More CPO Editorials

The Killing of Self

Critical question:
Does my child have a Good Teacher or Bad Teacher?

Perhaps you are a parent reluctant to believe your child's claim of mistreatment in the classroom or maybe you are a teacher wanting to reassess your own behavior, in any case, the following stories will convince you there really is a problem in our nation's schools and it has nothing to do with funding!

The goal here is not to undermine teachers. Throughout most of my educationaI years, I was blessed with some of the best teachers who graced the earth. When I was young I loved my teachers. They were genuinely kind, understanding and supportive. I do not remember any of the disparaging remarks, unfairness, and downright cruelty that has been shared with me in recent years. And while many teachers are good and some are even great, it is important to take note that the destruction caused by the "bad" teachers can be intense and long-lasting.

The amount of research that has been done in the field of teaching is enormous. One eye-opening book is "What Do I Do Monday?" written by John Holt. It is an older book and only one of many Holt has written about the failure of today's school system to adequately reach and teach our youth.

Why is America failing our youth? Is it because we need more expensive equipment? ...higher paid teachers? ...more rules? No, simply put it is because schools don't recognize children as human beings. They say they do ...but their actions speak louder than words ...and they are speaking volumes to our kids. Students deserve respect and honor just as all people deserve. And it must start from the top with the administration and with teachers. Students will learn it from example.

How is it that we are not giving students respect? Judge for yourself in the following true stories. [Names changed]

Kathryn's dislike of school started in her middle school years. She noticed some of her friends changing and cliques forming. Not having taken gymnastics or dance, she wasn't interested in being a school cheeleader - but her friends were. Her lack of enthusiam anoyed her friends and it wasn't long before invitations were not extended and friendships were lost. Her parents weren't wealthy so her clothes, while nice and clean, were not of the calibur of the new cliques. Friends that once were inseparable were no longer even speaking. Since her old friends no longer wanted to associate with her, she gravitated towards others that were also struggling with their identities. The new and accepting crowd of friends were risk takers. They were not afraid to try anything new - whether legal or illegal - moral or immoral. Teachers and administrators never bothered to find out what kind of a person Kathryn was. They judged her guilty by association. And even had warned other parents to keep their children away from her because she was "one of the bad kids." By this time she thought that the only ones she could trust were those kids that everyone had seriously misjudged since she was also misjudged. Through her experiences with judgemental adults, she had developed a keen dislike for authority and school. Kathryn's attitude would not improve quickly, if at all. She needed a chance and an adult [other than her parents] that considered her worthwhile.

A young boy, Chris was only six when he lost his father in a car accident. Chris adored his father and was quickly overcome by emotional problems which surfaced at school. He has accidents in his pants, he cried often, he resisted doing his school work. How was Chris handled? Chris was taken to the office of this very small private school and paddled. These paddlings were frequent, harsh and continued until his mother moved to another area where Chris was put in a public school. But Chris didn't succeed in any school environment. He developed other unacceptable behaviors and was put into foster care [who also, by-the-way - didn't help him either]. Chris didn't trust adults and why should he? They had constantly let him down. Last I heard, he had just gotten out of prison for selling drugs and carrying a gun. It's a shame, Chris had real potential.

There wasn't anything unusual about Tom. He was an average teenager. He slept too much, didn't care for school and couldn't wait until he finished driver ed to get his license. Tom was ill at school one day. It hit him suddenly and with great intensity. He asked his teacher if he could use the bathroom and was told no. The teacher said there was only half an hour of school left and he could wait. He said it was important and was again denied. He had a bout of diarrhea where he sat. Tom was not stupid or slow. He was obedient. Too bad. The embarrassment was overwhelming and that day became his last day at school. He never returned. Tom could have been a great scholar. He did, however, eventually get his life back on track. He is a wiz at electronics and currently owns two businesses, yet never graduated high school.

She wasn't the ideal student - in fact, she'd rather be anywhere other than school. Jessie was put in a Creative Writing class, where the teacher claimed to be a caring and helpful mentor. Wrong! He cared only for select students and frankly couldn't be bothered with the others. Unless the students were interested in his curriculum, he wasn't interested in them. He didn't treat them badly, he merely treated them as if they didn't exist. Anyone who knows pyschology, knows that is the worst kind of treatment to receive. Mr. Murphy didn't even care enough to find out why Jessie had been absent from class for weeks. He didn't notify the parents. He didn't notify attendence so that they could follow up. He just didn't care.

