea?

Jay Braiman said...

DOCTOR Evil!!!! I didn't spend four years in Evil Medical School to be called "Mr.," thank you very much.