Since the policy on punishment was more severe for tardiness than for absentism, on the days she was going to be late, Jessie opted to skip class. After a few days, she was afraid to go back, knowing that she would have to go to the discipline office. She continued to skip. Her mother received a letter informing her that Jessie was being expelled. She called the school immediately to state that this was the first notice of her daughter missing class at all. As far as her mother knew, Jessie had just been tardy on occasion. After a discussion with the principle and the dean, they decided to work with Jessie. The adminstration felt that part of the problem was their fault since they should have discovered it sooner, and taken corrective measures. Jessie had been skipping two classes - Creative Writing and History. The History teacher felt he should have cared enough to notify the office or Jessie's parents and he said that it would be difficult for her but he would allow her to make up the work. The other teacher - Mr. Murphy said it was all her fault and he would not assist her in any way. He was unwillingly to share in any of the blame. When confronted by the mother, who said, "I don't take my daughter off the hook here, but we must remember that we are the grownups here and when the kids get off track it is our job to help them get back in line. I cannot do my job unless you do yours." He replied that it isn't his job to keep track of the kids who skip his class.

She passed her history class and failed her Creative Writing. It was the only credit short for her graduation requirement. She took a home study course through a college, received an A and graduated a year later. Had Mr. Murphy card enough to notify the administration, the parents, the office - anyone, perhaps they could have helped her get back on track so she could graduate with her class.

Other Examples
I personally knew of a teacher who wrote such sayings on the board as "Be nice to that "dumb blonde" she might actually be a smart brunette." That same teacher consistently graded girls harder than the boys [we're assuming it was because he was jilted at the altar.] Thank goodness he retired.

In some schools, athletes are getting preferential treatment; i.e. being able to drop classes while others are being denied, getting grades they didn't earn, not being punished for a violation or being punished less severely than other non-athletic students.

A middle-school principal was known to tell parents to keep their children away from certain other children [i.e. "trouble-makers"], even though the principal didn't take the time to get to know those students personally. What right did this principal have to pass judgement on children she didn't even know except through unsubstantiated rumors?

The following are actual incidents shared with me. You decide if think it is appropriate for a teacher to:

  • ...tell students about his own childhood abuse [in detail]?
  • ...wear clothing that shows her thongs when she sits?
  • ...tell the girls to wear tighter sweaters to get a better grade?
  • ...ask the girls the color of their underwear?
  • ...allow sexual harassment to continue in his class?
  • ...send Valentines cards to some of his high school female students?
  • ...treat "preppy" students better than other students?
  • ...tell a second grader she will never succeed at math?
  • ...give only the high achievers their attention?
  • a student a cheater or a liar without solid evidence?
  • ...cry "insubordination" at every whim?
  • ...send emails, full of gossip about students, to other teachers?
  • ...throw chairs, balls, and books at students in frustration?
  • ...tell a heavy child that she should stop thinking about food and do her school work?
  • ...tell a young boy that she hopes her new baby will be a girl because she couldn't stand having a child like him?
  • ...telling a student late to lunch that she can't go into the lunch room - so she sits in the bathroom the entire lunch period?
  • ...allow students to bully other students in class or in the halls?
  • ...demonstrate to the girls how they should walk to entice the boys?
  • ...pit the black boys against the white boys in gym class?
  • ...treat a student differently because he had her brother the year earlier and didn't like him?
  • ...say to the students that the only reason he has cable TV is to watch the porno channel?
  • ...this list could go on indefinitely...

Ridiculing of Students
What about those teachers who allow students to ridicule another student? Do they think that even if the student isn't in class that day, the discussion on the "weirdness" [her word] of this student wouldn't get back to him? Think again. This would have been the perfect opportunity for the teacher to get the students involved in a discussion on honoring the differences of others and trying to value the person inside. Tolerance. Love. Patience. ...Whatever! But a teacher must never allow students to gang up on another even if it is against a child they themselves don't like. I'd go as far as to say that by allowing it to continue, a teacher is condoning the bully behavior. This is definitely not a good idea in view of all the recent violence in the nation's schools.

Teacher Bias
Occasionally, we come across a story of a teacher who just dislikes a student. Bias in grading occurs and the teacher's behavior resorts to something short of childish. No, let me correct that - it is childish. Imagine the teacher telling a student they are stupid, incompetent and lazy. Do you think that child is going to feel motivated to work harder? Not likely. Our insides tell us to refuse to let people put us down. Yet, a student is not allowed to argue, disobey, speak, make facial expressions or even walk away when faced with a direct verbal attack or ridicule in front of his friends. It is referred to as insubordination and comes with severe punishment. Does the teacher get punished for their aggressive or inappropriate behavior? Seldom. Why? The teacher will say the student misunderstood, the student is exaggerating or lying, or the student is just trying to cause trouble. If the word comes down to a student against a teacher, the teacher wins. Why? Because they are right? No. They win because they hold all the power and the student's grade is the leverage. And teachers are grownups and we all know that grownups don't lie. [??] Many students won't even complain until they are out of that teacher's class or even out of the school. They cannot afford to risk their grades.

Ivan Illich, one of the founders of the Center for Interculture Documentation, says, "The schools are the only organization of our time that can make people accept and blame themselves for their own oppression and degradation. The parents cannot and do not say to their children, "I can't prevent your teacher from despising and humiliating and mistreating you, because the schools have more political power than I have, and they know it. But you are not what they think and say you are, and want to make you think you are. You are right to want to resist them, and even if you can resist them only in your heart, resist them there." "

Holt's observations are equally grim. "Most of our schools convey to children a very powerful message - that they are stupid, worthless, untrustworthy, unfit to make even the smallest decisions about their own lives and learning. The message is all the more powerful and effective because it is not said in words. Indeed the schools may well be saying all the time how much they like and respect children, how much they value their individual differences, how committed they are to democratic and human values, and so on. If I tell you that you are wise, but treat you like a fool; tell you that you are good, but treat you like a dangerous criminal, you will feel what I feel more strongly than if I said it directly. Furthermore, if I deny that there is any contradiction, and say further that if you even think there may be such a contradiction it proves that you are not worthy of my loving attention, my message about your badness becomes all the stronger, and I am pushing you well along the road to craziness as well."

Holt compares school to the Army and not favorably. He believes the Army is less destructive than schools. The Army's mission is to tear down and destroy the individual resulting in a soldier trained to carry out orders skillfully and efficiently. The Army's message is loud and clear and they do not pretend to do something else. Schools however "demand the wholehearted support of those they oppress. It says, We don't trust you but you have to trust us."

Holt believes that schools today do more destruction than schools in the past. In the past a person was not judged by their education. "To be not good in school was to be - not good in school, bad at book learning, not a scholar." It only limited you in a few things such as being a clergy or professor. People were aware that there were other kinds of learning other than book learning. "At the turn of the century, when only 6 percent of our young even finished high school, and half or less of 1 percent went to college, the whole country was run by dropouts. But now all roads lead through school. To fail there is to fail everywhere. What they write down about you there, often in secret, follows you for life. There is no escape from it and virtually no appeal."

Before you think I painted only a bleak picture, I will again assert there are many good teachers and I thank God for each and every one of them. A good teacher can do wonders for a child's self-esteem and they help children survive the bad teachers. They give the support and encouragement all children need. But I am looking forward to the day when we can rid ourselves of the bad teachers quickly and efficiently. In any other place of employment, if you can't do the job you are fired. And since it takes years to get rid of bad teachers, we continue to expose our children to their destructive influence. Our children deserve better. The nurturing and love we give them for the first five years [and throughout their lives] should not be sabotaged by poor teachers. We can and should expect that, at the very least, their teachers will respect them and treat them fairly. [Or use the doctors creed, " least do no harm."]

If we really believe that our children are our most precious asset, why would we treat them the way we do? Let's rethink our priorities and our methods - because frankly - they aren't working.

All of the incidents are true. Some are recent and some happened a few years ago. Nearly everyone I know has a story to share about a bad teacher who left a negative impression on them. Some students were frustrated enough to quit school - others hung in there but suffered just the same.

Connie Eccles,
ComPortOne Editor.

Quotes are from "What Do I Do On Monday?" by John Holt. Copyright 1970, Stratford Press. John Holt has taught school in Colorado, Massachusetts, and California. He has assisted elementary school children and Harvard graduate students. Some of his books are: How Children Fail, How Children Learn, The Underachieving School.

Other articles by Connie Eccles, CPO Editor
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